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Indian arrival in Mauritius through rare documents

Thursday March 17, 2011 10:41:00 AM, Shubha Singh, IANS

New Delhi: Mauritians have the opportunity to view rare documents and photographs on the indenture system at an exhibition put up by the National Archives of India in Port Louis. The documents trace the arrival of Indians in Mauritius, who comprise 70 percent of the country's population.

Among the displays is an application dated June 1836 from the Mauritius government to the government of Bengal for "introduction of Indian labourers in Mauritius". Another early document is an agreement between the Dutch and the East India Company regarding the transfer of prisoners of war from Mauritius to Bengal in 1794.

The National Archives of India, which celebrated its 120th foundation day last week, set up the exhibition titled "The Journey of Girmitiya - Movement of indentured labour from India to Mauritius" on the occasion of the national day of Mauritius March 12.

It is the first exhibition the National Archives has mounted on the subject and it displays for the first time some rare pictures, documents, charts, sketches and maps of historical value.

The exhibits are drawn from public records, private papers of eminent personalities, newspapers and other publications.

Indenture forms an intrinsic part of the history of Mauritius as thousands of Indians were taken to the Indian Ocean island nation under an indenture contract to work on the sugarcane plantations during the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries.

Present-day Mauritians of Indian origin are descendents of those early migrants.

The exhibition is in four sections - 'From Mother to a Land of Hope', 'Saga of Struggle', 'Back to Roots' and 'Partners in Progress' - setting out the journey, the time of struggle in the plantations, building a new life and retaining cultural traditions and finally, India and Mauritius as partners.

The abolition of slavery forced the plantation owners to look for different sources for agricultural workers and India became one of the main sources of indentured workers.

The indenture period came to be known as 'girmit' by the Indian workers; the word was a distortion of the term 'agreement' of the indenture agreement or contract that was signed (usually with a thumb print) by the worker, and 'girmitiya' became the common term for the indentured workers.

Life on the plantations was difficult but it was the hard work of the Indian immigrants that built up the economy of Mauritius.

Reports of the ill-treatment of workers in the colonies aroused great anger in India. Indian publications wrote against the indenture system and eminent Indians, including Mahatma Gandhi, campaigned against it.

A photograph of the Kidderpore dockyard shows the boarding point from where the indentured workers boarded the ships that took them to the colonies.

A new Indenture Memorial now stands at the Kidderpore dock to commemorate the thousands of Indian emigrants.

Among the exhibits, a document of particular interest is a letter addressed to the secretary to the government of India detailing the poor conditions faced by Indian workers and their return to Madras (Chennai) in December 1844.

Another statement details the number of suicides that took place in each district of the colony of Mauritius in 1876 while another panel carries a statement regarding the complaints made by Indian immigrants against their employers in 1877.

Another interesting exhibit is the document that refers to the subscription raised in Mauritius by Indian workers for 'the sufferers of the Mutiny in India in 1858'.

In the partners in progress section is a document listing the instructions given to the Indian high commissioner to Mauritius in 1948 on his role in building a strong relationship with Mauritius.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, the exhibits will be presented to the Mauritius government.

(Shubha Singh can be contacted at





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