SATYENDRA PEERTHUM, Historian, Lecturer, & Writer
& DR.SATTEEANUND PEERTHUM,
Senior Historian, Ex-Minister & Ex-Ambassador
On 2nd November 2020, as we will commemorate the 186th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured labourers in Mauritius, we must remember their resistance against an inhumane system and their struggle for their rights as labourers. The de Plevitz Petition is a major example of this noble fight to preserve their human dignity. One of the most important historic documents in Mauritius from the Age of Indenture, between 1826 and 1910, is the famous de Plevitz Petition.
It was drafted and signed during the first half of 1871 by Adolphe de Plevitz and thousands of Indian immigrants who were determined to be free by securing their individual rights. In order to understand its significance, it is crucial to understand the historic context and period during which it was drafted and submitted to Governor Sir Hamilton Gordon by de Plevitz almost one and a half centuries ago.
The Mass Arrest & Resistance of the Indian Immigrants
Between January 1861 and December 1871, around 206,304 immigrants were arrested, some repeatedly, for vagrancy, illegal absence, and desertion with most spending 1 to 3 months in prison. In addition, they were sentenced to hard labour and others spending almost a year or more behind bars as repeat offenders and for petty crimes. During this period, tens of thousands were imprisoned at the Vagrant Depot and in the island’s other small depots as vagrants and deserters.
During the same period, the planters, employers, and estate managers filed an estimated 80,380 complaints against their indentured workers for various so-called offenses such as desertion, illegal absence, insolence, refusal to work, feigning illness, and other acts of resistance. For their part, between 1861 and 1871, the indentured and ex-indentured workers counter-attacked by filing 42,660 complaints against their employers for non-payment of wages, mistreatment, and for not fulfilling the conditions of their contract like the provision of food, clothing, and proper shelter.
Eventually, several years of extreme oppression of the Indian immigrants led, between January and June 1871, to the signing of a historic petition by 9401 Indian Immigrants, mostly Old Immigrants with some New Immigrants and even some Indian merchants and traders and Indo-Mauritians. This famous petition was drafted by Adolphe de Plevitz, the manager of Nouvelle Découverte Estate of French and German origins, and a vocal defender of the indentured workers.
The Old Indian Immigrants who signed the Petition
Around 65% or 6110 signatories were Old Indian Immigrants who had reached Mauritian shores between 1826 and 1852. In other words, the majority of these Old Indian immigrants had been living for 45 to 19 years and were still being harassed by the colonial police and administrators and being treated as aliens or the other and not as residents. Furthermore, over 35% among the petitioners knew how to sign their names in their native Indian languages, thus many among them knew to read and write to a certain extent.
The petition contains several thousand immigrant names and numbers which make it possible to track their date of arrival, bio-data and work history. An estimated 1,911 immigrants who signed or placed their X mark on this historic document are also among the selected 16,849 Indian immigrants who arrived in Mauritius between 1826 and 1852. This figure represents more than 20.3%, or more than one fifth, of all the petitioners and around 11.3%, or more than one tenth, of all the aforementioned selected immigrants.
According to the PE and PF series, PB series, and the MGI Indian Immigration Archives Immigrants Database, the majority of the 1,911 Old Immigrants who affixed their names on the de Plevitz Petition lived and worked for 20 to 40 years in Mauritius. They signed their names therefore, they were partially literate.
Among the above-mentioned 1,911 Indian Old Immigrants, there were skilled and semi-skilled-artisans, servants, domestics, coachmen, head of workshops, sirdars, head men, head domestics, head servants, job contractors, labour overseers, shopkeepers, hawkers, peddlers, merchants, traders, small business owners, land proprietors, métayers, cultivators, and gardeners. Therefore, many among them had moved off the sugar estates for many years, they were no longer dependent on estate labour, and had achieved some measure of social and economic mobility like Chocalingum and Roopram. Definitely, they were some of the elite of the Indian immigrant community in Mauritius.
The Case-Study of Immigrant Chocalingum
However, before it should be mentioned briefly that one of the major objectives for the enactment of the draconian Ordinance No.31 of 1867 was to control and force some of the Indian Old Immigrants who had left estate labour back onto the plantations as contract workers for the benefit of the planters and their previous employers. In the long run, this much loathed and infamous law had very limited success, as most of these Old Indian Immigrants never returned to the sugar estates and to estate labour because they had already moved beyond indenture.
Immigrant Chocalingum arrived in Mauritius in 1835 from Madras at the age of 15. He was a labourer from the Madurai district located in present-day Tamil Nadu. Chocalingum worked as a cane cutter on Forbach Sugar Estate for the Staub family. In 1840, he left Forbach and went to labour on different plantations in Rivière du Rempart, Pamplemousses, and Flacq.
By 1858, at the age of 35, he was a sirdar on Grande Retraite Sugar Estate and five years later, he became a job contractor for Constance Sugar Estate in central Flacq. In 1865, he had to obtain a new Old Immigrant ticket and was also photographed after being arrested as a vagrant and imprisoned at the Vagrant Depot because he did not have his identification papers on his person.
However, in 1866, 1868, and 1870, Chocalingum was arrested as a vagrant on three additional occasions despite the fact that he had his identification papers. In May 1871, he travelled from Constance to Nouvelle Découverte, where he signed the petition in the Tamil script, as he knew to read and write. It was as a clear sign of his protest against the treatment that he and his fellow Indian immigrants endured at the hands of the colonial police and administrators.
The Case-Study of Immigrant Roopram
Immigrant Roopram reached Port Louis in 1843 at the age of 35 from Calcutta. He was a labourer from Bhagalpur district in eastern Bihar. He went to work as a cane cutter on Beau Plan Sugar Estate in Pamplemousses district. In 1847, after serving a three-year contract, he went to work on Trianon Sugar Estate in Plaines Wilhems District. By 1865, Roopram was labour overseer on Bagatelle Sugar Estate. In 1868, 1869, and 1870, he was arrested on three occasions as a deserter because he did not have his Old Immigrant ticket on his person and was incarcerated at the Port Louis Prisons.
In June 1871, like thousands of other Old Indian Immigrants and like Chocalingum, Roopram travelled from Bagatelle to Nouvelle Découverte and went to sign de Plevitz’s petition in the Hindi script, since he knew to read and write. It was done as a sign of individual resistance and protest against his repeated arrests and imprisonment and being treated like a common criminal.
“The unbridled ‘harassement’” of the Indian Immigrants
There are hundreds of Old Immigrants, just like Chocalingum and Roopram, who, by the early 1870s, had lived and worked in the colony for almost 30 to 40 years. They had adopted this island as their new home and had achieved some measure of social and economic mobility, but on several occasions, they were harassed, arrested and imprisoned and treated like criminals or as vagrants and deserters because they did not have their papers.
This type of treatment towards the Indian immigrants is what the Royal Commissioners Frere and Williamson, in their report of 1875, called “the unbridled ‘harassement’ of the Indian Immigrants”. They unequivocally condemned these acts of injustice by the colonial police and administrators towards that particular segment of the colonial population.
It was the de Plevitz Petition, its 9401 signatures, the mass arrests, and complaints of the tens of thousands of Indian immigrants, during the 1860s and early 1870s, which eventually led to the “appointment of a Royal Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Immigrants in Mauritius”. Therefore, on each 2nd November, these are the events and achievements of our immigrant ancestors that we need to remember and commemorate at the Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site.
* Research for this article was undertaken at the MGI Indian Immigration Archives, the Mauritius National Archives, and the National Library of Mauritius in 2019.