Overview- Aapravasi Ghat
The Aapravasi Ghat is a World Heritage Site located on the Bay of Trou Fanfaron in Port Louis. This historical site served as an immigration depot by the colonial British government in 1849. It has played a pivotal role in the Mauritian history, as it is from this very instance that the Mauritian population became more diverse than ever.
Previously known as ‘Coolie Ghat’, the name Aapravasi Ghat is a Hindi translation of ‘Immigration Depot’, and the term has been in use since 1987 in Mauritius. The ‘ghat’ literally means ‘interface’, factually reflects its geographical position between land and sea, and symbolically marks the transition between the old and the new life for the arriving indentured immigrants.
Indentureship was a worldwide phenomenon which started in the 19th century. It should be noted that the Slavery Abolition Bill was passed in 1833 under King William IV throughout the British Empire, and as a consequence slavery was abolished on the 1st February in 1835 in Mauritius. Though it took years to implement the law as the sugar plantations was flourishing at that time. It was at this point that indentured immigration was considered.
Indentured immigration initiated by the British in Mauritius as a pilot test was called the Great Experiment. This was to demonstrate to the world that superiority lays on ‘free labour’ over slave labour. The Indentureship involved a mass migration of workers from India, China, Africa and South East Asia to work in colonies. Mauritius was the first country which had successfully recoursed indentured labour. Other British, French and Dutch colonies then adopted the system after its success in Mauritius.
Due this experiment there was consequently a massive worldwide migration of more than two million indentured labourers, of which Mauritius received almost half a million. Other colonies such as Guyana, South Africa, Trinidad, Cuba, Peru and Reunion Island proceeded with indentureship.
Indentureship System (Contract labours) in Mauritius
As stated by Dr Marina Carter (a historian), “the term indenture refers to a written contract entered into by labourers. An indentured migrant was an individual who had not paid his or her own passage, but had entered into an agreement to receive assisted transportation to a colony in return for a fixed period of labour.’’ Indenture has been associated with involuntary forms of migration because the terms of the contract did not allow signatories to benefit from subsequent rises in the value of their labour, and provided for penal sanctions in the event of non-compliance. This effectively meant that unauthorised absence from labour could be punished with terms of imprisonment. Despite these onerous conditions many indentured labourers prospered, purchased land and settled in the sugar colonies or returned to India.
For many centuries slave labour had been the backbone of plantation colonies such as the Caribbean, Reunion Island and Mauritius. The sugar plantations were very much dependant on the success and profitability of cheap, plentiful and coercible labour. It was only in the 19th century that the Mauritian economy was centered on sugar production. With the abolition of taxes on Mauritian sugar in the British market in 1825, the Mauritian sugar industry experienced an upsurge.
However, the lack of slave labour which the British had installed on the tropical plantations (such as sugar, coffee, bananas, or tea) quickly made itself felt, and an international migration of free labourers replaced the forceful importation of slaves. In the first decades of the 19th century, planters in Mauritius anticipated the upcoming insufficiency of labour. From the late 1820s till early 1830s, colonists worked to devise means of importing a new workforce. Mauritius had an advantage over its West Indian competitors as it was close to several potential sources of labour.
This was when the island was given the opportunity to undergo the Great Experiment in the use of free labour. Following this, the recruitment of labour from China was proposed as early as 1826. In 1829, agricultural workers were recruited from Penang and Singapore. However, they were not able to adapt to the working conditions and they were repatriated shortly afterwards.
As India was already a British Colony, Indian convicts were the natural choice to be imported as labour. Between 1815 and the mid 1820s, Governor Farquhar brought Indian convicts from Bengal and Bombay. to work in Mauritius. In 1815, 835 convicts were introduced. They lived in the ‘Convicts Barracks’ at Grand River North West, Trou Fanfaron and in camps in rural districts. Some were sent to work on sugar plantations. Many were skilled and worked as tailors, cooks, cotton spinners and indigo manufacturers. Others were literate and employed as clerks. Some helped to launch, very successfully, opium and silk production on the island. It should be noted that importation of convict labour stopped in 1838.
Indenture labours from Madagascar and East Africa
Due to the occasional suspension of indenture trade during the late 1830s, there was an urge to find alternatives to Indian labour from 1839 to 1842. It was when migration from India was prohibited, that Malagasy, Comorian, South East Asian and African workers were imported in Mauritius. In February 1840, the committee set up to administer recruitment and transportation of labour, requested the authority to introduce labourers from Madagascar and East Africa. It seemed that bringing labours to these regions proved to be advantageous since the voyage was relatively short and the cost of introducing Malagasies was cheaper.
Reintroducing Indian indentured immigration
In 1842 a new scheme notably the ‘Government-Controlled Immigration’ was introduced which consequently allowed the reintroduction of Indian migration. Despite the reinstitution of Indian indentured immigration, non-indian labourers continued to arrive. It should be noted that in the first half of 1843, about 9002 Indians, 582 Chinese and 110 Johannese arrived in Mauritius. It was in the same year that the Government encouraged Malagasy immigration but dissuaded immigration from Comoros.
The Chinese labourers were unprepared for the rigours of the plantation regime. They rapidly developed a reputation for resistance and they were unfavourably compared to Indian indentured labourers.
In a nutshell, statistics reveals that the number of non-Indian labourers gradually diminished during the 1840s. Between 1845 and 1848, there was a continual decline in the number of Malagasy and Comorian workers in Mauritius. Short recovery occurred during cane cutting seasons and an increase in wages but it remained a seasonal migration. The Indian contingent system brought 43, 346 men and women from 1844 to 1849. After the unsuccessful attempts at introducing non-Indian indentured labourers, planters relied solely on India for the supply of labour. Indians thus formed 95 % of the total number of indentured labourers brought in Mauritius. This clearly explains how modern Mauritius has obtained a majority of an Indo-Mauritian population.
Aapravasi Ghat-Structure and Significance
The buildings of Aapravasi Ghat are among the earliest explicit manifestations of what would become a global economic system. It represents not only the development of the modern system of contractual labour, but also the memories, traditions and values that these men, women and children carried with them when they left their countries of origin, to work in foreign lands. It also showcases how they subsequently bequeathed their millions of descendants for whom the site holds great symbolic meaning.
In April 1987, the Aapravasi Ghat was declared a national monument by Government of Mauritius. Nineteen years later, in 2006, the Aapravasi Ghat became the first indenture site in the world to be inscribed on UNESCO’s famous list of World Heritage Sites. Yet, it is important to consider that only the partial remains of three stone buildings from the entire complex have survived, that is only about 15% of the building still authentically exists today. Records of the building plan and photographs, as well as recent archaeological evidences, allow for the precise reconstruction of the complex.
From a site inspection it was observed that the building was constructed through the labour of the slaves and skilled non-European workers between 1730-1810 whereby the buildings were mostly made of stone and wood. This was marked as the French period.
As for the British period and Victorian era, the building was further constructed and expanded between 1849 and 1865 through the labour of slaves/ex-slaves/apprentices and ex-indentured labourers. You can observe structures made of materials such as teak wood and shingles, where the architecture style reflects the British colonial era. During 1866 to 1900, the building was further constructed by the use of stones. During this period, numerous stone buildings, which are used as shops and residential areas were erected and are still in existence today. Followed by the years 1901-1960 where a gradual shift in colonial architecture from the erection of traditional stone and wooden buildings to concrete buildings was observed.
At the present moment, while visiting the Aapravasi Ghat, you will get the chance learn more about the historical events through the Beekrumsing Ramlallah Interpretation Centre (BRIC). There are displays of artifacts such as pipes, phials and medicine bottles (from the hospital on the site), leftover gin and rum bottles (probably drank by British officers) and other remains found during archaeological excavations at the Aapravasi Ghat. You may also view a replica of the ship, similar to the one that the contracted workers had to endure.
The World Heritage Site-Aapravasi Ghat is composed of:
- Entrance Gateway
- Hospital Block consisting of: Gate Keeper’s Room; Stable, Cart House, Kitchen, Surgery and Ward Room, Staff Privies.
- Immigrants’ Sheds
- Immigrants’ Kitchen
- Sirdars’ Quarters
- Immigrants’ Privies
- Bathing Area
- Outer wall at wharf level
- Monday – Friday: 9.00 – 16.00 hrs
- Saturday: 9.00 – 12.00 hrs
- Closed on Sundays and Public Holidays