During the past seventy-five years, Labour Day, or 1st of May, has been commemorated by Mauritian workers and politicians through public speeches, meetings and wreath laying ceremonies. It is a day of deep reflection on important universal values such as individual freedom, human equality and human rights as well as the social and political rights of all Mauritian workers.
It is also a special day when the resistance of Mauritian workers against oppression and their struggle for greater freedom is being commemorated. However, three quarters of a century before the genesis of the struggle of the Mauritian working class, during the 1930s and the 1940s, it was the Indian immigrants who fought for their rights and better living and working conditions on and off the sugar estates.
The Large-Scale Resistance of the Indian Immigrants
Between the 1860s and 1880s, the resistance and challenge of tens of thousands of indentured and ex-indentured labourers against colonial laws, their terrible living and working conditions and the arbitrary authority of the island’s elite were carried out in the rural districts and Port Louis. This fact can clearly be seen through their effective use of the law and the complaints they lodged with the Stipendiary Magistrates and other colonial officials.
Between 1860 and 1886, the New and Old Immigrants filed 110,940 complaints, or an annual average of 4266 complaints, against their employers in the colony’s law courts. Around 72% of these complaints concerned non-payment of wages, with a conviction rate of 71% of these cases. The rest or around 28% of the complaints of the Indian immigrants dealt with such grievances as poor working and living conditions, ill-treatment by the employers and the notorious practice of the double cut system among several others.
While the Indian immigrants were busy lodging cases against their employers, the planters, their estate managers and other subordinates were counterattacking by lodging complaints against their employees. Between 1860 and 1886, around 209,000 complaints, or an annual average of 8038 complaints, against the Indian immigrants. Around, 71060 complaints or 34% dealt with illegal absence from work and around 79420 complaints or 38% dealt with desertion from the sugar estates. This meant that a total of 150,480 complaints dealing with illegal absence and desertion by the Indian immigrants were reported over period of twenty-six years, or an annual average of 5787 cases.
The Number of Indian Immigrants who were arrested
as Vagrants in Mauritius between January 1861 and December 1871
Therefore, between the 1860s and 1880s, there were tens of thousands of Indian and some Indo-Mauritian workers who absented themselves illegally from their work or just deserted or escaped from the sugar estates and some in Port Louis where they worked and lived. The above-mentioned figures do not include the estimated 206, 000 Indian immigrants who were arrested for vagrancy between 1861 and 1871, or an annual average of 18,700 vagrants.
In addition, it is important to note that illegal absence and desertion were often seen by colonial officials and the planters as being the same offense or crime as vagrancy. After all, when Indian immigrants resorted to such tactics of resistance as employees, they were denying their labour to their employers and during the sugar cane harvest season this posed a major threat to sugar production.
Richard Allen, an American historian, provides another set of important statistics which, to a certain extent, can be seen as a form of resistance of the Indian immigrants to estate labour. Between the early 1860s, the annual average number of labour contracts signed by Indian workers amounted to 72,960. During the late 1880s, the number of labour contracts being signed on sugar estates declined to an annual average of 42,632. This shows that within less than three decades, there was a general decline of more than 58% in the number of contracts being signed on the Mauritian sugar estates.
The Old Immigrants and the de Plevitz Petition
During this period, many of these Old Immigrants felt that they had met their legal obligation with their employers by serving their mandatory five-year indenture contract or period of industrial residence. As a result, most of them believed that they were free or had the freedom to continue working on the sugar estates or leave estate labour in search of better working and living conditions and new opportunities in Port Louis as well as in the colony’s other towns and newly established villages.
These ideas and beliefs formed an integral part of the worldview of the Old Immigrants, as Vijaya Teelock, a Mauritian historian, observes:
“Freedom, according to the slave and indentured, included also the concept of autonomy: having lived for some generations in bondage, a keen sense of autonomy seems to have developed. This seems to have emerged directly out of their experience as enslaved and indentured. In both, some chose to remain autonomous at the risk of poverty.
The Signatures of Immigrants Chocalingum and Roopram
in the de Plevitz Petition in May 1871
The idea of freedom and worldview of the ex-indentured labourers are briefly referred to in the petition which was drafted on their behalf by Adolphe de Plevitz starting in 1869. He was the estate manager of Nouvelle Decouverte Sugar Estate, the son-in-law of a Franco-Mauritian planter and described as being of German descent. He was considered to be a humanist who was sincerely concerned about the sufferings of the Indian immigrants. He played a key role in arousing their consciousness and encouraged the immigrants to fight for their rights.
While writing about their numerous complaints and hardships, de Plevitz mentioned on their behalf to Governor Sir Hamilton Gordon:
“That your Petitioners suffer many and great grievances from the existing laws of which they are deprived of that freedom which all other inhabitants of Mauritius enjoy…Your Petitioners are required at all times and always carry with them a ticket with their photograph and a police pass.”
Immigrant Chocalingum arrived in Mauritius in 1843 and
signed the de Plevitz Petition in 1871 when he was a Sirdar.
Immigrant Roopram arrived in Mauritius in 1846 and
signed the de Plevitz Petition in 1871 when he was a Small Property Owner.
Between 1869 and 1871, de Plevitz regularly met and organized meetings with the Old and New Immigrants at Nouvelle Decouverte Sugar Estate. He undertook this initiative in order to understand their plight and grievances and provide them with some type of assistance. At the beginning of 1871, de Plevitz called an important meeting, which was attended by hundreds of Old Immigrants, at Long Mountain. By June 1871, around 9,401 Old Immigrants, including Immigrants Chocalingum and Roopram, signed their names or placed their marks and immigrant numbers on a total of 300 sheets of paper which were eventually annexed to the petition.
The petition of de Plevitz and the signatures of thousands of Old Immigrants, such as Chocalingum and Roopram, led to the setting up of the Police Inquiry Commission of 1871, the Royal Commission of 1875, the establishment of inspectors of the immigration system in Mauritius and a very limited reform of the labour laws. This petition is one of the most important documents in the history of indentured labour in Mauritius and the ultimate statement of the great discontent and resistance of the Indian immigrants against what they saw as being an oppressive and inhumane system. Today, their acts of resistance and struggle for better working and living conditions, just like those of their Mauritian descendants, are honored and remembered on each Labour Day.