In the blazing heat of November 2014, a large number of people gathered at the ‘Aapravasi Ghat’ in Port Louis to mark the 180th Anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labour in Mauritius.
As a descendent of the indentured labour system, the event for me was a poignant memory of about 500,000 brave men and women from India who first set foot in Mauritius, and then later in the far flung areas of the globe.
To commemorate this historical date, a series of events took place – a commemorative ceremony on November 2, 2014, an International Hindi Conference by the Indian government (as reported in Indian Newslink, December 15, 2014 issue), an International Bhojpuri Festival and an International Conference on Indenture Labour Route.
The Chief Guest at the official ceremony at the Aapravasi Ghat was India’s External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
The event included a wreath-laying ceremony on the legendary 16 steps of the Aapravasi Ghat, a re-enactment scene depicting the arrival of the first batch of indentured labourers to Mauritius, performances by local and foreign artistes, launch of a Souvenir Magazine, and unveiling of the bust of the late Beekrumsing Ramlallah, known as the ‘Father of Aapravasi Ghat.’
The Ceremony was inspiring, as it recalled the trials, tribulations, injustices and triumph of the indenture spirit.
Aapravasi Ghat is a monument in the memory of the brave men and women whose courage, tolerance and perseverance have shaped not only the Mauritius of today but also every nation where indentured labourers set their feet.
Mrs Swaraj summed it up in her address on November 2, 2014.
“The commemoration of the day of arrival of the indentured labourers from India is an occasion for grateful remembrance as well as introspection. By remembering the historic date of November 2, 1834, we pay tribute to all those resilient ancestors who landed on the shores of this rainbow island from India and other parts of the world. Through their toil and tears, sweat and sacrifice, they enabled later generations to live in comfort and security,” she said.
World Heritage Site
Today the Monument marks the point where the indentured labour, who were mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh walked through its gate.
As a World Heritage site, it represents the “one million Indians who were split from their loved ones and scattered around the world to work as indentured labour on sugar, cotton, rubber plantations and railway constructions.”
The ‘Great Experiment’
With the end of slavery in the 1830s, there was drastic labour shortage on the plantations, rail works and places in the British colonies.
In 1834, the British Government chose Mauritius to be the first site for what it called ‘the great experiment’ in the use of ‘free’ labour to replace slaves.
Between 1834 and 1920, almost 500,000 indentured labourers were brought from India to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius.
The experiment was so successful that by the time the system officially ended in 1920, around one million Indian labourers were transported to French, British and Dutch colonies, including Fiji, Guyana, Jamaica, Mauritius, Reunion, South Africa, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago, to name a few.
This was the start of a new migration pattern and a new global economy.
About one third of the Indian workers exercised their right to return to India, while the others stayed on to make a living for themselves and their families in Mauritius.
The descendants of those Indian migrants now make up about two-thirds of the population of Mauritius.
The legacy left behind by the Indian Indentured labourers is strongly felt in Mauritius and like other Indentured Diaspora countries, the spirit of being Indian is tightly knit into the social and economic fabric of Mauritius.
Mauritius is unique for another reason. It is the only country in the world that has two UNESCO sites. They are ‘Le Morne,’ dedicated to resistance to slavery, and ‘Aapravasi Ghat,’ in honour of indentured labourers.
Sunita Narayan is the Coordinator of the Wellington Hindi School based in Wellington. The above is an edited and modified version of the report of the Conference that she attended in Mauritius.