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Reminiscences of a Mauritian Immigrant

Sam Lingayah

On March 12th 2018, Mauritius will have achieved its fiftieth year of decolonization and independence. Yet the historic outcome of the emancipation, for which much sweat, tears and blood had been shed, does not appear to have rewarded much for the builders of the freed Mauritius, the successors of slaves, the indentured labourers, like my own great grandfather, Cathuvula, filtering downward to the powerless working classes and the disadvantaged groups.

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For me, it will be fifty-seven years since, like other compatriots, being displaced and driven out from the island of my birth, pushed by a number of factors:

  • Lack of employment opportunities;
  • Mismanagement of the economy;
  • Corruption and nepotism by those hunger for authority and power for selfish reasons;
  • But, furthermore, for the loss of faith and hope in a ruthlessly growing Mauritian society spearheaded by politicians brutally towards the situation of the survival of the fittest.

In spite of what has been said, there is something that Mauritian immigrants should be very proud of. Whilst many former colonies, both French and British, have undergone extreme instability, take-overs and inter-ethnic rivalry and violence, the engine of Mauritian democracy is still functioning, though not perfectly. For this inadequacy the conscienceless few from the dominant social class have to bear full responsibility.

Returning home had been top on the list of priorities in Mauritian immigrants’ plan from the traumatic moment of preliminary preparation to embark on the unknown migration adventure. This included mine. For the long-suffering and abused slaves and the Indian indentured labourers returning home had also been the ultimate dream. My study (Mauritian Immigrants in Britain, 1988) and recent investigation have shown that 81% of those who pioneered the great migration enterprise for the British Dream returning home was also the main objective. Unfortunately, the majority of them have failed to achieve the triumphant home-returning journey for the country of their birth, with a view to retire peacefully and having their bones buried or cremated there.

These were my dreams as well. Like that of several of my compatriots, I had also tried to return home, but failed miserably. The failure could also be due to the lack of incentives from those in position of power from our own country.  However, to be objective, rapid social change in Mauritius, intensified by different values, and inability by those who could not re-adjust themselves to a radically transformed Mauritian society could not be discounted as a contributing factor.

As a result, the dwindling numbers of the early Mauritian immigrants in the twilight final phase, who bravely pioneered the great migration enterprise, have been finding themselves isolated. Abandoned and alone, many among them are now impatiently waiting for the unknown final journey. With the adult children, integrated into the values of the larger individualistic society, their elders are now clinging on to life alone, which can be described as finding themselves snared in a depressing circumstance, which can be correctly referred as The Prisoner of Migration (see my book of the same title, 2016).

If Mauritius were a more compassionate and welcoming society not only for the potential migrant returnees but also for those at the bottom of the pecking order to change their circumstances, we could have thought of it in a more optimistic way. I, like many of my overseas compatriots, was forced out of the country as a result of being denied of the opportunity of enjoying some of my basic human rights. Therefore, conditions, economic and political, were such that there was no chance of rejecting my impoverishing inheritance and transforming my life-circumstances.

On the other hand, one could not expect much from a society with roots from a plantation colony, given the negative history of colonialism. Eric Williams, the renowned Caribbean historian, has correctly described sugarcane economy as a trap for ‘servitude’ (1944).  Sugar economy created successively, that is, from one generation to the next, an enduring culture of non-resistance and accommodation. The sugar estates collapsed unless the workforce, as described by Hugh Tinker (1974), obeyed orders and commands ‘like soldiers and convicts’.  The process of moulding the mind of the workers to suit the needs of the sugar estates has been succinctly described by David Olusoga in his brilliant study of slavery, Black and British – A Forgotten History (2016), under the term ‘seasoning’. This was ‘… a brutal period of punishments, beating, cultural deracination and instruction designed to break the spirit’.

The system of re-socialisation was to create a workforce which responded in a collective manner for twenty-four hours; otherwise, especially during the harvest season, when the sugar mills ran for 24 hours so as to maximize the extraction of sugar. Without a gang of disciplined workers responding ‘like soldiers and convicts’, the sugar estates collapsed.  Examples included Saint Dominique (Haiti) and Jamaica, among others, when slaves and emancipated slaves refused to cooperate.

The Indian indentured labourers had experienced similarly brutal process discipline after landing in Mauritius for distribution like merchandises to their owners after the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833.  Working on sugar plantation was hard work, with which the Chinese immigrants could not cope.  Indian labourers also went through the cruel method of ‘seasoning’, as did the slaves.

Not responding to orders could be exposed to brutal punishment. Royal Commissions had reported that 50 Indians had died of beating between 1867 and 1872. Adolphe de Plevitz, the champion for the ‘Old Immigrants’, was among the few who had the courage to stand up against the oligarchs of sugar estates. Protectors of immigrants and magistrates identified with the sugar estate owners so as to protect their own enormous privileges of their offices.

One wonders whether Mauritius could have evolved into a more progressive, humane and welcoming society had it started its existence not as a plantation colony! In my view, slavery and indentured labour, constrained within a system of compliance and non-resistance, has left an impoverishing cultural legacy. Having inherited a socialisation of obedience and accommodation, there has been no genuine challenge to the establishment or status quo, thereby breaking away from the inherited negative attitudes of dependency and reliance.

As a conclusion, it is possible that my own background, beginning the early phase of my life in a socially deprived context, could have influenced my radically different way of seeing the Mauritian society from that of others. My perspective, I hope, will also motivate the younger generation to rethink their methodology of looking at Mauritian society. It should not be viewed as given or seen from the naked eyes but from the standpoint of a more critical paradigm of the colonially inherited negative culture derived from the sugar plantation economy. The eyes and mind have to be trained to observe what others cannot see far beyond the complex surface of what is obvious and tangible.

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