2nd November 2019 marks the 185th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured labourers on Mauritian shores and a public holiday of national commemoration after all, it is a day of deep reflection on the great toils and struggles of the indentured labourers and their contribution in the fashioning of the society and economy of Mauritius.
In 1999, in his landmark academic study entitled Slaves, Freedmen, and Indenture Laborers in Colonial Mauritius, Dr. Richard Allen, a well-known American historian of indentured labour and slavery, referred to a small group of the early Indian immigrants, who had arrived in British Mauritius between the 1830s and 1850s, as ‘Old Indian Immigrant entrepreneurs’ or ‘Indian commercial and agricultural entpreneurs.’ These few fortunate immigrants had exploited some of the colony’s economic resources, founded or brought their families, leased, bought, and sold small plots of land. They became skilled or semi-skilled artisans, head of workshops, clerks, shopkeepers, small traders, merchants, peddlers, hawkers, sirdar, job contractors, labour overseers, small planters and cultivators with some even independent proprietors.
At the same time, these successful Indian immigrants also shared close economic and social relations with members of the colonial elite, they saved their money, had access to capital and land, and fashioned complex webs of socio-economic relations, as they adopted Mauritius as their new home, while keeping in touch and even visiting their relatives and friends in India. One of these Old Immigrant entrepreneurs was Immigrant Mohun from India who had achieved some measure of social and economic mobility like hundreds of Old Indian Immigrants between the 1840s and the early 1870s.
Immigrant Mohun’s Worker Agency & Mobility
Mohun, was a Bengali Indian seasonal worker, labourer, sirdar, job contractor, entrepreneur, and small landowner and one of my ancestors (or my great grandmother’s great grandfather). He was born 1799 in the village of Bahaheea in the 24 south parganas district near Calcutta and son of Ramnauth, a Bengali seasonal worker. Therefore, in January 1837, Immigrant Mohun (No.3284) was a 38-year old Indian contract labourer when he reached Port Louis and went to work on Antoinette Sugar Estate for Mr. Arbuthnot. He served a 5-year contract and then left the island for Calcutta in February 1842.
Between the late 1810s, and early 1830s, along with his father Ramnauth, Mohun left his native village and worked as a seasonal worker in Calcutta, Bancoorah, and Purulia districts just like millions of other Bengali and Bihari labourers. During the early late 1820s, he met his future wife, Bhoyrub, a Bengali, in Purulia where he settled for several years as he got married, and had 2 daughters, Audy and Bhoyrubee (my great great great grandmother). In l836, he left his family to go to work on the docks of the port of Calcutta where he was engaged as an indentured labourer under a 5-year contract.
Between March 1842 and March 1847, after having spent five years in Purulia and Bahaheea, Mohun returned to work for several weeks in Calcutta and then to Mauritius on the ship the Defiance as sirdar at the age of 48. By then, he was working for James Cooper, one of the Mauritius Emigration Agents in Calcutta, with 22 labourers and was allocated the number 2530 as they came under special labour contracts. Between 1846 and 1848, hundreds of Indian indentured workers were brought to work on 3-year contracts on some of the most important Mauritian sugar estates where there was an acute shortage of labour during the sugar cane crop season.
Immigrant Mohun went to work on Les Moulins Sugar Estate (near the present-day village of Goodlands) for Mr. Antoine E. Berger Dujonet as a sirdar on a 3-year contract. James Cooper noted that Mohun recruited his workers between December 1846 and January 1847 in his native village of Bahaheea and in four of the surrounding villages in the 24 south parganas in southern West Bengal on the outskirts of the city of Calcutta.
In December 1851, after having completed his contract, he bought 4 arpents of marginal and uncultivated land for 525 piastres on the outskirts of the village of Poudre d’Or from Dame Marie Aurelie Albonier who was 55 years old. She was described as a ‘creole de Maurice’ and as ‘gens de couleur’ who was a small landowner in that particular area of Riviere du Rempart district. It is interesting to note that until 1848 and for a period of more than 20 years, she worked as a domestic for Mr. Antoine E. Berger Dujonet, the owner of Les Moulins Sugar Estate, where Mohun was employed as a sirdar.
In order to purchase this plot of land with one single payment, in October 1851, Mohun borrowed 700 piastres from Bagma (No.3356), former indentured worker from Arrah district in Bihar and a small shop owner and cultivator in the village of Mapou. He had arrived in Mauritius in 1837 and on the same ship as Mohun. In addition, they went to work on the same estate as labourers.
They were jahaji bhais and after his return to Mauritius, Mohun got back in touch with his old friend. Under this obligation, Mohun paid back Bagma the money over a period of 3 years with a 5 percent interest rate which amounted to a total of 735 piastres. The remaining 175 piastres was used for the hiring of 5 Old Indian immigrants for the clearing and derocking of his land, the purchase and planting of seeds, some agricultural tools, and the purchase of livestock. It becomes evident that within a very short period, between the late 1840s and early 1850s, Mohun started the process of weaving a complex social web of social and economic relations, such with Immigrant Bagma and Dame Albonier, through which it allowed him to become a proprietor (or small landowner) and began to achieve a certain measure of social and economic mobility.
By the early 1850s, Mohun became a job contractor and was active in recruiting workers Old Indian Immigrants for Les Moulins and Saint Antoine Sugar Estates. Furthermore, he purchased three large plots of land for a total of 38 arpents of land for 4228 piastres in December 1851, November 1860, and November 1868 in 3 different parts of Riviere du Rempart district. At the same time, between 1850 and 1863, Mohun leased a total of 16 arpents of land ranging from 3 to 7 years for 370 piastres per year. By the early 1860s, he became a small sugar cane planter and resided in Poudre d’or village.
During the 1860s, Immigrant Autman advanced more than 1,000 piastres to Mohun for his land transactions which was repaid within 5 years at an interest rate of 5%. Autman (No.3648), former indentured labourer from Madurai district in the Madras Presidency, south India. He arrived in Mauritius in 1835 and was also worked on Antoinette Sugar Estate and knew Mohun. By the late 1850s, Autman was a small planter and a job contractor who worked for 2 sugar estates.
Mohun’s Return to India & Its Aftermath
In December 1870, Mohun went to see Jean Charles Montocchio, his notary, friend, and who played an important in his land purchases and land leases. He transferred his properties to his two daughters, Immigrant Bhoyrubee and Immigrant Audy (who arrived in Mauritius in March 1852) and Immigrant Nundloll, a Bengali Indian (who arrived in Mauritius in December 1849). Nundloll was married to Bhoyrubee and they had three children. Among the papers of Mohun, there were 61 promissory notes worth 1512 piastres from 28 individuals which by the end of 1871, or the following year, were eventually recovered by Nundloll, Bhoyrubee, and Audy.
In late August 1871, Mohun applied for a free return passage at the age of 72 which was granted to him because he had arrived prior to 1853 and had completed two indenture contracts. On 28th September, he wrote a short farewell letter in Bengali which was intended for his two daughters, son-in-law, and two grandsons. He asked them to effectively manage his properties and to live good and productive lives and to help their fellow immigrants. The letter was proof-read, corrected, and finalized by William Luconaic, a small British merchant and money lender, who knew Bengali and was based in Port Louis and with whom he shared a twenty year old friendship.
Several days later, on 5th October 1871, Mohun left Mauritius on the ship the Warora for Calcutta. In 1955, Pandit Nundloll, the great grandson of Mohun and my great grandmother’s elder brother, visited his son in India Ishwarduth Nundloll who was studying music. Through the Arya Samaj network, he was able to visit Bahaheea, his ancestor’s village and met his distant relatives. Pandit Nundlall found out that Mohun returned to spend the rest of his days in his native village near Calcutta. His ancestor had bought three acres of land from one of the village zamindars with the money he had earned as a sirdar, small proprietor, entrepreneur, and job contractor in Mauritius. In the process, he established a small farm for himself and for the benefit of his relatives. In 1876, he passed away at the age of 77. During the 1950s, some of Mohun’s Indian Bengali relatives still occupied the farm which he had bought decades earlier.
* Research for this article, which is part of a large study on the early Indian and non-Indian indentured immigrants, was carried out between June 2017 and January 2019 at the MGI Indian Immigration Archives, the Mauritius National Archives, the Registrar General’s Office, through two long oral interviews, and the family papers of the Nundlall and Peerthum families.