Sunday, August 23, 2015

Aapravasi Ghat

Photos of indentured labourers, taken on arrival in Mauritius
I've been in Mauritius for the last couple of weeks - largely for family reasons, but (of course) with an eye on the theatrical and the intercultural.  This was, after all, the place where the Macbeth production happened, and before that Paul and Virginie.

One of the things that was most striking about the Paul and Virginie experience was how little awareness there seemed to be in Mauritius of the island's slave history.  Given that there is no indigenous population here at all, and that almost all the population is here as a result of some sort of transportation, whether for slavery or indentured labour, that is surprising to say the least.  But the emphasis that Asian cultures place on 'shame' has resulted in what feels like a consciously self-induced act of collective amnesia.  And the result of this is a cultural barrenness, which needs to be overcome if there is to be any chance of the nation finding a cohesion, a dynamism, a democratic reality.  Roshni Mooneeram, who is a former Border Crossings board member, recently wrote about this in Le Mauricien - with two rather perturbing comments on the site!

In the face of this, it was heartening to visit Aapravasi Ghat - the UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been created at the Port-Louis dock, where almost half a million indentured labourers arrived on the island between 1834 and 1920.  The first date is significant: 1833 was the year when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, and "The Great Experiment" of indentured labour was the colonists' response to the loss of a cheap workforce.  The museum makes it very clear, in a prominently displayed quotation from correspondence between the Governor General and the Colonial Office, that the shipping of Indian workers under a supposedly free contract was a direct response to a perceived need to find a source of labour that was as 'economically viable' as slavery.  The fact that this only ended in 1920 is even more shocking. 

A couple of weeks ago, David Olusoga's brilliant pair of BBC documentaries explored how the "compensation" paid by the British government to the slave owners laid the foundations for contemporary British capitalism.  In Mauritius, the situation is perhaps even more extreme - given that the bulk of the population is descended from slaves or near slaves.  The compensation paid to slave owners in 1833 led to the setting up of the Mauritian banks and many of the businesses that dominate the island's economy today.  This process has been carefully researched by a Truth and Justice Commission, but the reports of this body have not been used as the basis for any sort of reparation.  Truth may have been unearthed - but it remains largely ignored and unknown, let alone transformed into Justice. 

Aapravasi Ghat perhaps represents a beginning in a national process of historical education and cultural revitalization, which may eventually help in the development of a more inclusive society and a participatory democracy. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Deaths in Custody

Beautiful One Day.  Photo: Ponch Hawkes
Today, August 4th, marks the first anniversary of the death of a young indigenous Australian woman, Julieka Dhu, in police custody.  It's still not clear exactly how she died: what is known is that she was taken into custody for not paying her parking fines.  There's a sensitive and touching radio programme on the subject here.

There's a horrible air of familiarity about this story.  Just over a month ago, our Origins Festival came to an end with Ilbijerri's wonderful production Beautiful One Day, which was made in response to the notorious death in custody of indigenous man Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004.  As well as the play, the case has led to a book, a documentary film, an art installation by Vernon Ah Kee, and (of course) riots...  You would think something might have changed.  The case of Julieka Dhu seems to suggest otherwise.

2004 was also the year when Border Crossings first became involved with indigenous peoples and their theatre, when we presented Bullie's House.  At the end of that play, there's a strong sense that one of the indigenous characters, Jimmie, will die in custody - and I discussed that with the writer, Thomas Keneally, in an interview on our website.  Tom's sense at that time was that the experience of incarceration alone could be enough to end the life of an indigenous person, and that may well be partly true - but it has become ever clearer that systematic police brutality is also a huge part of the problem.  Such brutality is only possible when people think of those they are oppressing as less than human.  It's probably naive to suppose that cultural education can solve a prejudice that deep - but we have to start somewhere, for the next generation if not our own, and it's only through culture that the humanity of the other can finally be perceived.

Thinking about this has taken me right back to the experiences which led me to set up Border Crossings in the first place - directing in West Coast America after the LA riots had been set off by the police attack on the black taxi driver Rodney King.  And it had brought me very close to home: the 2011 riots in Wood Green, where we have our office, were sparked by the police shooting of the black man Mark Duggan.  I am not saying that these events are all equivalent to one another - but I am saying that they are part of a recognisable pattern across the world, where black communities feel that policing had become an instrument of oppression rather than protection.

Contracting the police force and asking them to operate on a slimmer budget is not going to help overcome this.  Only a sustained engagement on an educational and cultural level will overcome it, and that is something that is very unfashionable right now.

Oddly enough, the day Mark Duggan was shot in 2011 was August 4th.