A necessary exile
The abolition of slavery in the West, 200 years ago, coincided with the beginning of the use of indentured labour from India in sugar plantations across the world. The story of this colonial labour diaspora is also one of remarkable human endeavour.
Photo: Mauritius National Archives
Genealogy service: These records now help Mauritians trace their lineage.
"The Indian is the soul of the estate nay! he's the soul of the sugar industry itself."
Arthur Martial (Mauritian author, 1899-1951)
THE first time I met him and we got chatting, his mop of curly hair and distinct features didn't give away his origin, until I heard him uttering his very common Tamil name, "Mootoosamy". Seeing the look of surprise on my face, he laughed. "Oh, I'm a cocktail," he shrugged, "mix of Tamil, maybe Créole, don't know what else. I'm fourth or fifth generation Indian."
With a hodgepodge of colourful beads, which he deftly turns into pretty necklaces or anklets slung over his arms and shoulder, Mootoosamy is content to follow the shores of Mauritius, talking to any new people he comes across. When I ask, he says he has never wondered about his ancestry, until I curiously probed him about his forefathers and place of origin. He good-naturedly offered to become my impromptu guide and a good guide he was, for he pointed me to several interesting museums that I otherwise might have missed.
2007 marks the bicentenary of slavery's abolition. The end of slavery came at quite the wrong moment at a time when Britain was consolidating her empire worldwide (and when the tenet of all men being equal in the eyes of God was forgotten). The liberated black refused to do field work; while the colonial, quite unused to doing it himself, was left with none to toil his burgeoning sugar plantations. Contrary to the situation in Mauritius, India was in the throes of famine and had too many people with little or no work to do; thereupon, the problem was solved rather quickly.
The word "coolie" was just a convenient epithet however. Even if a fitting stand-in for slaves, they went through as much drudgery as the Africans before them. `Coolies' were the pillars on which the modern economies of several countries have been built colonies in the Caribbean Islands, Sri Lanka and Malaysia among others. They had come to earn an honest living, but as indentured labour were forced to put up with corporal punishment, wage arrears, the double cut system (two days' wages were cut for one day missed), and involuntary tie-ups with their masters. Even as anti-slavery activists argued hard against the use of `coolies,' economy of labour forced landowners to disagree harder.
Method of migration
From 1829 through 1850, steadily trickling in right until 1929 when the system was finally ended, roughly 5,00,000 impecunious people from India's exhausted hinterland (the bulk from the States of Tamil-Telugu Madras and Bihar) had migrated to Mauritius, four women to every 10 men. Agents hunted out the most battered villages, drew contracts that were usually not honoured, and sometimes knavishly enlisted fed-up villagers who unaware of what they were getting into were willing to give up their deeply held religious beliefs against crossing the vast ocean, the kaala paani.
The voyage was no smooth cruise. Setting sail from Calcutta, Bombay or Madras, often in deplorable conditions, shiploads arrived in Mauritius almost on a daily basis. The journey took anywhere between eight and 10 weeks and several didn't make it to their final destination. `Coolies' became the backbone of the country; their tedious work contributed so much to its development that the island's economy itself came to depend wholly upon them; their influx completely altered social fabric, at one point they virtually outnumbered their white masters, causing a major demographic disruption.
In the little village of Pamplemousses, amid billowing fields of sugarcane lies the 18th century sugar mill Beau Plan. But this is not just any factory; it has been converted into an interactive museum focussed on the economic mainstay of the island: sugarcane farming and sugar-making, the industry with which Indian emigration is inseparably entangled.
With old machinery polished to a shine and subtly woven in with other displays, right down to a little steam train used to transport sugar sacks, this was the apt place for envisioning a coolie's day, which was run like clockwork from sunup to sundown. Beating the test of time and rising defiantly to meet the sunny blue sky, Beau Plan's chimney is a little worn, but still standing fortunately.
The chimneys in colonial plantations were a kind of social glue, serving to keep the toilers together. Much like the temple or a banyan tree is the gathering place in any little village, the chimneys were where the coolies would assemble when not working, perhaps to keep in touch with themselves and reality.
At Moka, the Indian Folk Museum of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute is dedicated to keeping alive immigrants' history. Some 2,00,000 photographs and half a million coolie records including birth, death and marriage registers, dating from 1842 to 1920 are part of its impressive archives, easily making it the largest on indentured labour anywhere in the world. Also displayed are implements used by coolies, temple relics, and antique jewellery once worn by early women arrivals.
On entering the `coolie ghat', officials logged every émigré's name with place of origin and date of arrival in a register. Each person was photographed, housed in sheds where they were given food and medical attention, before being individually selected by plantation owners. These records have now come in handy for the museum's genealogy service, which helps present-day Mauritians trace their lineage and ancestral villages.
Afterward, Mootoosamy and I bandied about the source of his name's spelling. Apparently, on hearing such strange sounding names, the immigration officer wrote it the way he himself pronounced it. He pictured the scene and spoke of an endlessly long queue of coolies snaking down the pier, the scratch of a dip pen, the tired writer painfully pronouncing each syllable "`Mooo' pause `tooo' pause `saamy', Next!" That's what must have happened in all probability; he mused on discovering the story behind his existence and name.
Hidden away in a back street of Port Louis lies a relatively unknown but remarkable gallery, more so because of the tremendous effort that has gone into running it, often with little or no funds. The much-ignored Musée de la Photographie has a staggering collection of several thousand photographs and negatives taken over the last 160 years. The owners, Tristan and Marie Noelle Breville, are evidently very keen on preserving the island's history. For over 40 years, they have passionately put their money and effort into this museum. Of late, Tristan is animated about a new photo he has discovered (of the village where the ancestors of the country's first Prime Minister lived.) He is indefatigable; "I'll raise money to buy it. Sure!"
"The most striking aspect I can see on their faces is the determination to face a new, unknown world, and the look of courage," he says, referring to his collection of `coolie' photographs. "In their eyes, I can read that they were ready to accept even the worst conditions."
Obumbrated memories of the `coolie' system need to be lightened up, however. Says scholar Dr. Marina Carter, author of several acclaimed books on Indian emigration, "It is important for Indians and the descendants of Indian labourers to not make the mistake of freezing the life histories of indentured migrants into perpetual victimhood, but to recognise that the colonial labour diaspora is also a story of remarkable human endeavour thousands of individuals fleeing famine, social upheaval and economic turmoil transformed their situation into stories of successful adaptation, community development and upward mobility."
As a metaphorical expression, `coolitude' serves this rationale brilliantly. Coined by Mauritian poet Khal Torabully, coolitude is the volte face of what was merely a pejorative term into an intricate but egalitarian neologism which he illustrates so: "It recaptures the juridical status and displacement/travel of the coolie, to describe a process of the meeting of cultures, languages, imaginaries, in view of underlining a process whereby the mosaic of India (Indies) with its cultural diversity is engaged with otherness/alterity."
The records and pictures in these museums are, in their own way, a celebration of the coolie's personal history in the perspective of necessary exile. Some stirring, most startling, a jumble of hope and despair reflected in wise, seen-everything eyes, the photos remain embedded in the mind.
Accordingly this year, which was a milestone for humanity in so many ways 200 years ago, we will not only remember them with reverence for the trials they went through, but also remember their valiant spirit and profound determination to make the most out of unambiguously rough circumstances.
I met a young girl named Meenakshi on the bus from Grand Baie to Port Louis. Returning home after prayers at the local Murugan temple, she was dressed in a half-sari and carrying a votive basket; she was also a linguist, bright and well read. In all ways, Meenakshi was traditional Indian, except for her accent and the fact that she's never been to India. Yet, she is the prolific dream of a noble `coolie' forefather.
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