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 

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