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Indentured Labourers: 187 Years Since Their Arrival On The Boat Atlas

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The indenture period in Mauritius officially began in 1834 in Mauritius (1834-1910). But according to research conducted, the first indentured labourers came to Mauritius as early as 1826. During this period, the English had abolished the slave treaty and there was a shortage of labour on the sugar cane plantations. Not satisfied with their conditions, these labourers were repatriated. A second attempt took place in the 1830s but it was also stopped by the government in 1839 because there was a lot of abuse.

The British Parliament’s decision to abolish slavery in its colonies in 1833 led to the setting up of a new system of recruitment called indenture. An indentured labourer was a free man or woman who signed a contract to work away from his/her homeland for an employer for a specified period of time, generally for five years. Labourers’ contracts specified their terms of employment and outlined their general standards of living, wage rate, working hours, type of work, rations, housing and medical care.

In Mauritius, even before the abolition of slavery on 1st February 1835, planters called for labourers as the sugar industry expanded rapidly. The British Colonial Government wanted to evaluate the viability of this new system and also sought to demonstrate the superiority of free over slave labour. The “Great Experiment” was launched in Mauritius which, as a test case, received the first indentured labourers. The Great Experiment officially started when the boat, Atlas arrived from India with 36 indentured labourers on board on 2nd November 1834.

During this period, 462,800 indentured workers landed in Mauritius. While 452,800 were Indians, the rest of the labourers were of different nationalities, namely 16,659 were Malagasy, Comorian, Chinese, or Continental African. There were also some Omanis and Yemenis as well as Indo-Reunionese.

Out of these labourers, 300,000 learned to love Mauritius and founded their families here while 15,000 made the round trip with India.

Between 1839 and 1842, the emigration of indentured labourers from India was suspended as a result of the abuse to which the earliest contract workers in Mauritius were subjected. Indentured immigration reached its peak  between the years of 1843 and 1865 to respond to the increasing needs of the sugar industry, thus making Mauritius the most productive sugar colony in the British Empire around 1845.

Indentured immigration declined as from 1870s and came to a formal end in 1910. The indentured labourere officially stopped in 1921 but workers continued to be recruited at the request of the planters. The Office of the Immigration Ombudsman was not closed until 1938.

(Source: Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site)

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