THE IMPORTANCE OF 2ND NOVEMBER 1834 REVISITED? : “They Came to Mauritian Shores” (1), The Genesis of the Indentured Labour System and the Life-Story of Immigrant Mahamod

Ever since 2nd November 2001, the arrival of the indentured labourers has been
commemorated at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site as an official national public holiday. Each year, a lot of emphasis is placed on the 36 Indian indentured workers who reached Mauritian shores on the ship the Atlas on 2nd November 1834 and the more than 25,000 who followed in their footsteps during the following five years. In the process, Mauritians and Mauritian and overseas scholars of indentured labour have largely ignored the arrival of hundreds of Indian and Chinese indentured workers from the mid-1820s until the mid-1830s.

The Number of Indentured Immigrants

   Between 1826 and 1910, an estimated total of 462,801 Indian and other indentured men, women, and children(2) reached the shores of Mauritius. Between January 1826 and December 1842, the importation of indentured labourers was a private initiative which was controlled and funded by the Franco-Mauritian, British planters and some Free Coloured and Indian planters, negociants, merchants, traders, investors, and property owners.

It is estimated that the 1751 indentured labourers(3) who came to Mauritian shores between January 1826 and July 1834, worked on individual and group indenture contracts for a period of two to five years, mostly on the sugar estates, and some in Port Louis and in the newly emerging settlements. It is interesting to note that this represents more than half of the total number of contractual workers who were introduced in Réunion Island between the late 1820s and early 1830s.

The Story of Immigrant Mahamod

According to the Mahatma Gandhi Indian Immigration Archives and the Mauritius National Archives records, the first well-documented Indian immigrant who arrived as an indentured worker under a labour contract was Immigrant Mahamod or Mohameth. He arrived on 23rd January 1826 on board the Elizabeth from Calcutta, with his two sons Ali and Hamad. Mahamod was 45 years old and a Bengali Muslim from Birali, a village in the 24 perunnahs on the outskirts of the city of Calcutta. He was recruited by Captain Gaston to work as the servant of Mr. Oliver, one of the British managers who worked for Gaillardon’s Company at Pointe aux Piments Estate in the north west of Mauritius on a 5-year labour contract.

By 1836, Mahamod was working on Vale Sugar Estate as head servant in Captain West’s household. In 1839, he purchased three arpents of land near the present-day village of Grand Bay and became a small cultivator. A few years later, in 1846 at the age of 65, he bought a second plot of land of five arpents. Shortly after, he left the employment of Captain West and devoted his full time to planting and selling garden produce and rearing livestock together with his two sons. He also employed several Old Immigrants. He became a small proprietor and furnished garden and meat produce to the Vale Sugar Estate and the emerging village of Grand Bay.

In 1856, Mahamod, his two sons, and five grandsons bought 31 arpents of land or a small estate close to the Vale Sugar Estate for some 1250 piastres or six dollars and Captain West acted as sole guarantor for their purchase. Between the mid-1850s and mid-1870s, Mahamod and his family became an important Indian and Indo-Mauritian family of small planters and proprietors in Pamplemousses District.

In 1876, after a long and productive life as a former head servant, landowner, and small planter, he passed away at the age of 95 on his small estate near Vale Sugar Estate but had lived to see his great grandchildren. Mahamod’s obituary was written by Captain West, with whom he had shared a forty-five year friendship, in Le Mauricien newspaper. It was an extremely rare occurrence during the Age of Indenture, in Mauritius, for a prominent British planter to write an obituary in honour of a former indentured worker. Furthermore, Ali Zafar Mahamod, the 90 year old great great grandson of Immigrant Mahamod, confirms this fact through a short oral interview in 2015, shortly before his death.

The Importance of 2nd November 1834 Revisited?

The estimated 1,751 pioneers formed a constant trickle of Indian and Chinese indentured workers who came to Mauritian shores prior to 2nd November 1834 and paved the way for the subsequent massive introduction of contractual labourers. When referring to this early period of the history of indentured labour in this small Indian Ocean island, from the mid-1820s to the mid-1830s, Dr. Vijaya Teelock emphasizes: “Uninterruptedly, the Indian contractual labourers were introduced in Mauritius in small groups at the requests of individual local planters.”

Between January 1826 and July 1834, these early Indian and some Chinese contractual workers were brought to work mainly as domestics, babysitters, semi-skilled and skilled workers, for two to five years under the “Articles of Agreement” or a form of indenture contract. They were mainly from Calcutta, Bombay, Pondicherry, Tranquebar, Madras, Singapore, and Penang. Itwas only in 1829 that some of the planters made a serious attempt to experiment with the first large-scale importation of indentured workers.

As such an estimated number of 802 Indian and 398 Chinese indentured labourers were introduced into Mauritius between June and October 1829, from Indian Ocean port cities such as Madras, Calcutta and Singapore. In addition, Gaillardon, Thompson & Company played a key role in their importation. In October 1829, John Finiss, the Chief Commissary of Police, mentioned to Colonel Barry, Chief Secretary to Government in Port Louis, that: “I think it my duty to state these circumstances at the outset that if the experiment succeeds, further importations will no doubt take place”.

The Labour Experiment Begins!

As early as 1829, local colonial officials, such as the colony’s main law enforcement officer  or the Chief of Police, were already referring to the importation of hundreds of indentured labourers to work on the island’s sugar estates and elsewhere, as “an experiment” which was being carried out by the Mauritian planters. However, within a few weeks, this labour experiment proved to be a dismal failure, as some of the Franco-Mauritian sugar estate owners and their subordinates, such as the estate managers and labour overseers, mistreated the indentured workers.

In addition, they either paid their wages late or did not pay them at all and failed to fulfill the other contractual obligations to their workers. As a result, the Indian and Chinese indentured workers refused to work and deserted the sugar estates and other place where they laboured. They were arrested as vagrants and eventually resorted to petty crimes. This proved to be a source of major concern for the local British colonial authorities and the police force. By the end of 1829 and early 1830, the British colonial authorities gradually repatriated the majority of the indentured workers to Madras, Calcutta and Singapore.

Each 2nd November, the arrival of the 1761 Indian and Chinese indentured men, women, and children who reached Mauritian shores from January 1826 to July 1834 must also be remembered and honored. Many among them, like Immigrant Mahamod and his two sons, remained in Mauritius and adopted it as their new home and like their successors, who arrived in 1834 and after, they contributed in turning this small volcanic island into a garden of sugar. After all, they also came to Mauritian shores in search of a better life and a better tomorrow for themselves, their children, and their descendants.