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The History And The Truth Behind The Abolition Of Slavery In Mauritius

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On this Tuesday 1st February 2022, we are commemorating the 187th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery. On this occasion, Le Matinal Media team had the privilege of having an exclusive interview with Dr. Vijaya Teelock, who is an historian and expert in the history of slavery in Mauritius.

Questions:

The Abolition of Slavery in Mauritius is commemorated on 1st February. What has really happened in Mauritius on 1st February 1835?

The Abolition of Slavery had started by an Act of Parliament passed by the British Government in 1833, which was supposed to be implemented on 1st February 1835. Despite the fact that the Legislative of the Abolition of Slavery came into force, the slaves’ owners in Mauritius and in other British colonies had asked that the slaves continued to stay on their properties. Thus, the 1st of February did not really make any difference to the slaves as they were forced to stay with their owners.

The British Government and the owners of slaves then entered in an agreement concerning a new working system called the Aprentiship, which went on for four years (till 1839) until the Anti-Slavery Society intervened and campaigned saying that the Aprentiship is another form of slavery and that it had to be abolished.

So as a conclusion, the 1st February did not change anything for the slaves as they were still forced to stay with their owners and face the same conditions as before.

Then, why is the Abolition of Slavery celebrated on the 1st February since nothing had changed for the Slaves?

This date is important because it marked the Legal Abolition of Slavery, that is legally speaking, owners of the slaves did not have the right to punish the slaves as they used to. In theory, they could not pursue and punish them like they did with the ‘Esclaves Marrons’ but still did. So the legal Abolition of Slavery was a very important step which happened after a very long campaign made by the Anti-Slavery Society and the friends of the Blacks in France. Thus, the very first and most important step for the abolition of slavery which came years after was the legal Abolition of Slavery.

There is a lot of talk about compensation by the British Administration who feared violent unrest in Mauritius.  How was the compensation done and who were the beneficiaries?

The compensation has been discussed between the British Government and the owners of the slaves who were in Mauritius and in other colonies of the British Empire. We can say that it was a compromise given that the owners did not want to free their slaves. So the Government proposed a financial compensation to the owners from which they created a Compensation Committee who estimated the value of each slave that the owners possessed.

For example, there is a Register that still exists in Mauritius where all slaves are listed along with their estimated value. The British Government paid 40% of the estimated value of each slave to the owners. It was only after this compensation that the owners accepted the Abolition of Slavery. This compensation helped the owners to invest in their sugar cane properties in terms of equipment and many more.

At the time of the Abolition of Slavery, how many slaves were there in Ile de France and what were their domains?

At that time, 66000 slaves had been freed through the Abolition of Slavery, this included the slaves in Seychelles and Rodrigues which formed part of Mauritius. The compensation given for the Abolition of Slavery has been estimated to 1.2 Million Pound Sterling. Today, this estimation is worth many Billions of Mauritian Rupees and we should not that this represent only 40% of the worth of the slaves.

Coming to the different domains of the slaves, we have to differentiate between the French and English period. During the French period, which was between 1721 and 1810, there was a variation in terms of work force. Since it was a new colony, it was important to build new infrastructures like the Port, roads, public buildings for the government, the court of justice, military hospital. So, it was necessary to initiate the slaves to different jobs like mason, blacksmith and sail-loft for the boats for a proper development of the Island.

During the English period, the labour was mostly concentrated in the Sugar Cane fields, the plantations and cultivation. So, all the slaves, who had been working in different domains, were forced to learn and to work in the plantations.

Land stolen from slaves, is this a fact or an assumption? What was the importance of the Justice and Truth Commission (CJV) on this issue?

Many of the slaves have received slots of lands in the past, especially those who worked for the government of France or England. For example, the slaves, who worked at the Reduit Castle for the Governor, got plots of lands surrounding Reduit itself; while those who worked for the detachments of the ‘marrons’ and in the botanical garden of Pamplemousses received slots of lands surrounding the locality where they were working. We even have a whole section of the slaves’ population who bought their liberty by saving up money. And when they paid for their liberty, their owners were in the obligation of giving them a piece of land. Between 1839 and 1846, there have been a lot of slaves who bought small piece of land with the money they had. But with time, the small plot of land the slaves possessed did not allow many families to survive. So many of them immigrated to Port-Louis and other cities. Once they started to lose contact with their land, other people took possession of the plot of land while others opted to sell their land in order to survive.

This is where the Justice and Truth Commission was established. When the Commission started its work, they requested those who believed that they had lost any plot of land from that time to come forward and to file at the Commission.

The Commission has got more than 300 cases which included Franco-Mauritian and Indo-Mauritian families along with the descendants of slaves. They had spoken about pieces of land they had lost in the past. The Commission carried out numerous investigations on the cases and sought the expertise of different experts, lawyers, historians to do a report on the matter.

They agreed on the fact that these people had lost their land but it was very difficult to regain the same plot of land. This is because there is a lot of research involved, that is, going through the archives, looking for the lien between these families and the slaves and looking for the different contracts. Thus, the Commission has asked for the creation of a research unit who was supposed to help the different families to set up their folder so that they could establish their lien with the plot of land. Even if the piece of land belonged to someone else who had legally obtained it, the Commission had the ability to compensate the families with another piece of land. This is where another recommendation of the Commission came, namely the creation of a Land Bank. The Land Bank would consist of plots of land obtained by the government which would have been given as compensation to the families. But none of these recommendations have been implemented.

How did the country develop after the Abolition of Slavery? It is said that the end of slavery gave way to indentured labour. The development of Mauritius could not have taken place without slavery and even, indentured labour.

After the Abolition of Slavery, the slaves were only fronl in 1839 and left their owners and plantations to immigrate across Mauritius. It was at this time that the indentured labourers arrived in Mauritius from India and China. It was with the arrival of the coolies that they were able to spread the sugar cane cultivation to the central land and across the country slowly developing.

A segment of the population claims to be descendants of slaves and yet, there has been a lot of interaction / mixed marriage / miscegenation during the years … Do you think the spectre of slavery is still present or is it a page in our history that we must forget?

It is true that there has been a lot of miscegenation through the years. But still, there are some families who can still retrace their family history and their genealogy to the slave who was brought to Mauritius at that time. At the time of the compensation given by the British Government, the owners had the obligation of registering the names and surnames of the slaves in a register which still exists today. Many of those families have kept the name for generations even though those names were given at random. It was through the names of the families that the Commission has been able to establish their relationship with the slaves.

The sequels of slavery have left serious psychological effects, which have been imprinted in the DNA of the person. In a study, “The Trauma Studies” conducted in the USA, it has been proven that the psychological disorder which was done to the slaves at that time had continued throughout the years and remained with their descendants (for example, racism, stigmatisation,…). So, Slavery has not really disappeared with the prejudice against the descendants of the slaves, disguised and cheap labour strategy has continued since slavery.

Tell us about the Intercontinental Museum of Slavery.

The Intercontinental Museum of Slavery is a project recommended by the Justice and Truth Commission. This recommendation was made given that no museum in Mauritius retrace the history of Slavery. It is important to showcase this part of our history as Slavery is considered as the foundation of the Mauritian economy and society, which started in the 18th Century and early 19th Century.

Considering its importance in the History of Mauritius, the Commission recommended that the Museum should be in Port-Louis, the Capital of Mauritius and should be very visible and accessible to every Mauritian. The Commission also requested that the Museum should be near the local amenities, transport facilities, restaurants, etc. and if it was possible, a place which is linked to the slaves. Following the various researches, it has been found that the Military Hospital was situated next to two debarkations of the slaves. The hospital itself has a bond with the slaves; whereby many slaves, who were injured during the wars, were cured in this hospital. In fact, the ground floor of the hospital was for the slaves while the upper floor was for their owners. Thus, it was concluded that it was the best place for the Museum, which is situated next to the Apravasi Ghat, the representation of the indentured labourers in Mauritius.

In 2016, the Government had given its consent concerning the Museum after which the project was launched. Today, we have the state company (ISM Mauritius Ltd) who is in charge for the project and has the responsibility to put the Museum in place. As at date, two façades of the building have been been restored but there is so much more to be done.

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