Migration Nation

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The Story of Indentured Labor

Mauritius is a country of migrants. When colonists first landed on the island they found only wild plants and animals. Every person came from somewhere else, either by choice or by force.

One remarkable story of migration here begins in 1834, when 30 men and 6 women from Calcutta arrived in the capital, Port Louis. They had signed a five-year contract agreeing to work for a small salary and their basic care. They toiled side-by-side with slaves on a sugar plantation six days a week, from sunrise to sun down. At the end of their contract, some returned. But many stayed.

Almost a century later, nearly 500,000 indentured laborers had arrived. Traveling from India and Asia they all landed at a depot known as Aapravasi Ghat, a place akin to Ellis Island. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2006, the remains of Aapravasi Ghat are a physical memory of the British Empire's grand experiment in indentured labor.

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Today, November 2nd is a national holiday here, to remember these pioneer migrants, the forebears of 70% of Mauritians. Yet most Mauritians, I learned, do not celebrate the holiday. There are no special meals, no fireworks. There is, though, a public ceremony at Aapravasi Ghat, to which I was invited.

The first part of the day is a Hindu ritual called a yaj. A gathering listened to the chanting of priests. Everyone then passed through a special doorway at the depot-a passageway of great symbolism because every immigrant passed through it upon arrival. Flowers were laid at a small shrine. People smiled and took photos.

An hour later, a crowd of several hundred assembled under a sprawling tent. As the heat of the day set in, politicians arrived in a line of black BMWs and Mercedes. Like superstars, they ceremoniously paraded down a red carpet to their seats in front.

Songs, speeches, poetry, and dance followed. More flowers were laid at the sacred doorway.

We then followed the Prime Minister to a recreated village, smelling strongly of fresh-cut grass. Actors pretended to be engaged in 19th century activities. Exhibits were on display. A small lunch ended the festivities.

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Those I spoke to were surprisingly dismissive of the event. One man criticized the holiday for not acknowledging the whole range of migrants, like his forebears, Indian merchants of the Muslim faith. Others derided it as a spectacle of pure politics, to curry favor among the Hindu majority.

Yet, it seems to me these criticisms only point to one of the key functions of the holiday: using selective politics to explain why people should feel a sense of belonging to Mauritius, to create the imaged community of the nation.

As a country of immigrants, what binds Mauritians together is not self-evident. They must work to make sense of why their ancestors' left their homes for the unknown and uncertain.

 

Please note: The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

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