– Just like Le Morne Cultural Landscape as a maroon site, it is the only indenture site among the more than 1100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in around 167 countries

SATYENDRA PEERTHUM,

Historian, Researcher, & Writer

The Aapravasi Ghat Site was inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List on 16th July 2006 in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the 30th general meeting of the

SATYENDRA PEERTHUM

World Heritage Committee. Therefore, this year marks the 15th anniversary of its inscription which is being observed at a national level by Government of Mauritius through a series of events during the second half of July and the first week of August 2021.

The Uniqueness of the Aapravasi Ghat

This inscription commemoration is a very special occasion to reflect on the fact that as a World Heritage Site, the Aapravasi Ghat does not only belong to the Mauritian people, but also to humanity. It is a heritage site which, like Le Morne Cultural Landscape, embodies the highest values of mankind. As a lieu de mémoire, it is playing a crucial role in bolstering our national unity, preserving our cultural values, and contributes to the crucial process of nation building. Thus, the Aapravasi Ghat is, after all, a tangible symbol and forms a cornerstone of our Mauritian cultural heritage.

The Aapravasi Ghat is a unique site in time and place because it is the first World Heritage Site of the Republic of Mauritius. At the same time, just like Le Morne Cultural Landscape as a maroon site, it is the only indenture site among the more than 1100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in around 167 countries. The Aapravasi Ghat or “the landing place of the indentured immigrants” is where between May 1849 and August 1910, more than 350,000 Indian and non-Indian indentured men, women, and children first set foot on Mauritian shores.

They were registered, housed, and fed there before being sent to work on the island’s sugar estates and elsewhere in the colony. They were required to stay between 2 to 3 days at the Ghat and it was there that they came together as a micro-community, as they shared their meals, their sorrows, human experiences, their stories, songs, religious and human values.

The Ghat is the world’s first depot for the indentured workers and the best well-preserved one. It also received the largest number of indentured workers in modern world history and the only one to have a state-of-art interpretation centre (museum) which narrates in great deal the social history of the indentured workers and the story of the system which brought them to Mauritian shores. It is interesting to note that ever since 2014, more than 350,000 Mauritians and tourists have visited the site and climbed its emblematic 16 steps as part of their devoir de mémoire.

The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site is also unique because more than 80% of the ancestors of all Mauritians passed through this historic spot in Port Louis harbour. These labourers originated from present-day Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, from all the regions of South Asia, and even beyond. The Indian labourers who passed through the Aapravasi Ghat were adherents to the Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist faiths.

The Historic Significance of the Ghat

The arrival of the Indian indentured immigrants who were registered at the Ghat was a major milestone in the evolution of Mauritian history. Their gradual introduction over a period of more than six decades forever altered the demography, society, economy and politics of the island. It was through their toil and unwavering determination that the Indian labourers transformed this small Indian Ocean island into a garden of sugar and into the most important exporter of sugar in the British Empire during the mid-19th century. The Indian immigrants and their descendants through the sweat of their brows were the builders of modern Mauritius as well as the shapers of Mauritian history.

In April 1987, the Aapravasi Ghat was declared a national monument by the Government of Mauritius. Shortly afterward, in November 1989, the name Coolie Ghat was changed to Aapravasi Ghat, a term in Hindi which was coined in Mauritius. In 2001, the Government of Mauritius decreed 2nd November a public holiday to honour the memory of the indentured labourers. Each year, this special public holiday is commemorated at a national level at the Aapravasi Ghat Site. During the same year, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund was created to manage, safeguard, and promote that international site.

In 2006, the Aapravasi Ghat was inscribed under criterion 6 of the UNESCO guidelines which considered the site to be “directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.” This meant that the site was associated with the intangible cultural heritage of the Indian immigrants and their descendants such as their religions, social practices, beliefs, traditions, oral traditions, stories, games, cuisine, and traditional dresses which they brought with them and enhanced in Mauritius.

The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site is the most important surviving manifestation of the indentured labour system that existed in the former plantation world during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It represents the beginning of “the Great Experiment” initiated by the British Government after the abolition of slavery to demonstrate the superiority of ‘free’ labour over slave labour to the world. Under this scheme, Mauritius was the first colony to receive indentured labourers and it was at the Aapravasi Ghat that these indentured immigrants landed and where an Immigration Depot was built.

Between the mid-1830s and the mid-1840s, the success of this ‘Experiment” in Mauritius ensured that indentured labour immigration was replicated in other colonies of the British Empire and other European colonies around the world. The Aapravasi Ghat is also an architectural ensemble that represents the beginning of a new world economic order that had come into existence by the mid-19th century. The British government established Immigration Depots in India and in British colonies to receive and distribute contractual labourers who came mostly from India.

The Global Significance of the Aapravasi Ghat

The significance of this global migration – and of the Aapravasi Ghat as the paramount symbol of that migration – is underscored by the creation of rich and vibrant multi-cultural societies in many countries in both the eastern and western hemispheres where immigrants landed. As the Mauritian experience attests, the creation of such societies from Asian, African, and European origins are intimately bound up with the story of the men, women, and children who passed through the gates of the Aapravasi Ghat.

The term ‘indenture’ refers to a written contract entered into by one person to work for another person for a specified period of time. An indentured immigrant was an individual who agreed to be transported to a colony to labour, often for five years or more.  The labourers’ contracts provided details of their terms of employment and outlined their general standard of living: wage rate, working hours, type of work, rations, housing and medical care. 

During the Age of Indenture, or between 1826 and 1946, more than 5 million indentured and contract labourers were shipped from Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, and Melanesia to British, French and Dutch colonies. More than 3.3 million of these labourers came from India and South Asia and they were shipped to the Caribbean, South America, southern and eastern Africa, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.

The historical significance of the Labour Diaspora for the Indian Ocean World in particular is that it was the largest movement of population to occur in this part of the world during the 19th century even more important than the slave trade and the immigration of free passengers. Mauritius is significant because it welcomed the largest contingent of these indentured Indian immigrant men, women, and children to its shores at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site, a unique place in time and space.