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
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
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.
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
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