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

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