Photo: Rathina Sankari
Photo: Rathina Sankari

Beneath the beauty, Mauritius is an archive of human struggle and triumph

The history of Mauritius is soaked in stories of immigration, subjugation, slavery, exploitation and indenture

A beautiful island of palm-fringed beaches, lagoons and coral reefs, Mauritius was formed due to volcanic activity around nine million years ago. This is evident from the craggy mountains jutting out of the landscape. 

Mauritius is known as a honeymooner’s paradise, a luxury destination and a haven for water sports. But there is more to this beautiful island than holidays; its history is soaked in stories of immigration, subjugation, slavery, exploitation and indenture and it is a story of human perseverance and triumph. 

The Portuguese were probably the first Europeans to set foot on the island in the early 16th century. But they weren’t much interested and it remained uninhabited until 1598, when the Dutch arrived. They named the island Maurice de Nassau or Mauritius in honour of prince Maurice Van Nassau of Holland. 

They used the available natural resources like the indigenous dodo, highly-valued ebony trees and tortoises. Sugarcane, pigs and deer were introduced to the island. Today, the ruins of the first Dutch fortification can be seen at Vieux Grand Port. 

The Dutch brought slaves from Madagascar to work for them. At Casela Nature Park aboard the safari bus one warm morning, I found myself next to Wendy Sarah Jane, an African. Over wildlife sightings and conversations with her ever-smiling daughter Athena, she said her ancestors were brought to Mauritius by the Dutch. 

Wendy Sarah Jane and Athena. Photo: Rathina Sankari
Wendy Sarah Jane and Athena. Photo: Rathina Sankari

The westerners left the island in 1710 after drought, epidemics and cyclones made life difficult.

French connection

In 1715, the French took control of the island and named it Isle de France. Initially they faced hiccups similar to the Dutch and by 1735, the island was inhabited just by 838 people, of whom 648 were slaves. 

The 1735 arrival of La Bourdonnais, the French governor, turned the tide and brought in large-scale development of the land. African slaves and Indian craftsmen were brought in to the 720 square-mile (about 1,865 sq. km) island. 

Baron d’Unienville, the colonial archivist of the island of Mauritius, has stated in the Statistique de l’île Maurice et ses dépendances, published in 1838, “The island had a shack made of palisades with some thirty beds. La Bourdonnais had two hospitals built to house 400 to 500 beds. He built stores, batteries, barracks, fortifications, arsenals, officers’ quarters, mills, aqueducts and dredgers for cleaning the port." 

The governor converted Port Louis from a harbour to a flourishing port. He insisted each planter cultivate cassava on 500 sq. ft of land for every slave at his service. The manioc was the staple food of the Africans who were obtained by the French from Mozambique and Madagascar.

Dark reflection

The slave was a commodity that was exchanged between local chiefs and white slave traders for goods like pearls, fabrics, arms and the like. Slave-traders then resold them to the colonies with demand, shaping a new economic system between Europe and Africa. 

In December 1723, King Louis XV issued an edict which has been glorified in the annals of history as the Black Code or the Code Noir. A few notable regulations included banning marriage between slaves unless the master agreed; children born of this wedlock belonged to the masters of the female slaves. Slaves were considered movable assets that were shared on divisions and wills.

The directives showed the supremacy of the owners over the slaves. Offenders were subject to corporal punishment or branded with the iron mark, also known as fleur de lys. 

During my explorations through the country, the Le Morne Mountain never escaped my sight. The mountain served as a refuge for fugitive slaves who hid in its caves. Today, this mountain to the south-west of Mauritius is a symbol of their fight for freedom and has been listed as a world heritage site by Unesco. 

The slaves worked in the sugar estates, producing sugar and arrack, which was primarily required for the naval expeditions. Writers St Pierre and Baron Grant, who lived on the island during the French rule, have penned their experiences to a large extent. 

Paul et Virginie, St Pierre’s masterpiece, is a fiction that explores the social class division of the island with indignation. His other book, Voyage à l’Ile de France, is a factual record of life on the island. 

The writer advocated settlement of European farmers as against importing slaves in his book and described their lives evocatively: “I have seen, every day, men and women being whipped because they had broken some pottery, forgotten to close a door. I have seen them bleeding and being rubbed with vinegar and salt to heal their wounds. I have seen them in the excess of their pain, without being able to cry, bite the canon to which they had been tied to. My feather is tired of writing these horrors, my eyes are weary of seeing and my ears of hearing them." 

In his writings, he calls the Indians sober and thrifty and has described the carpenters and masons from Pondicherry (a former French enclave) as very gentle. He has admired their cement work for the polished stuccos using cow dung, egg white, lime and sugar. 

At Château de Labourdonnais, an estate surrounded by sugarcane fields which was built in 1774, I met my guide, the pleasant Selvi Ramakrishnan, who is in her late twenties. The bindi on her forehead, a yellow thread around her neck and the toe rings were tell-tale signs of a married Hindu woman. She remarked with a smile that she was Tamil and wore a kanchivaram sari for her marriage. 

“I was born in Mauritius but my ancestors were probably from Tamil Nadu," she added. 

The birth of whites and non-whites on the island gave rise to a multi-ethnic demographic called Creoles. It comprised of slave owners, free coloured people and slaves differentiated by race, culture and social status. The white masters also fathered children from free or slave women. 

By 1810, when the British arrived in the island with the Indians in a fleet, the slave population in the island was around 60,000. The act of capitulation was signed, assuring the inhabitants that their laws, customs and religions would be preserved. 

The island was renamed Mauritius and in 1814, with the Treaty of Paris, it came under English governance. The British were keen to have an export product from the island and with the growing acceptance of sugar in England, it found a renewed interest. 

Carpets of sugarcane fields and stone chimneys cover the Mauritian landscape. Photo: Rathina Sankari
Carpets of sugarcane fields and stone chimneys cover the Mauritian landscape. Photo: Rathina Sankari

This led to the mushrooming of large sugar estates and a new social class of sugar manufacturers and traders. Roads were built, sugar duty reduced and modernised agriculture techniques implemented, which tripled the yield between 1817 and 1827. 

Around this period, there was growing discontent against slave trade, which led to the Abolition of Slave Trade Act being passed in 1807 by the House of Commons but it continued to be practised illegally until 1835. 

The great experiment

The demand for cheap labour was imminent, which led to the recruitment of indentured labourers from India to replace the slaves. An indenture or girmit is a written contract listing the working conditions, salary, terms of employment and validity period which was signed by the labourer. 

This was an experiment that the British undertook first in Mauritius and its success story was adopted by other colonial powers. The first lot of labourers arrived from Calcutta in 1834, marking the advent of the great experiment. 

This event is commemorated every year on 2 November, which is a public holiday. By 1839, there were more than 24,000 Indians in Mauritius working as indentured labourers also called girmitiyas or coolies. 

When the labourers arrived in the island, they had to complete the administrative procedures required to live and work in the island. This took a few days before they were allocated to the sugar estates. 

But the living conditions of the labourers in this time period were pathetic as there were no amenities to lodge them and the sanitary conditions were appalling. It was in 1849 that an immigration depot was built at Trou Fanfaron, Port Louis, where the coolies lived for two days before heading to the sugar estate. It was called the Coolie Ghat until it was listed as a national monument and renamed to Apravasi Ghat in 1989. 

Steps of the Coolie Ghat or Apravasi Ghat, which the indentured labourers had to climb once they stepped foot on Mauritian soil. Photo: Rathina Sankari
Steps of the Coolie Ghat or Apravasi Ghat, which the indentured labourers had to climb once they stepped foot on Mauritian soil. Photo: Rathina Sankari

In 2006, the depot, a symbol of human endurance, was included in Unesco’s list of world heritage sites. 

Most of these labourers originated from Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, with the lion’s share from Bihar.

Amitav Ghosh has captured the journey of the subjugated Deeti sailing down the Hooghly, across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, in his fictional piece Sea of Poppies. The subject of slavery has caught the imagination of many authors around the globe. 

Rajesh Bissessur, who drove me around the island, took a day off. His father wasn’t keeping well and so a satyanarayan puja was to be conducted at his place as per his mother’s wish. 

The labourers brought with them culture, tradition, art and religion. This has ensured that many Indian customs are still followed in Mauritius. A fourth-generation Mauritian descendant, Bissessur’s parents speak Bhojpuri, which he can barely understand but is well versed in Creole. He tells me his ancestors originated from Bihar. 

Between 1834 and 1920, half-a-million indentured immigrants arrived from east Africa, China, Madagascar, south-east Asia and around 97.5% from India. Governor Higginson called the Indian immigrants a key item of colonial prosperity. 

At its peak, there were 259 factories in the island, when Mauritius was the most productive sugar colony in the British Empire. Today, towering stone chimneys and dilapidated sugar factories stand in reminiscence of the days when the sugar industry flourished in Mauritius. 

The Mauritius Railway came into existence in 1864, primarily for the transport of sugarcane. Surprisingly, trains aren’t operational in the island today. 

Many indentured men brought their families along with them to the island. The five-year contract earned the men five rupees and the women four rupees a month, respectively. They would start work at 5.30am in the sugar estate and continue until sunset. Delays led to severe punishments. 

Breaches in the contract led to imprisonment and/or double wages cut. The system was oppressive, with the planters establishing moral domination, restricting the movement of the labourers and governing their working conditions, hours and wages. 

A royal commission was set up in 1872 to look into the problems of the immigrants. Between 1860 and 1885, around 80,000 complaints were lodged by the labourers for late or partial payment of wages. In the same period, the royal commission reported that more than 30 estates were to pay at least three months arrears on an average every year. The commission highlighted the drawbacks of the repressive penal contract system. 

New lease of life

In 1925, Kunwar Maharaj Singh, a civil servant, was asked by the British to evaluate the necessity to continue import of Indian labourers in Mauritius. The officer’s report stated that the labourers had brought in social and economic progress to the island and deemed the need to terminate the indenture system. 

A few weeks later, the British accepted his findings, putting an end to immigration from India. With the labour ordinance of 1938, the indenture system was finally abolished. 

By then, with the development of sharecropping, many Indians had acquired land and had become free planters. Many decided to stay back with new ties and affluence acquired in the island. Approximately 70% of modern Mauritians are descendants of these indentured labourers.

One night, I headed to Shanti Maurice, a resort along the south coast of Mauritius, to meet Gunawali Mudela, who cooks at the famed La Kaza Mama restaurant. 

I found her rolling discs made of white flour which I was told are “farathas". The old lady doesn’t remember her exact age but remembers working as a child in the sugarcane fields and that the razor sharp leaves cut her skin. 

Gunawali Mudela making ‘farathas’ in her kitchen. Photo: Rathina Sankari 
Gunawali Mudela making ‘farathas’ in her kitchen. Photo: Rathina Sankari 

Born in a poverty-stricken family with 10 siblings, she would rush home after work to help her mother in household chores. She told me the “farathas" are litti had with chokha which, not surprisingly, has its origins in Bihar. Taking a bite of the dumpling, I realised that despite living all my life in India, I never got to taste it and had to travel to Mauritius to savor the delicacy.

On my last day, I met Steve Celine, who works as a porter in a hotel. His great-grandfather Roopchand had left Mumbai to work in Mauritius, where he married a French lady, Mari Eva Lezongard. Steve added that he loves the Himalayas, which have been glorified on the silver screen, and would one day want to visit India, the land of his ancestors. 

As I left the rainbow nation, I realised there is more to this paradise than its natural beauty. Beneath its surface, the perseverance, aspirations, impetus and struggles of millions of labourers reside, which, in reality, define the beauty of this island.

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