IN SEARCH OF OUR ANCESTORS – The Builders of Ile de France: The Genesis of the Tamil South Indian Migration to Ile de France, c.1728-1806

On Saturday 25th February 2023, the landmark book, “In Search of our Ancestors”: A Historical & Pictorial Presentation & Tribute to the Tamil Indian Migration and Settlement in Mauritius and their Descendants (1728 To Present Times) & in other Parts of the World was launched at the University of Mauritius by former Vice-Presidents Mr. Barlen Vyapoory and Mr. Raouf Bundhun. For the first time in Mauritian historiography, this encyclopedic magnum opus documents, over a period of almost three centuries, the saga of the Tamil free immigrants, slaves, and indentured labourers and their descendants, the Tamil Indo-Mauritians who have played a prominent role in Mauritian history. Ever since the genesis of French colonization, they made a major contribution to the economic, social, and demographic development of this small Indian Ocean island.

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During the early period of French rule, King Louis XV allowed the Compagnie des Indes or the French East India Company to take possession and develop the Ile de France or French Mauritius and Bourbon or Reunion Island and its dependencies into a viable colony. It was situated in a strategic position in the south-western Indian Ocean as it was located along the major maritime trading and shipping routes between Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to India, the East Indies, and Asia in the greater Indian Ocean World.

The Arrival of the First Tamil Immigrants

On 11 November 1728, the newly appointed Governor Lenoir of Pondicherry sent 28 Tamil slaves to work on his new estate in the Ile de France. More than three months later, 163 Tamil artisans and slaves arrived in Mauritius from Pondicherry at the behest of Governor Maupin. Between November 1728 and December 1731, around 500 Tamil and other South Indian artisans and slaves were brought to Mauritian shores by the French East India Company.

These individuals were artisans such as stone masons and carpenters who worked on the public structures such as the government buildings, stores, and other public works. From 1728 and 1746, more than 1000 Tamil Indian slaves and another 600 Tamil artisans and free workers were introduced by the French colonial authorities. They were brought to work also on some of the newly founded estates and plantations and their labour was considered to be extremely precious during this early period of colonization.

Between 1735 and 1745, Governor Bertrand Francois Mahé de La Bourdonnais, the father of French and Colonial Mauritius, brought 150 Muslim sailors, many among them came from the Tamil-speaking districts, to maintain, repair, and build ships and also the docks.  During his governorship, he brought another 300 skilled artisans such as stone masons, blacksmiths, and carpenters who along with the Mozambican, Malagasy, West African Guinean, and Indian slaves were the builders of the harbour, cobblestone streets, the fortifications, and the town of Port Louis. During the same period, dozens of early Tamil Indian merchants, traders, and businessmen also settled and opened their shops and businesses in the town centre of Port Louis.

They worked on key structures such as the Government House, the Casernes Centrales, the Military Hospital, the aqueducts, the Windmill, and the completion of the Donjon Saint Louis. In 1741, after his return to Ile de France from France, Governor Mahé de La Bourdonnais went to India with a view to obtaining more Tamil artisans and even some master craftsmen and some additional Tamil slaves.

It is interesting to note that in 1744, Labourdonnais assembled a squadron of several ships and 3342 men including 720 slaves with more than 400 Indian and South Indian slaves in Port Louis, Ile de France, during the War of the Austrian Succession. Therefore, the majority of the slaves who worked and helped with this war campaign were Tamils and from other parts of the southern Indian subcontinent. With this large and well-armed force, the ambitious French Governor was able to defeat the British in open conflict, capture Madras, and negotiate terms for its retrocession.

The Tamils as the Builders of Ile de France

By the mid-1740s, the Indian slaves, coming mostly from the Tamil-speaking districts, consisted of more than 15% of the total colonial slave population. Between 1728 and 1806, the French colonial government imported an estimated more than 10,000 Tamil-speaking slaves and more than 2,000 stone masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, cart drivers, farmers-cultivators, cooks, domestics, and tailors to Mauritian shores from Madras, Pondicherry, Karikal, and other parts of the Coromandel coast under French control. Over a period of more than half a century, they worked on the island’s infrastructure such as the public buildings, roads, bridges, and water distribution system.

Furthermore between the 1740 and 1830, Tamil Indian and Tamil Indo-Mauritians slaves were most often freed by their owners and also bought the freedom, especially of female slaves. Manumission or the freeing of slaves contributed to the gradual decline in the number of Tamil Indian and Tamil Indo-Mauritian slaves during the last years of Ile de France and the early British Period before the abolition of slavery in 1835 and the termination of the Apprenticeship System in 1839. In the process, during the same period, to a certain extent, it contributed in the rise of the local free Tamil Indo-Mauritian and Free Coloured communities.

Between 1728 and 1806, the Tamil slaves and contract workers, along with Malagasy and Mozambican slaves, built the Donjon Saint Louis Fortification, the first stone structure of Cathedral Saint Louis, the Military Hospital, Government House, Chateau Le Réduit, the Casernes Centrales (Line Barracks), the Windmill, the Supreme Court, cobblestone streets of Port Louis, and some sections of Port Louis harbour. Many of these stone buildings, streets, and public infrastructure are still in use today, they are national heritage sites, and form an integral part of our island urban architectural heritage which is clearly shown and discussed in the voluminous book ‘In Search of our Ancestors’.

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