Even as we go to print, the beautiful jewel of an island in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius, embarks on a week-long nostalgic trip down memory lane, as it sets out to commemorate and celebrate the 180th anniversary of the arrival of sailing ship “Atlas,” which brought the first batch of Indian indentured workers to the Indian Ocean colony. The celebrations comprise a series of events that come to an end on the 2nd of November. India’s Minister for External Affairs & Overseas Indian Affairs, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, is the Chief Guest at the Mauritius government’s national commemorative function at Aapravasi Ghat, which was the original landing point for the first 36 Indian migrant workers who trod Mauritius soil on 2nd November 1834.
The commemorative function will include the unveiling of a rock inscribed with the names of the 36 Indian workers, and the laying of wreaths on the 16 steps of the Aapravasi Ghat. One of the highlights of the Indian arrival celebration is the international conference on the oral and written literature in Bhojpuri that is underway even as this news item is being written. The conference is being attended by Bhojpuri speakers and writers from around the world, including a 70-member strong delegation from India. It is to be followed by a Bhojpuri cultural extravaganza on November 1 that would have traditional Bhojpuri artists as well as exponents of chutney music from the Caribbean islands and South Africa.
The Mauritius government is also hosting a conference chaired by the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Shri. Navin Ramgoolam, to discuss the International Indentured Labour Route project that is on the same lines as the UNESCO sponsored Slave Route Project which was launched in 1994. This conference with ministerial level participation from India is being held at Port Louis from the 2nd to the 4th of November. The project is expected to contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of large movements of people and cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries. More specifically, it will trace the journey of inden tured labour from India to Mauritius after the abolition of slavery in 1834, a journey which poignantly highlights the history of modern Mauritius itself which is entwined with our own history. It marks the point where the indentured labour, drawn largely from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh provinces, as well as from Southern Provinces of colonial India, passed through the gate of Aapravasi Ghat, either to stay on in Mauritius to work there in the sugar plantations or elsewhere, or to sail on to further destinations, such as Guyana, T&T, Suriname & Reunion Island. As the indentured workers from north and east India formed the largest migrant group in Mauritius, Bhojpuri came to be the dominant spoken language among the indentured populations on the plantations. It is today the common language of discourse for people of Indian descent in Mauritius, though other Indian languages such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Gujarati are also widely in use. While Hindi is taught in schools and used by the media, and French Creole is the common lingua franca in the country, Bhojpuri remains the language of cultural identity and sentiment. It is the medium for oral history, with its rich repertoire of songs and ballads.
Indian Arrival Day is celebrated every year as a public holiday in Mauritius to honor the struggles and hard work of the indentured workers and their contribution towards building a prosperous and modern Mauritius. Indian workers arrived on a regular basis after slavery was abolished in the British colonies. As the slaves were released, the plantation owners needed to find alternative labour to work on the sugarcane plantations. The inward migration of indentured Indian origin people into Mauritius began in 1834, as part of the organised labour recruitment for the British colonies that the British government then called ‘the great experiment’ in the use of ‘free’ labour to replace slaves. It later spread to the Caribbean, to Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, South Africa and the Fiji islands. In later years, the indenture system was extended to the French and Dutch colonies of Reunion Island and Guadeloupe and Suriname as well. In each of these countries, Indian arrival day is marked with solemn official functions and Indian community celebrations with food, dance and cultural performances.
Though the regular indentured migration to Mauritius began with the arrival of the Atlas at Port Louis in 1834, Indians had also been reaching Mauritius on their own for many decades after that. Several thousands of Indian sailors, small traders, soldiers, artisans and workmen came to Mauritius in the early decades of the 19th century from the French territories of Pondicherry and Chandernagore while Mauritius was under French control. Over 4,50,000 Indian workers came to Mauritius during the period 1834 to 1910, until the indenture system was abolished. About one third of the Indian workers exercised their right to return to India, while the others stayed on to make a living for themselves and their families in Mauritius. The descendants of those Indian migrants now make up about two-thirds of the population of Mauritius.