Adolphe de Plevitz lifted the veil of slavish treatment of Indian workers in the early 1870s.
Hailed from Nouvelle Découverte, he mounted a revolt against the injustice and oppression that was imposed on workers in sugar estates. He internationalised this problem, supposedly then unknown to Britain, and faced threats, assault and castigation by the Plantocracy, who benefitted from the Indian indenture system, which was just a form of disguised slavery.
Here are a few cases of ill-treatment mentioned in the Petition drawn by De Plevitz in 1871-2:
Mr D., Old immigrant, labourer.
« In the month of February 1871, being on my road to obtain a pass, having at the time a reference to the Stipendiary Magistrate of Pamplemousses, which I showed to the police sergeant who arrested me; notwithstanding this he detained me in the prison cell during three days (I was arrested on a Friday). I was then taken to the Stipendiary Magistrate’s court and condemned to five days’ hard labour, not having means to procure redress for such grievance, and then had to apply on four successive days, and to walk each day for that purpose a distance of sixteen miles before I could obtain the same.
I also find myself continually detained on my way to Port Louis with the produce of my garden; and on one occasion, about three months ago (deposition taken 16th April, 1871), during three hours’ time, which greatly injured the sale of my goods. »
Mr. H., in the service of Messrs. P… & Co., Pamplemousses.
« On Saturday, the 7th of May, 1871, I proceeded to Nouvelle Découverte, to sign a petition to the Governor of the colony, and on my return met the sergeant of Long Mountain police station, who asked me where I was going to. I told him that, having been to sign a petition, I was returning home; nevertheless he arrested me, tied me by the hands, and marched me to the station; then he compelled me to fetch water and clean the station, and then locked me up for the night without food. The next morning my hands were again tied with a cord and I was marched to Pamplemousses, where I was given some rice and salt, which was put in my capra, and then taken before the Magistrate, who did not condemn me; but the next day, having appeared before him, I was condemned to four days’ imprisonment with hard labour. »
Mr S, Old immigrant, No. 257,105, gardener.
« In the month of September or October 1869, I went to Pamplemousses, to obtain a police pass; I went about ten times for this without being able to obtain it. At last I was told, that to obtain this police pass I must have Mr. Argent’s signature at Port Louis. I asked for protection to go to Port Louis, and was told that it was not necessary. I went to Port Louis, was arrested near the door of the Immigration Depot, although I had my ticket and all my papers with me, taken before the Police Magistrate at Port Louis, and sentenced by him to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. »
Indian workers were lulled, lured, looted to leave their native country, and work in poor condition and subsequently caused them to settle permanently in Mauritius.
After having travelled in dire conditions in the ship, they were quarantined, then accommodated in meagre lodgings. Devoid of appropriate medical care and social services, many preferred to commit suicide. Those who attempted to escape from their daily ordeals, were hunted, caught and maltreated like vagabonds, before being dumped in vagrant depots. Often oppressed and assaulted, they lived in fear, and lead a deplorable family life.
Adolphe de Plevitz, who was living in Mauritius since about a decade, after having served as soldier successively in French and British armies in Europe, was alarmed and outraged by the harsh work and living conditions of the Indian immigrants.
Having decided to stop the prevailing rot, he took pains to collect evidences of oppressions and injustices that were inflicted on the Indian immigrants, and bring them to the attention of the authorities in England. In the 1870s, Adolphe de Plevitz bravely revolted and campaigned against the systems of injustice perpetrated against the workers in this country.
He denounced the numerous failings of the Magistrates and the Police in the way the labour laws that were administered and enforced. He denounced the arbitrary, discriminatory, cruel and inhuman attitude, conduct and actions of the Planters, who employed the indentured labourers, the latter having to work in slavery conditions on the sugar estates. Hugh Tinker termed it a new system of slavery. Yet slavery had been officially abolished some four decades earlier.
The Indian immigrants turned to Adolphe de Plevitz for help for their numerous unattended complaints and injustices against the Protector of Immigrants, the Magistrates, the Police, the Planters, the Inspectors, and the Immigration Office.
De Plevitz assembled dozens of evidence and prepared a Petition which he got signed, not without pain, by some 9,400 Indian immigrants. He listed some seventeen cases in details. He submitted a pamphlet containing the Petition and his own observations and remarks, to the Governor Gordon. He then went further and blew it up to the British and Indian press as well.
This provoked a negative and brutal reaction to the employers and Planters, who owned the sugar estates. The Plantocracy were too powerful and all economic, social, political and governance systems were under their grips. De Plevitz was assaulted in public and arrested. He was imprisoned, and even threatened expulsion from Mauritius. Meanwhile, the evils of the indentured labour system were continuing.
A Royal Commission was set up in 1872, following the recommendation of Governor Gordon, despite resistance from the Planters and the Oligarchy. The Royal Commission published its report in 1875, giving De Plevitz reason on most of his allegations of oppressions and injustices perpetrated against the Indian immigrants.
In their report, the Royal Commissioners stated: “We further find that this (Labour) law was enforced both by the police and Magistrates in such a reckless and indiscreet manner as to cause cruel hardship to a number of your Majesty’s subjects, especially in the districts of Pamplemousses, Riviere du Rempart, Flacq, Grand Port, and Savanne. We find that what we believe to have been the spirit of the law was too often entirely overlooked, and that even the letter of the law was often far outstepped by the manner in which it was carried out.”
In subsequent years, a few reforms were brought to the labour laws. By 1920s, the indentured system was finally abolished, after the publication of Kunwar Maharaj Singh Report.
De Plevitz had the undeniable merit of rising against the powerful people who were exploiting, harassing and extorting hundreds of thousands of Indian immigrants, the latter being without leaders, for so many decades. Those powerful people included the Magistrates, the police, the sugar estate owners, the sugar estate managers, public officers, politicians and the press. His greatest achievement was the setting of the Royal Commission of 1875, leading to the exposure of injustice against the Indian workers to the whole world.
There has been a few genuine attempts to honour and pay homage to this dignitary by way of memorials, a statue at MGI, naming of public buildings, places and streets, and written testimonials.
(1) Report of the Royal Commissioners appointed to enquire into THE TREATMENT OF IMMIGRANTS IN MAURITIUS, 1875.
(2) A New System of Slavery – The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920 by Hugh Tinker (1974) Oxford University Press. P.242-3, 249-51.
(3) Restless Energy – A biography of Adolphe de Plevitz by Loretta de Plevitz, MGI, 1987