Mauritius: Sugar, indentured labour and their consequences (1835-1910)

Updated September 2009.

When the British arrived in 1810 Mauritian society was hierarchically structured in a steep pyramid of power and wealth (Houbert 1981, 78). At the bottom was a vast population of Black slaves, Madagascans, Mozambicans and others imported from around the Indian Ocean basin (Houbert 1981, 78; Simmons 1982, 24). In the middle was a small class of artisans of heterogeneous decent and at the top was a tiny White elite of French decent comprised of landowners, merchants, officials and professionals (Houbert 1981, 78; Ballhatchet 1995, 990). Indian indentured labourers who arrived to work on the plantations after the abolition of slavery found themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy (Houbert 1981, 78). The British for their part depended on the cooperation of the landowning Franco-Mauritians for the effective governance of the island, supplying them security and markets for their goods in exchange (Houbert 1992, 468; Ballhatchet 1995, 990). However, the heavy handedness of a series of governors with military backgrounds, the authoritarian governing structure, the enfranchisement of Free Blacks in 1830 followed by the emancipation of slaves and attempts to anglicise the island all provoked resentment from the Franco-Mauritians (Toussaint 1971, 67).

The expansion of sugar production as the economic mainstay of the colonial economy, the abolition of the slave trade and the high mortalities amongst slaves (which easily surpassed their birth rates) led to an acute shortage of labour on the island, so that even before slavery had been abolished the planters were casting about for alternative sources of labour (Allen 1999, 15). In 1834 the first batch of indentured labourers arrived in the colony, some 75 in all (Allen 1999, 16). The Act for the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire was passed into law in 1833 and became effective in Mauritius on 1 February 1835 (Nwulia 1978, 89). The Act created an "apprenticeship system" that was effective from the date of abolition until the system was cut short in 1839, for fear of an uprising of the apprentices (Nwulia 1978, 89). £2 million was set aside for the compensation of Mauritian masters for the loss of their slaves, a healthy capital injection that was invested in the development of sugar production (Toussaint 1971, 65).

Moses Nwulia (1978, 89) observed: "The apprenticeship system converted chattel slaves into serfs". All apprentices were required to work for their masters for 45 hours a week in exchange for subsistence provisions or, in certain cases, the right to cultivate small plots of land to provide for their subsistance (Nwulia 1978, 89) They were bound to their masters for the period of service and vagabonds, deserters or runaways were subject to heavy penalties that included extra hours of labour, whippings or jail terms (Nwulia 1978, 90). Transgressions of the law by masters were punished by light fines and/or the compulsory payment of wages to the apprentice concerned (Nwulia 1978, 91, 92). Since labour was in short supply and sugar cultivation labour intensive the tendency was for plantation owners to attempt to extract as much labour as possible by any means, whether legal or illegal (Nwulia 1978, 92). Not surprisingly then, when the apprenticeship system was curtailed the former apprentices/slaves withdrew themselves and their labour en mass from the sugar plantations and settled elsewhere, in the towns as labourers and dockworkers, on the coasts as fishermen or on land obtained by lease or squatting as peasant farmers (Nwulia 1978, 99, 100; Kaplan 1967, 29; Houbert 1981, 81). The overwhelming bulk of the ex-apprentices were reduced to extreme poverty and malnutrition made them vulnerable to malaria and hookworm as well as cholera and smallpox epidemics, so that their populations declined steadily; between 1837 and 1846 alone their absolute numbers fell by 6.2% (Nwulia 1978, 100; Christopher 1992 59).

The withdrawal of the ex-apprentices created a labour crisis for the colony and the government resorted to the importation of indentured labourers from India in large numbers to save the sugar farmers from ruin, the economy from collapse and the government from penury. It collaborated with the governments of Jamaica and Trinidad to avoid competition by establishing a joint recruitment agency in Calcutta (Jayawardena 1968, 430; Kaplan 1967, 29). Initially the recruits were individual young males who were bound for a period of five years under terms that, apart from the payment of wages, differed little from those of the apprentices; isolated and atomised on the sugar estates and under the control of far reaching powers of estate managers and state functionaries, all underpinned by a system of heavy fines and ridged movement control, their lives were tightly controlled and regimented (Jayawardena 1968, 431; Nwulia 1978, 100). Wages were very poor, food rations so inadequate malnutrition was rife, medical care and sanitation were lacking and labourers worked 10 hours a day seven days a week (Simmons 1982, 37). Chandra Jayawardena (1968, 431) noted that: "Critics of the indenture system likened it to short-term slavery". On completion of their contract labourers could use their right of free passage back to India (this right was withdrawn in 1851 to discourage return), but the vast majority, lured by wage increases and bonuses, opted to remain, either as free labourers on the plantations or to work from outside in the rural villages (Jayawardena 1968, 431. 432; Hazareesingh 1966, 242). Former indentured labourers were under strong legal compulsion to continue working for the estates to avoid being arrested under vagrancy laws and their working conditions remained very poor (Nwulia 1978, 100).

The first consequence of the massive migration of indentured labourers was to facilitate the development of Mauritius as a one crop economy by the middle of the century as land under sugar cultivation was expanded and sugar output and revenue earned from it increased rapidly (Nwulia 1978, 100). The colonial government did everything it could, above and beyond ensuring the flow of cheap and docile labour, to facilitate the process by building port, road and rail infrastructure and modernising company law to enable limited liability companies, so that by the 1860s Mauritius was established as the leading sugar producer in the Empire (Sandbrook 2005, 554). The second consequence was a massive and rapid increase in the population of the colony; the population grew almost three-fold (286%) from 95 889 in 1837 to 370 588 in 1891 (Christopher 1992 59). Average annual population growth rates of over 7% were posted between 1837 and 1861, peaking at 7.7% in 1846-1851, before declining to under 0.3% in 1861-1901 as indentured labour importation tapered off (there was a brief spurt of 1.5% in 1871-1881. Christopher 1992, 59). The third consequence was a massive change in the social and cultural character of the population as the number of Indian grew rapidly. In 1837 12% of the population was Indian, but by 1871 they formed 68% of the population (Christopher 1992, 59). From a maximum in 1854 the numbers of indentured labourers arriving tapered off until 1865, where after they fell sharply until 1910 when indenture importation was abolished (Robertson 1930, 344; Christopher 1992, 58). Increasingly the Indian population was composed of native born Indo-Mauritians who formed 61% of all Indians in 1891 and by 1911 87% (Christopher 1992 59).

Not all of the Indian immigrants were indentured labourers, though the overwhelming majority were, and though there were small numbers of Muslims amongst them the overwhelming majority were Hindus (Jayawardena 1968, 436, 437; Ballhatchet 1995, 990). On occupation in 1810 the British had found a small but flourishing community of Indian traders in Mauritius, both Hindu and Muslim ( Undated; Hazareesingh 1966, 241). The shift of the economy to sugar production along with the decline in local production of other goods led to greater opportunities for the import and export trade and the small community rapidly expanded as "free traders" from India were attracted by the opportunities that opened up from 1835 onwards ( Undated; Hazareesingh 1966, 241, 242; Jayawardena 1968, 437).

Most of the traders that arrived were Guajaratis, a few were Hindus but most were Muslim (Jayawardena 1968, 437; Undated). They served to anchor the Indian communities in the colony. As free traders they were able to accumulate the wealth and independence that empowered them to preserve their languages, religious observances and cultural practices, and they acquired the social prestige that made them an alternative point of reference for indentured Indians (Jayawardena 1968, 437; Undated). They thus provided a counter to the atomising structures of the indenture system and the threat of cultural assimilation that it posed for indentured Indians and their descendents (Jayawardena 1968, 437; Undated). Assimilation was further arrested when the colonial government later mandated that a minimum quota of 40% women was to be observed and family migrations became predominant (Jayawardena 1968, 431; Houbert 1992, 469). Nevertheless, in the early stages especially, small but significant numbers of Indians did embrace Catholicism, primarily through intermarriage, and a certain blurring of the line between the "General Population" and the Indian population resulted, with some being wholly "creolised", while others maintained their Indian identity while affirming their Christian faith (Houbert 1992, 469; Christopher 1992, 58).

Already by the first population census of 1846, the distinction between "Europeans" (ie Franco-Mauritians) and "Free Blacks/Coloureds" was sufficiently blurred for the two to be enumerated together as the "General Population" and by the census of 1861 even the term "ex-apprentices" had lost its meaning and they too were included with the General Population (Christopher 1992, 58). The category thus embraced a variegated population that included a small number of very wealthy farmers, mainly but not only, White, a larger educated and mainly light skinned group of mixed ancestry who were middle class professionals, businessmen and (as the British state apparatus expanded) state officials (les gens de couleur) and a very large number of working class dark skinned descendents of the slaves emancipated in 1835, most mired in extreme poverty (Afro-Creoles (Sandbrook 2005, 555, 571; Ballhatchet 1995, 990).

Despite class and race distinctions they were united by a common Catholic faith, an adherence to French culture and to the French language or its creole derivative - Kreol (Hazareesingh, 1975; Ballhatchet 1995, 990). In this the activities of revival in the Catholic Church in the second half of the century played an important role through the establishment of parochial schools for the elite and through the evangelisation of the manumitted slaves (Kelly 1947, 472-474). The formal equality before the law established by the British in the 1830s and its extension by British judges to even indentured labourers the one hand, and the unswerving francophila of the elite on the other, bred mistrust and conflict between the partners in the ruling alliance over time (Sandbrook 2005, 554). The British colonial authorities cast about for new allies to counter the influence of the large land owners and attempted to exploit resentment among the Creole middle classes towards them by advancing Creoles in the expanding state bureaucracy, in the hopes of winning their loyalty (Ballhatchet 1995, 990-992; Sandbrook 2005, 554).

A number of factors came into play in the late 19th century that enabled some descendents of indentured labourers to acquire small (and in a few cases significant) amounts of land for themselves. Some Indians were able to establish themselves as labour brokers/contractors for the estates as the estates shifted from permanent employment of large numbers of workers to more cost effective seasonal employment of contract workers, so that these middlemen were able to accumulate the capital for the purchase of land (Houbert 1981, 78; Simmonds 1982, 42). During periods of financial stress large land owners preferred to sell off land to maintain the more lucrative milling aspects of their operations (on condition that sugar would be grown for their mills), while intensive farming by small landowners using family labour allowed production to be maintained during periods of low prices when large scale farmers could not (Houbert 1981, 79; Sandbrook 2005, 571). Finally, low level managers of large estates were often rewarded with small amounts of marginal land by estate owners (Houbert 1981, 79). The result of all of this was that a class of Indian small farmers began to emerge in the 1870s and grew during the course of the years so that by 1909 30% of the cane land was owned by Indians; some in time became large scale, very wealthy, land owners (Robertson 1930, 345; Ballhatchet 1995, 990; Houbert 1981, 79).

After 1863, when the extraction of sugar from beet was realised, the cane industry had to compete with new producers on the world market, but the large scale planters did not modernise and the small scale farmers lacked the capital to do so (Toussaint 1971, 74, 75, 77). The result was that expansion in sugar production, and therefore in the economy, could not keep pace with the rising population in the second half of the century, resulting in ever increasing poverty (Toussaint 1971, 80). The one sided development of the economy that necessitated continual imports of food combined with the swelling population created episodic food shortages that impacted most heavily on the poor and malnutrition added to their susceptibility to disease (Toussaint 1971, 69, 78). The indentured labourers brought with them not only their labour, but also cholera and malaria, which added to the misery of the growing numbers of poor and very poor people; there were about 50 000 deaths from malaria alone between 1866 and 1868 (Toussaint 1971, 69, 75).

In the early 1880s leaders in the upper and middle Creole classes, supported by the popular press, launched a campaign for a greater degree of sway in decision making in governance of the colony, culminating in a petition to the British Colonial Office in October 1882 for reform of the composition of the Governing Council from an equal number of officials and members nominated by the governor to one comprised of an equal number of colonial officials, members nominated by the governor and elected members (Will 1966, 694, 695, 699). The Lieutenant Governor pointed out the dilemma that these demands posed for the colonial government (Will 1966, 700):

It must shut out the Indian and the descendant of the old slave population, and so place the power in the hands of an oligarchy of the upper classes... or it must place power in the hands of an ignorant mass of people not fitted to exercise it.

This position was endorsed by the Colonial Office, despite the fact that it was willing to concede (though unwillingly) just such an oligarchic rule in anglophilic Jamaica (Will 1966, 700). The new governor, Sir Pope Hennessy, however, forced a compromise whereby the Governing Council was to be comprised in such a way that the colonists could (and should) have a representation that would give a majority to local interests, but one revocable at the governor's pleasure (Will 1966, 702; de Smith 1968, 604). Distrustful of the Creoles, the Colonial Office issued instructions to the Governor to widen the literacy and property qualifications for the franchise so as to maximise the number of "loyal Indians" that were eligible to vote (Will 1966, 706). This was to no effect, for in the elections that followed later in 1885 only just over 4000 men (perhaps 2% of adult males) were registered as voters (Will 1966, 706). Indian voters numbered 295, a mere 7.3% of the electorate (Will 1966, 706).

Chinese from Canton settled in Mauritius in 1826 and began to arrive in significant numbers after 1847, with a particular large influx of Hakka immigrants after 1860 (Pineo 1999, 251, 252). By the census of 1901 they were present in sufficient numbers to be enumerated separately from the General Population, at which point they formed 0.9% of the whole (Christopher 1992 59). Prior to the end of slavery there was little scope for the development of retail trade in Mauritius since the estates supplied the needs of the overwhelming bulk of the population, but after emancipation retail trading presented new opportunities that Chinese traders were able to seize; by the end of the century over 80% of Chinese people derived their income from trading (Pineo 1999, 251). Missionary work and intermarriage with Creoles led to the conversion of some of the members of the community to Catholicism, though the tendency was to practice it alongside traditional religions such as Buddhism (Moore 1984, 41; Pineo 1999, 252; Simmons 1982, 7). Political conflict between earlier Chinese settlers and the Hakka new comers erupted in into a bloody five year long feud in 1903 until a court adjudicated settlement was reached (Pineo 1999, 254). The pattern was for traders who had made their fortune to return to China, to be replaced by friends or relatives who then took over the businesses (Simmons 1982, 7).

In 1903 most of what was to become the Seychelles was detached from Mauritius and became a separate Crown Colony (Houbert 1992, 468, 469).


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