Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million Indian indentured labourers arrived at Aapravasi Ghat, Mauritius, to work in sugar plantations. The author relives their tragic past.
They came by the sea, on long voyages, clutching bundles of their hopes and belongings. Sons of another soil, they travelled for months on rough seas to toil on a strange land, to raise crops and make it rich.
In 1834, the British Government selected the island of Mauritius for their “great experiment” to use “free” labour to replace slaves. Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million Indian indentured labourers arrived at Aapravasi Ghat to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius, or to be transferred to Reunion Island, Australia, Southern and Eastern Africa, and the Caribbean. It was one of the greatest migrations in history, later adopted by other colonial powers, resulting in a massive migration of two million people around the world.
Today, Aapravasi Ghat is a tourist attraction in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. In the midst of a fast paced city stands this silent spectator. A guided tour around the site captures the emotional and historical essence of the period. Juxtaposed with busy traffic and concrete buildings all around, Aapravasi Ghat is a sad reminder of poverty, exploitation, and quiet suffering.
In Hindi, Aapravasi means “immigrant”, while ghat literally means “interface” — factually reflecting the structure’s position between the land and sea, and symbolically marking a transition between the old life and the new for the arriving indentured immigrants. The guide shows me the 16 steps, which unfold the scenes of men, women, and children climbing the symbolic steps of Aapravasi Ghat to enter a brave new world.
It seems, each step of the stairs which they climbed from the landing pier to the depot brought them nearer to the Mauritian colonial reality; an encounter which not only profoundly shaped their destiny, but indelibly marked the social, political, and economic fabric of Mauritius as well. They were mostly bankrupt labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, that were in a turmoil after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Smaller numbers of migrants came from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. The Indian workers were contracted to work for a five-year period against a monthly income of five rupees, and they were to be repatriated to India at the end of their indenture .
Housed in the sheds, they slept on the floor covered with bitumen/tar (for sanitary and maintenance convenience). Six large sheds at the peak of immigration were used to house 600-1000 immigrants a day. At these sheds, they stayed for three days after arrival before being distributed to the respective local sugar estates or sent to other colonies. They had a kitchen to meet their daily needs, of which only the foundations remain, and toilets (located on a separate service quarter, together with the bathing area). A stone wall is all that remains now.
We go around the Sirdar’s quarters. Employed by planters as overseers, they also acted as intermediaries between the immigrants and the British officers at the depot. Often former indentured labourers themselves, they could communicate with the immigrants in their native language.
The hospital block is intact where the immigrants were vaccinated and examined. Early immigrants were under mandatory quarantine even if the vessel presented a clean bill of health.
In the courtyard, there are many statues. Those of the immigrant families arriving, bathing, cooking, resting, lying down, talking among themselves etc.
I go around the museum and come across more statues. In the life-size photographs of early immigrants, I find a tinge of sadness in their eyes. There are some sketches and paintings of their daily chores. Families of immigrants, with their women dressed up in all finery and men in the traditional Indian garb look at me gravely.
Immigrants worked mostly in sugar estates or in the construction of public infrastructures. Terms of engagement were not always adhered to: wages were not paid regularly, contracts were extended as a result of various penalties, and above all, repatriation was badly organised. Those who were no longer subject to indenture contracts set up in business as small traders or worked on their own land. In 1899, despite opposition from the British government, a law was passed allowing their children, born on the island, to acquire French nationality.
When the immigration came to an end in total, two thirds of the indentured labourers settled in Mauritius on a permanent basis and today, they represent the ancestors of almost 80 per cent of the Mauritian population. No other indentured migration has so definitely shaped the future of a nation as the movement of Indian workers to Mauritius.
I am told that a visit to Aapravasi Ghat by the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1970 sparked its significance as a World Heritage Site. It was at this Aapravasi Ghat, these brave immigrants first congregated as a small community, cooked, ate, sang and prayed as one and forged life-long friendships that continued as special relationships between immigrant families over several generations.