SATYENDRA PEERTHUM
Historian, Lecturer, & Writer

2nd November 2020 marks the 186th anniversary of the landing of the indentured labourers in Mauritius. This was a watershed event which ushered a new period in our country’s history which forever altered its demography, society, economy and politics. Those valiant and bold 36 Indian immigrant pioneers who reached Mauritian shores on the ship the Atlas on 2nd November 1834 were the precursors of almost half million immigrants who eventually called this small Indian Ocean island their home.

The Historical Importance of the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site

Mauritius is a nation that consists of immigrants who came from Europe, Asia and Africa. During the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, three different European colonial powers as well as European colonists introduced slaves, free European and non-European workers, Indian convicts, Liberated Africans, and indentured labourers. It was at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site that between May 1849 and August 1910, more than 350,000 of the 462,800 indentured workers, who came to Mauritian shores, were landed and registered like Immigrant Lolytah.

The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site is a place of shared history, shared heritage, and shared memories since more than 80% of the ancestors of the Mauritian population passed through its gates after spending 2 to 3 days there. It is a unique place in time and space which provides us with a tangible example of our common heritage and our national unity since all of our ancestors came to this land as immigrants. Today, it is thanks to them that our country is a peaceful, multi-ethnic, and democratic country which serves as a shining beacon to the rest of the world.

The Genesis of Commemoration in British Mauritius

Eric Hobsbwam, the world famous British social and imperial historian, once wrote that: “Every nation and citizen of that nation needs to pause from time to time and commemorate the making of their history and pay homage to our forefathers and precedecessors, in the process we are honouring our history and the legacy they have bestowed upon us their descendants.”

In Mauritius, each year since 2001, at the national level and through an official public holiday, we remember and pay a heart-felt tribute to our indentured ancestors who first set foot on Mauritian soil. In our country, there is a long and rich tradition of commemorating the history and the accomplishments of the Girmityas in Mauritius. This process of commemorating the making of our history and of the Girmityas may be traced back to Manilal Doctor, a famous Indian lawyer and emissary of Gandhi, who struggled for the freedom of our people between 1907 and 1911.

In 1909, Manilal set up the Young Men’s Hindu Association and played a key role in the establishment of the Mauritian chapter of the Arya Samaj. At the public meetings of these two associations, he delivered lectures where he encouraged Indo-Mauritian young men and women to honour and remember their immigrant ancestors through hawans and prayers for their forefathers.

In December 1935, the Committee for the Indian Colonisation of Mauritius, invited Swami Nathan, an Indian scholar and President of the Madras Indian Colonisation Society to unveil a large stone obelisk marking the centenary of the Indian colonization of Mauritius in the yard of the Arya Sabha in Port Louis. An Indian Centenary Souvenir Book was also published and launched. It was the first time in Mauritian history that a monument, a ceremony, and a publication were launched with a view of commemorating the arrival and achievements of the Girmityas.

A few years later, in December 1943, at the Mahayaj, which was organized by Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal and the Jan Andolan or the People’s Movement, the contribution of the Girmityas were also remembered and honored. A crowd of more than 100,000 Indo-Mauritians were presented in Port Louis and the vast majority among them were the descendants of the indentured workers. Almost two decades later, in November 1960, Pandit Bissoondoyal held a ceremony where the contribution of the Indian sepoys in the British conquest of Mauritius and the accomplishments of the indentured labourers were commemorated.

Commemoration in the Post-Independence Era

By the late 1960s, or around the time of Mauritian independence, Beekrumsing Ramlallah, with the encouragement of Dr. K. Hazareesingh, organized what would become the famous annual yaj in memory of the Girmityas who passed through the Immigration Depot or the Aapravasi Ghat. By the early 21st century, it became part of the national 2nd November commemorations marking the arrival of indentured workers.

The Late Shrimati Indira Gandhi visiting the Aapravasi Ghat in June 1970 with members of the Mauritian government (Government of India Press Office courtesy of Dr. S.Peerthum)

In June 1970, the Late Shrimati Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of the Republic of India, became the first international leader to visit the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site and to pay homage to the Girmityas. Eight years later, in June 1978, a monument marking the arrival of the first and last indentured workers was unveiled in memory of the Girmityas by the Government of Mauritius.

In October 1984 and February 1985, under the first government of Sir A.Jugnauth, the then Prime Minister of Mauritius, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured labourers and the abolition of slavery were commemorated for the first time at a national level. A few years later, in April 1987, the Aapravasi Ghat was recognized as a national heritage for the first time.

In November 1989, in order to pay a better respect to the memory of indentured labourers, the name of Coolie Ghat was changed forever to Aapravasi Ghat, a term coined in Mauritius. Several years later, in 1996, the Aapravasi Ghat Promenade Project was initiated by the Government of Mauritius.

Commemoration and the Valorization

of our Heritage in the 21st Century

In 2001, after much debate, the Government of Mauritius decreed the 2nd November as a national holiday to remember and pay tribute to the Girmityas. The first official national commemoration was held on 2nd November 2001 at the Aapravasi Ghat. During the following year, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund was officially set up to preserve and protect the site and with a view of remembering and promoting the memory of the Girmityas of Mauritius.

In October 2002, during a visit to UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, our former Prime Minister Sir A. Jugnauth made the official request, on behalf of the Government and people of Mauritius, for the World Heritage Centre to begin the inscription process of the Aapravasi Ghat. This led to the inscription of the Aapravasi Ghat as a World Heritage Site on 16th July 2006.

In 2015, the Indenture Immigration Records of the Republic of Mauritius linked with the history of the Girmityas in Mauritius was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. During the following year, Geet Gawai, which is associated with the oral traditions of the indentured workers, was also inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The emblematic 16 steps of the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage in 1949 through which tens of thousands of indentured immigrants first set foot on Mauritian soil (K. Hazareesingh, A History of the Indians in Mauritius: 1st Edition (1950)

In 2017, the first International Scientific Committee of the Indenture Labour Route Project was held in October in Mauritius which was a success and with the Secretariat currently based at Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund. In 2019, the conservation works on the Old Labourers’ Quarters at Trianon were completed which is the 3rd major indenture site to undergo this process after the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage site between 2004 and 2009 and the Vagrant Depot of Grand River in 2011.

As Mauritian citizens and as the descendants of indentured labourers, it is our devoir de mémoire to pay a vibrant homage and a garland of tribute to our ancestors who reached Mauritian shores on that fateful day on Sunday, 2nd November 1834. Indeed, it was a turning point in our country’s rich, complex, and long history.