A celebration of nearly two centuries of hard work, of struggle and righteousness! That’s how us, the new generations of Indentures (the Indenturials) should look back on the journey of our ancestors. A journey of trials and tribulations, an accomplished journey nevertheless.
Yes, there was that umbilical pain of leaving loved ones behind, the perilous hardship of three weeks across an unknown ‘kala pani’, the apprehension of being accepted in that other ‘moolook’. Yes, there was that overwhelming feeling of uncertainty, of fear, of forbearance.
But, there was also the sense of challenge, of the will of trying something new, of the urge to do better, to succeed, to help the others at home, to prove that ‘I did it’! This drive for a new adventure, very painful as it may, opened up into a quest for resourcefulness, for effort, for entrepreneurship.
The canvas shows us pictures of revolting oppression, of degrading behaviour, of painful experiences, but there were also those depicting a sense of community, a livelihood, a will to thrive. And it is precisely that build up of the spirit of entrepreneurship that we are going to dig into from reported anecdotes of this recently declassified archived document of 1840, where Lord John Russell, the then Secretary of State for Colonies, raised in the House of Commons, the subject of Indian Indenture labourers to Mauritius. He had just received the Parliamentary Report from Governor Sir William Nicolay of the Commissioners of Inquiry who spent weeks in Mauritius questioning labourers, plantation owners and officials on issues of labour and general welfare.
Hospital, Kali Mata shrine and Mosque.
After having heard testimonies at the Mahebourg District Court, of labourers and masters the Commissioners Davidson, Wilmot and Villiers Forbes make report of some people erecting a Kali shrine in the region of Union Vale. That was as a respect for the nineteen coolies who died in rather atrocious circumstances on their passage to Mauritius; the last one committing suicide on arrival. They heard that, in July 1838 conditions on board the Donna Pascoa was inhumane and degrading, that emigrants destined to the Concession Gaston De Bissy, were offered no drinking water pushing some to die of poisoning and dysentery having had to drink their own urine with salt. The incident was subject to detailed debate in the House of Commons and raised outrage of MPs.
There was also reference to a certain Barkatwollah, a sirdar of the Beau Vallon/Choisy estate having raised enough money to start a Mosque together with his comrades. He was accommodated part of a thatched house by Mr Sauzier, the owner of the estate.
The thrust of the recommendations of the three Stipendiary Magistrates for Grand Port was the poverty of sanitary and medical assistance given to labourers. They deplored the lack of medical resources offered by the many estates put together, especially the inadequate buildings and the long distance labourers having to travel. They made a strong case for the setting up of a public funded hospital, which was later to be the Mahebourg Hospital.
Women entrepreneurship and financial services.
The main drive in any immigration system has to be the wish to make enough money, send some back home, pay back debts, make some savings. So, the Emigration Committee were encouraging the Indians to get involve in bank saving schemes. Some employers were acting as their savings bank, those who were more literate would directly open a bank account, while others would rather keep their savings under their mattress.
So there were reports of some immigrants having savings of over Rs500 (the equivalent of 100 months of wages), most would have between Rs50-100. Some of the immigrants had brought with them the tradition from back home, that of usury, money lending and the Committee had to intervene as in some instances lenders were charging interest rates as high as 300%. So, we already had a financial product even in those days and some did make it to the point of being able to buy lands well before the ‘Grand Morcellement’! In the 1820’s, the Annasamy and Tiroumoudy were already estate owners, as much as Ratungee Bickagee.
The rarity of women immigrants turned out to be of a commercial asset. Most of the wives and daughters of labourers got themselves engaged in out of field activities, as these twenty six ‘women all dressed in European style’ on the state of Charles Rouillard in Ile d’Ambre, were reported as doing needlework, sewing and embroidery. Commissioners Thatcher and Campbell also noted that one of their men had saved Rs423.
Was also reported of the seven women in a family on the estate of Fantaisie/Plaisance who had taken voluntary work in court yards or as servant maid to the Cloupet family. There were also those who would rather stay at home and raise poultry. They were a Dhangar family from Nagpur and earned Rs22 pm (more than x4 the average).
The few did not hesitate to engage in ancillary jobs like carpentry and other wood work as exemplified by that group of men who took the challenge of Mr Guillot, a civil architect, who were to erect a sugar mill in the Mon Desert Mon Tresor estate. The labourers had a seamless shift from field work to new carpentry skills and for better money.
Community cohesion and conviviality
Among the testimonies recorded at the Commission, it became very clear that some of the terms of the contract they signed in India were not to be enforced once they were in Mauritius, especially those relating to food, clothing, hospital expenses, freedom of movement and more importantly their right to a promised free passage back.
Very soon the Indian labourers got to realise that the only way they could succeed to claim what is their due, is to fight and to fight together as a community. Despite the attempt to divide them into ‘Calcutta’ and ‘Pondicherry/Madras’, even the disparity in the amount of food and clothing given to each group of immigrants, actions to improve their quality of life were mostly consensual. As rightly put by Mr T. Hugon, of the Bengal Emigration Service, it is in their “dustoor”, the generally accepted moral custom, that what is gained should be equitable! And, together they gained as public holiday the celebration of Muharram and Pongole.
There were reports of an actions involving Hurdial, Dijery and Ramchutten who instigated others not to start ‘la coupe’ because they were under the impression their contract was over and that they should be sent back to India. They were find Rs25 each by the Court as they delayed Mr Brodelet’s harvest in Gros Bois estate.
Another incident involving Heeramun, Peerbux, Goordial, Matadeen and Seetul in which Mr Bestel withheld their quota of ‘arackh’ (rhum). They did not mind so much of the wife’s complain of the poor quality of the Mangalore rice or that there were not enough ‘dhaniya’ in the curry powder, but please don’t touch the rum! So, they marched from Gros Bois to Port Louis to complain of bad treatment to the Committee. And the struggle for basic human rights got its headstart!
There were also the odd incidents when the ‘gardes police’ had to be called as a few khalasi-mias would have had one or two arrack too much and would be somewhat loud with their birrhas in between passing the chillum.
The pride of the Indenturials.
The journey has been long, sometimes painful, sometimes challenging, sometimes convivial. But it has mostly been one of achievement, one of pride; we may today rejoice that across the diaspora, Indian immigrants have amongst their sons and daughters the elite of the societies in which they live. We have top scientists, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians,..and yes we have Prime Ministers too.
The journey shows contours of hard work, resilience and accommodation, and you don’t navigate these unknown terrain being “amateurs, incompetents, incultes”! No you don’t!