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Mauritius’ Aapravasi Ghat : Remembering the pain of half a million Indian workers

External Affairs Minister at the Commemoration of the 180th Anniversary of the Arrival of Indentured Labourers in Mauritius
External Affairs Minister at the Commemoration of the 180th Anniversary of the Arrival of Indentured Labourers in Mauritius

Port Louis (Mauritius), Nov 2 A flight of 14 steps on which the first batch of 36 Indians climbed after they landed on Mauritian soil on Nov 2, 1834 to work as indentured labourers still stands. The steps, on which almost half a million Indians climbed over the next 80 years at the Aapravasi Ghat here, are a symbolic reminder of the British Empire’s ‘Great Experiment’ – using “free” labour to replace slaves to work in their sugar plantations.

The Aapravasi Ghat is an important symbol of Mauritian identity as the ancestors of more than 70 percent of today’s Mauritian population arrived on the island through this immigration depot.

In 1833, the British Parliament decided to abolish slavery in its colonies, leading to the setting up of a new system of recruitment – indentured labour – to get large numbers of workforce to work on their plantations. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as a formal agreement binding an apprentice to a master, or a contract by which a person agrees to work for a set period for a colonial land-owner.

The thriving sugar industry in Mauritius demanded great labour input – and the Indians arrived by the ship full from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh provinces and also from the Southern Province of colonial India. The Indians passed through the gate of Aapravasi Ghat, either to stay on in Mauritius to work as indentured labour in the sugar plantations or elsewhere, or to sail on to further destinations, such as Guyana, Suriname and Reunion Island.

As Mauritius marks the 180th anniversary Sunday of the first arrival of Indian indentured labour at Aapravasi Ghat on Nov 2, some of the structures of what was called the Coolie Depot or Immigration Depot still stand. These include the remains of the sheds for housing of the immigrants, kitchens, lavatories, a building used as a hospital block and the 14 steps.

Aapravasi Ghat is located on the bay of Trou Fanfaron, in the capital of Port-Louis. Immigrants arrived from India after a journey across the Indian Ocean that generally took eight to ten weeks. The Aapravasi Ghat was able to deal with around 600 immigrants at a time.

In 2006, India’s then Permanent Representative to UNESCO Bhaswati Mukherjee, who was also India’s Representative on the World Heritage Committee, argued for World Heritage Site status to Aapravasi Ghat on behalf of the African Group and Mauritius. India convinced the UNESCO that the Indian indentured labour could not be compared with modern immigration as we understand it and that the site “represented a significant historic memory to the world, similar to the Slave Route”.

Aapravasi Ghat was inscribed on the list of World Heritage Sites, “representing a great victory for India and Mauritius and also for international recognition of the indentured labour heritage”, Mukherjee writes in a recent article.

An international Conference is being held in Port Louis from Nov 2-4 to mark the 180th Anniversary of the first arrival of Indian indentured labour in Mauritius at Aapravasi Ghat aboard the Atlas. It is being chaired by Mauritius Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam and is attended by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

The conference complements the Slave Route Project which also relates to the movement of a mass of people across continents.

“Aapravasi Ghat represents, in the most sublime way, the triumph of the human spirit in the face of all odds. It stands as a monument to the memory of these valiant men and women. Their immense courage, will and perseverance have shaped the Mauritius of today,” Mukherjee said in an article on the Ministry of External Affairs website.

The conference will pay homage to these memories, of the pain and suffering endured by more than 462,000 men, women and children, mainly from India but also from many other countries in different parts of the Indian Ocean world.

Mauritius is the only country in the world that has two UNESCO sites, one dedicated to resistance to slavery, Le Morne, and the other to indentured labour, the Aapravasi Ghat.

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