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. 

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