Sunday, 21 October 2012

Tales of the Aapravasi

Further to my last post about the Aapravasi Ghat, I've collected a few stories related to the Indian immigrant experience in the 1800's. For an Indian immigrant to the island, nearly 180 years later, the stories are interesting indeed. Times have changed and the experience has changed...for some of us. I have met Indian machine operators from local textile factories and Indian carpenters working on building sites whose immigrant experiences are strangely parallel to the ones from more than a century ago.

Certainly none of these men are being exploited to the point of ill-health or death, they do get all their wages and on time, and their workplace conditions are monitored for health and safety. Their conditions are vastly better than the ghastly stories from centuries ago...and, in fact, better than the modern day horror stories one hears of abused and exploited immigrant workers in the middle-east. 

But some parts of the experience remain unchanged. They are all large groups of workers who leave their families behind and are given shared accommodation by their employers. The lodgings are of not very good quality and tend to be in suburbs or more remote places where rents are low. Company buses cart these men to and fro from their places of work. The minimum wage required of other expatriates is waived for them. Yet these immigrants save up enough money to  go back to India, buy themselves out of debt and (as Aapravasi's) build the largest houses in their villages. Even more interesting than the stories of exploitation, are the stories of success. 

From the Aapravasi Ghat Newsletter:
"Gokoola (Immigrant No.63067) came from Gorakhpur. It was difficult for estate labourers to save money as absences and sicknesses were deducted from their meagre monthly salary of five rupees. However Gokoola obtained the post of Sirdar on the Beau Séjour sugar estate at Piton. He thus earned two or three times more than an indentured labour. Gokoola acquired a first portion of land at Rivière du Rempart and allowed a temple to be erected on a  portion of his plot of land to preserve his name. 

So this place where indentured labourers from North India constructed their first temple in 1867 is called Gokoola. It is now a small village in Rivière du Rempart between Piton and Amitie. Gokoola married his wife Soolakhney in Mauritius in 1881 and had six daughters. After a few years, Gokoola became a job contractor and in 1882 acquired another plot of land to the extent of 6 acres and 8 perches. The short history of the immigrant Gokoola gives a picture of the progress made by Indian immigrants who came barefeet with a few clothes. The 1850's and 1860's notarial deeds reveal that Indian immigrants had already saved enough money to purchase large plots of land."

Another interesting tale from the newsletter about a crime of passion and a poetic soul -

"On the morning of the 9th of April 1838, a young woman called Peyrie was found dead with her head almost severed on an estate at Rivière du Rempart. The labourers on the estate believed that her husband Rupsing had killed her out of jealousy for she was having an affair. Rupsing fled the plantation but was captured months later after which he confessed to the crime. 

His lawyer said he committed the crime out of jealousy. According to the Court, despite his frail appearance, the killer displayed energy and intelligence and planned the murder of his wife. Rupsing was finally sentenced to death. He showed an extraordinary calmness and resignation after his verdict. He cried and requested to see his child during the trial but soon resumed his usual impassive state. Three days before the execution, he told the Translator:

Je voudrais avoir un petit manguier pour le planter dans la cour de tribunal; en le voyant, les juges qui m'ont condamne diraient, c'est RUPSING qui a plante cet arbre. 

I would like to have a small mango tree to plant in the yard of the tribunal; on seeing it, the judges who condemn me will say, it is RUPSING who planted this tree."

And finally, a ghastly story and one of the most tragic tales in the history of indentured labour - from Nivriti Sewtohul at the Mauritius Times

"In early January 1856, two ships from India, the Hyderee and the Futtay Mubarak, carrying 272 and 380 indentured labourers respectively were entering the harbour of Port Louis where a cholera epidemic had just ended. The inhabitants of Port Louis feared that the ships were bringing the disease back. Both ships were quarantined at the Pavillon where the Hyderee was fumigated. The health condition of the passengers on board was satisfactory. 

On January 13th, both ships were sent to Îlot Gabriel. There was no sign of contagion on board the ships. The governor declared Flat Island and Îlot Gabriel off the north-east coast as quarantine stations but a lighthouse was being built on Flat Island so about 700 odd people from both ships including 3 Indian doctors on board were put on Îlot Gabriel, an island 1212 metres by 230 metres. However it was only on the 10th of February that the yellow flag, sign of the quarantine, was officially hoisted over the island. In the interim period, no one in the government appeared to know what to do.

The confusion had resulted in no preparation on the tiny island to receive the influx of people. The immigrants were put under sails or tarpaulins from the ships since there were no shelters. The cyclonic period was on and the weather bad. The stranded Indians did not have enough food to eat and water to drink. A tanker boat from Port Louis had capsized on its way to Flat Island and there was no drinking water on Îlot Gabriel. The indentured labourers couldn’t drink the dirty water sent from Port Louis and tried to collect rainwater in rocks."

Finally, the quarantine was lifted on the 12th of May, 1856. But in those 3 months before it was lifted, some 298 immigrants had already perished, their bones strewn over the islet. News of the tragedy reached the British government in India via an article in the “Friend of India” journal which attacked Mauritians, Port Louis and its municipality, the government and the plantation owners. Indian indentured labour was temporarily stopped while an investigation was carried out into the disaster...leaving the plantations in disarray. Immigration finally resumed nearly a year afterwards in May 1857.

However, for decades later, the corpses and then the bones of the dead immigrants lay exposed on the rocks gradually getting bleached by the sun in front of the eyes of local fishermen. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, people still spoke of the ‘Îlot aux Morts’ and stayed away as much as possible. It was only when Grand Baie became a hub of tourism did the various day trips and catamaran tours make Îlot Gabriel a place to visit again. The human bones on the island are now buried under the sand.

Author: Shahana Dastidar /excerpts as attributed above

Monday, 4 June 2012

A Mountain of Mourning ... and the Immigrant's Stairway

Mauritians, by nature, are not very interested in history. The sort of culture that exists in UK and Europe where hordes of people trample through museums everyday just does not exist here. It may be partly because of the unhappy nature of the history itself. Most Mauritians are descendants of either slaves or indentured labourers brought in by French and English colonialists to run their sugar plantations profitably. Of the two most important cultural sites in Mauritius, both designated Patrimoine Mondial de l'UNESCO, Le Morne is associated with the tragic story of runaway African slaves and Aapravasiya Ghat with the thousands of men and woman who arrived from India to work as bonded labour.

The story of Le Morne is as tragic as it is brief. The mountain of Le Morne was a favoured hideout for runaway African slaves escaping the brutality of the plantation owners they were sold to. Shortly after the British won Mauritius from the French in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars, slavery was abolished by the British through The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 throughout the British Empire. 

Soldiers were sent to Le Morne to inform the runaway slaves that they were free now and could come out of hiding. But the slaves thought the soldiers were part of a renewed effort to capture them. The slaves jumped off the cliffs and killed themselves rather than be captured, little knowing how close they had been to freedom. Though a beautiful picturesque site, the mountain was named Le Morne (the mournful or the dreary) in memory of that event.
Le Morne 'The Mournful'
The story of the Aapravasi Ghat at Port Louis is a longer one. After the abolition of slavery by the British, the local government had naively assumed that the slaves would be happy to stay on and work as employees for their former employers once they were free. There was no way to return to their homelands and there was no other employment available on the island save that on the plantations. 

The slaves, for obvious reasons, would have none of it. They moved away from the plantations, acquired land not claimed by anyone, built themselves small huts and started subsistence farming. This meager existence was preferable to them than the cruelty of the plantation owners and their foremen. Though there was no love lost between the British government and the mainly French plantation owners, the sudden and severe lack of labour threatened to bring down the economy of the entire island - dependent as it was on its plantations. 

The case of Mauritius was not an isolated one. Similar events took place in colonies all over the world. The British then conceived of a scheme  of exporting labour from its most populous colony, India, to all its other colonies all over the world. The Indians were used to working with cash crops like sugarcane some of which were widely cultivated in their home fields. They were ostensibly free and came over to the foreign lands on 'contract' for a fixed number of years. At the end of the contract, they could go back home or renew the contract. 

In real terms, the system was obviously flawed and left the contracted labourers heavily open to exploitation. The 'free' labourers were little more than slaves and certainly treated no better. After slavery was abolished by the British in 1833, within the first year itself, the first indentured labourers landed in Mauritius on November 2nd, 1834. From 1849 to 1923, half a million Indian indentured labourers passed through the immigration depot of Port Louis harbour and were distributed all over Mauritius and to other British colonies including mainland Africa, the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

In North India, the term Ghat refers to a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river. The word Aapravasi is the Sanskrit or Hindi word for one who has left their homeland, in short, an immigrant. The indentured labourers coming off the ships after the long journey from India climbed up the steps of this immigrant's Ghat that led them not to a holy river but to the bathing cells and latrines at the water's edge where they were bathed and disinfected. The aapravasi's were then fed, watered, counted, registered and distributed to plantations all over the island.
 Aapravasi Ghat 'The Immigrant's Stairway'

The area was a bustling hive of activity. Along with the 'bathing ghats' and latrines, there were also sheds where they were housed before being transported to the plantations, a kitchen and store for the immigrants, offices for the Sirdars or agents of the plantation owners, a separate kitchen, barracks, military hospital for the officers. Plus, of course, the Customs house next door.

Each new arrival was registered by a British officer with the unenviable task of transcribing the unfamiliar Indian names into English. This resulted in tortuously long spellings as the officers added, combined and re-added consonants to try and phonetically reproduce the names they were hearing. In India, the colonials had it considerably easier. There were many Indians within the administrative services and outside who had been educated in the Western system, fluent in English and some had even gone on to further studies in England like Nehru and Gandhi. Familiar with both their native languages and the foreign one - they were able to pronounce, transcribe and reproduce names with more direct, shorter spellings from one language to the other. 
Aapravasi Ghat - Latrines at the water's edge 
Once the labourers were registered by the local government, the Sirdars or agents would start negotiations. These were Indian labourers who had risen up the ranks to become agents for their plantations. They could communicate with the new arrivals and try and sell them the plantation they were representing to get them to sign on. The bewildered immigrants, fresh of the boat, would then decide where they wanted to work for the next 3 years. Negotiations concluded, the immigrants were put on trains at the railway station across the road which took them directly to the plantation they now belonged to. The train station is where the Gare du Nord bus-stand is presently located.

This large junction with the Ghat on one side and the erstwhile train station on the other is still called Place de l'Immigration and the buses heading there still carry placards stating simply - IMMIGRATION. Since every immigrant who was an indentured labourer was supposed to be attached to a plantation, any labourers found outside their plantation were classified as vagrants and incarcerated at the 'Vagrant Depot'.
As a modern day expatriate, I find the history of the place fascinating. But this brings me back to my point at the start of the blog-post. Mauritians themselves don't appear to be much interested in the place. There are hardly any Mauritian visitors and no proper interpretation materials for the few tourists who do bother to visit. We found a few plaques tucked away at the back of one of the rooms. The only literature available was a pamphlet in French with a general map of the area. On further questioning, we were given a newsletter of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund dating back to November 2011. Some of the history and stories in the newsletter were fascinating but should have been up on large displays around the buildings where they occurred.

All the information that pieced together here about this UNESCO world heritage site is from other sources. The only visible sign of it's importance is a vaguely abstract memorial, not very visible from the entrance, laid by the President of India in 2011. The ironic thing is that the Aapravasi Ghat is the most prominent landmark in Mauritius with brown UNESCO sign-posts leading to it thickly and randomly scattered all over the island. But once one actually gets there, there are precious few signs to explain why the place is important and why it was ever designated a UNESCO heritage site in the first place.

Description of a traditional Indian Ghat at the end of this post here.
Update 2015: The Museum / Interpretation Centre is finally open.

Author: Shahana Dastidar 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Spatial Planning: The Regeneration of Historic Inner Cities

The historic cores of Indian cities, once the driving force of growth and economic, social, cultural and aesthetic development of the city, now face an uncertain future. These areas have started showing a “Ghetto”-isation of the poor, unbearable densities, lack of open spaces, deteriorating living conditions,  disintegrating built heritage and difficulties in securing land for public use/housing. 

The heritage monuments at the heart of the historic core, though officially protected, are usually neglected by the government. Frequently, the structures are occupied by squatters and both the monument and any open land attached to it faces extreme pressure from developers as they are located at the heart of densely populated urban areas.

In a country where a sizeable part of society is still trying to deal with poverty, most people rarely think about cultural heritage and the need to save it. However cultural heritage is potential for tourism and the resultant economic benefits of tourism gives it an importance that supercedes its cultural and historical value. So as more and more monuments and heritage areas start being considered valuable, conservationists and local governments enforce more and more planning and legislative means to protect them.

On the other hand, developers and entrepreneurs see this sort of conservation planning as preventing and inhibiting the natural growth and change of urban areas, considered an essential part of modern life. This is particularly the case where city business centres coincide with historical cores and the conflict then becomes one of whether the historic city is a reserve for heritage, or an area of economic vitality, where the potential of sites is exploited for better economic functioning of the city with minimum impediment to inevitable and desirable change. 

However the real value of historic inner city areas lies in neither its tourism potential nor its value as real estate. It lies in the fact that they are a storehouse for the cultural capital of entire countries. The colonialisation of our cultures is being done by the process of globalisation whereby the cultural values of the economically dominant overwhelm all others, producing sameness the world over.

Herein lies the true necessity for protecting cultural heritage even though protection of historical buildings of redundant function is seen as preventing the development of modern facilities required for a ‘world class city’. In this pursuit of the ubiquitous dream of a ‘world class city’, heritage structures are being razed all over India and cities redeveloped to conform to a ‘modern’ global model devoid of cultural identity.
17th century Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
image source: author
Social Injustice?
Planners have little understanding about how the poor survive. As a result, urban plans and policies generally have little relevance to the situation which the poor face and may well make it far worse. 

It is precisely this lack of understanding that results in Regeneration/ Revitalization schemes that demolish the squatter settlements of the very poor, considered unsightly and detrimental to both tourism and economic redevelopment. Forced evictions in Indian cities, however, rarely provide for re-location and rehabilitation, and when they do, it is badly planned and sometimes never executed at
all. Cities like Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bhopal and Kolkata provide numerous examples of local authorities herding evicted squatters like cattle from the city centre to the edge of the city where they are provided with compensatory land which is too far away from their means of livelihood.

Also, the historic structures in the heart of cities are usually surrounded by street markets, some so old that they have become part of the cultural identity of the city. Growth and development in the historic inner city areas are supposed to be controlled, especially in the vicinity of protected monuments. 

Thus city beautification and clean-up drives regularly target pavement stalls, street hawkers and other informal services and shops that are an integral part of all Indian cities. The people running the informal markets and living in the informal settlements of the historic core endure an uncertain existence, constantly vulnerable to forced evictions, living with the perpetual spectre of loss of shelter and livelihood.

There are other kinds of social disruptions for inhabitants of inner city areas. As revitalization and regeneration gradually start making inner city areas expensive to live in, residents find they are unable to pay the increased rents, taxes and services and are then forced to sell-out. This phenomenon has been termed “Gentrification”. 

This is a commonly observed phenomenon in many European cities undergoing regeneration. However, the gradual forcing out of communities from city centres has now started in India as well, notably in Mumbai. Thus, whether it is for the revitalization of cultural heritage or economic redevelopment – physical planning for historic inner cities may result in traumatic dislocation and changes for local communities, whether they are part of the formal or informal sector.

Author: Shahana Dastidar