The journey of the indentured labour or Girmitiyas from India to Mauritius after the abolition of slavery in 1834 in the same ships that carried slaves was a journey which poignantly highlights the history of modern Mauritius itself. In the 180 years that followed, the descendants zealously guarded their precious oral heritage and embarked on a quest to discover their roots. As Mauritian minister of culture HE Choonee noted, many Mauritians are still seeking their place of origin such as the name of their village or the name and details of their family. Sometimes this is difficult or impossible. In the minister’s case his great grandfather came in a ship at the age of five without his parents and could not remember the name of his family or his village.
It should be remembered that the beginning of the Indentured Route can be traced back to the abolition of slavery in 1834. The significance of the Aapravasi Ghat,
for India and Mauritius, is that it marks the point where the indentured labour, drawn mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh provinces but also from Southern Provinces of colonial India, would pass through these gates, either to stay on in Mauritius to work as indentured labour in the sugar plantations or elsewhere, or to sail on to further destinations, such as Guyana, Suriname and Reunion Island.
The British after the abolition of slavery invented the indenture, for labour at virtually no cost, to work on sugar plantations. There started to be written in the annals of human history one of the most massive migrations of Indian labour. It marks the beginning of an odyssey across the Kalapani, a sad journey of exile across the Indian Ocean. The recruiters known as Sirdars or Mistries played their role in luring away these credulous, innocent coolies, many of whom believed that the Mirich Desh (Mauritius) was just to the north of North India. Their dreams were shattered in the long sea passage itself. There are countless stories, which catalogue the stories of cruelty, torture and humiliation which they were made to suffer. After their arrival, these jahajbhais, as they were called, worked under harsh conditions but remained wedded to their oral traditions and language. It is ironic that today their descendants, through hard work and education, are in commanding positions in Mauritian politics. Seeing the despair of the indentured labour, Mahatma Gandhi, on his only visit to Mauritius in 1901, advised them to educate their children and become involved in politics.
The International Indentured Labour Route Project, recently approved by Unesco, will finally give a voice to the descendants of the indentured labour without any interlocutors. The indentured and their descendants need to have the opportunity to present their version of their experience.
Bhaswati Mukherjee is former permanent representative of India to Unesco.
The views expressed by the author are personal.