Fourteen ships sailed from Calcutta, taking indentured labourers to Mauritius. All these ships left with good and bad workers but no women were taken. Without women, problems on the sugar estates cropped up, where apprentice black women were already employed along with the freed black men.
Hill coolies are from the Hills of Assam or Burma or Orissa or South India. In various parts of India, they are known as Banjaras, Gonds, the Nilgiris, the Arakies etc. In the context of emigration, the 36 Hill Coolies who emigrated to Mauritius in the first batch of 1834 hailed from the Chota Nagpur hill tracts. The aborigines that inhabited the Chota Nagpur hill tracts were known to be the most backward tribals of India, referred to as Santhals or Dangars or Bhils or Adivasis. They were uneducated, totally uncultured, used to stealing cattle and crops of the lowland areas. Their weapons were spears, swords and hatchets. They wore no clothes and roamed the areas, threatening and killing the cultivators in the surrounding areas, without any consideration of life.
Leela Gujadhur Sarup
Leela Sarup, nee Gujadhur, was born in Calcutta, India. She hails from renowned industrial family of Mauritius. Her initial education was in Mauritius and she returned to India to complete her studies. When not travelling, she spends her time mostly in Calcutta and Mussoorie
In return, the Muslim Zamindars in the nearby plains, hunted these Santhals without mercy. Bishop Reginald
Herber, in 1830, wrote the following in his famous diary on his travels within India:-
“A deadly feud existed till within the last forty years between them and the cultivators of the neighbouring lowlands; they being untamed thieves and murderers, continually making forays, and the Mohammedan Zamindars killing them like mad dogs or tigers, whenever they got them within gunshot. An excellent young man of the name of Cleveland, Judge and Magistrate of
Boglipoor, undertook to remedy this state of things. He rigorously forbade and promptly punished all violence from the
Zamindars, who were often the aggressors against the Mountaineers. He got some of these at last to enter his service and took pains to attach them to him and to learn their language. He made shooting-parties into the mountains, treating kindly all whom he could get to approach him; and established regular bazars at the villages nearest to them where he encouraged them to bring down for sale, game, millet, wax, hides and honey, all which their hills produce in great abundance. He gave them wheat and barley for seed; he encouraged their cultivation by the assurance they should not be taxed and that nobody but their own Chiefs should be their
Zamindars. And to please them still further… he raised a corps of Sepoys from among them…”1
August Cleveland was the officer responsible for taming the Santhals and brought a few of them to Calcutta for employment. The hill coolies who set sail to Mauritius were part of this backward contingent. Cleveland was the cousin of Sir John Shore, Governor General of Bengal from 1793 to 1797.
From England, the Court of Directors of the East India Company, wrote the following letter dated 22nd March 1842 to the Governor General of India in Council (Lord Ellenborough): -
“In our despatch of the 29th September last (No. 22 ) we informed you that we have received the minutes recorded by the Governor-General and by the members of Council, relative to the report of the committee of Hill Coolies, with the subsequent information obtained on the same subject we went on the dispatch to observe as follows :-
“From their document we infer that, though differing widely as to the extent to which alterations should be made in the Provisions of Act XIV of 1839, prohibiting the emigration of labourers from India to any British or Foreign colony, you are all of the opinion that Act should be subject to revision and be more or less modified. You are aware, however, that the subject has engaged the particular attention of Parliament, without whose sanction we cannot authorize you to withdraw the absolute prohibition imposed by the Act.
“The grounds suggested in the papers now before as, on which it may eventually be deemed expedient to permit the emigration of labourers not under any contract, or the emigration of artisans, or emigration at the discretion and under the express sanction of government, will, we doubt not, receive full consideration, together with the rules proper to be applied thereto; and the advantages which might be anticipated mutually to the colonists and to the labourers themselves. For the present at least, the act must remain in force”.
In pursuance of the views above stated the Report of the Committee on Hill Coolies, and your several minutes thereupon, were communicated to Parliament; but we have been apprised by the Commissioners for the Affairs of India, that under the information on the subject which has now been furnished by your government and by that of Mauritius, Her Majesty’s Ministers do not deem it necessary to apply for the legislative enactment in this country with a view to such modification of Act XIV of 1839, as may be found advisable.
We transmit to you the accompanying copy of a letter dated 5th February 1842 from the Secretary of the Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India, and copies of the several documents therewith received, on the subject of modifying the provisions of that Act as far as relates to the colony of Mauritius. You will perceive the anxiety manifested by Her Majesty’s Government, that the Act of Emigration in each individual instance shall be one of perfect free will; that the health, comfort and welfare of the emigrant shall be fully provided for, both in the passage and in the colony, and that the emigrant shall have the means of returning to India whenever he may be desirous of doing so. You will also discover that the accompanying documents, that the arrangements to be adopted for the purpose of securing these objects are mainly left to your judgement and discretion, and that it is perfectly open to you altogether to prevent the contemplated change of the law, if you should consider it hostile to the real welfare of the people of India.
The primary consideration with us as well as you in this matter, is that a project intended to promote the advantage of certain classes of the people of India, by allowing them free command of their labour, shall not be perverted to their injury, and we feel perfect confidence in communicating to you the duty of establishing proper safeguards for that purpose. You are prepared for the discharge of this duty, by the laborious examination, which the subject has received in your hands, and by your ready access to whatever more full or more recent information may be of use in guiding your judgement. Lord Auckland adverts in his Minute to the early expiration of the contracts of several thousand of Indian labourers at Mauritius, and to the probable return of many of them to their own country which would place ample means of information of that nature within your reach.
In determining upon the measure to be adopted you will, of course, have regard to the manner in which they may affect the emigration of labourers from the Foreign settlements in India, as well as from our own territories.
With reference to the accompanying papers, you will lose no time in apprising the Governor of Mauritius, of the result of your deliberation.
We have only further to desire that in the event of your deeming it proper, under the authority now conveyed to you, to pass any law permitting, the emigration of Labourers from India to the Mauritius you will carefully watch its operation and will repeal or modify it without delay, if its provisions shall not prove effectual in affording in all respects, the intended security for the comfort and welfare of the emigrants.”(1)
Governor Nicolay (1833-1840) of Mauritius insisted on better men to be recruited and women to be encouraged to migrate. 24,000 Indian labourers had reached Mauritius by the end of 1838. By December 1839, in spite of the embargo on immigration, there were 25,458 Indian emigrants in Mauritius. They had no priests to conduct their rites and no schools for their children.
Mauritius was the first recipient of Indian workers in the British colonies. The suffering of these Indentured Labourers was immense. In over-crowded sailing vessels, carrying rice and other cargoes, without medical assistance, these men were ill-treated and under-fed. There was a great number of mortality, also caused by diseases. There were cases of suicides by jumping over-board. In Mauritius, a few French Planters treated the Indian Indentured Labourers on the same footing they were used to treat their slaves from Africa.
In London and Calcutta, public meetings were held, accusing the British Government to perpetuate slavery under another name, viz. Indentured Labour.
Under the period of un-regulated emigration, from 1834 to 30th June 1839, that is, for 5 years and six months, 24,566 men 727 women and 175 children were despatched to Mauritius. Although there was an embargo clamped on emigration from 1838, somehow, emigrants were despatched to Mauritius from the French territory of Pondicherry and Karikal.
The East India Company was made responsible by the British Parliament for starting to lay down the laws of Emigration through their Colonial Emigration Acts. Hence, the following Acts were adopted:- Act No.- V (1837), Act No.– XXXII (1837), Act No.–XIV (1839).*
According to records, Governor Nicolay took the initiative to ask for suspension of immigration in December 1837. However, the traffic continued as records show that from November 1837 to August 1838, 7,411 men and women sailed to Mauritius, besides others to British Guiana (424 men and women), 60 men to Bourbon, 89 men to Australia, 4 men to Batavia and from Bombay to Mauritius 139 men. The figures from Madras were not available. There was no official mention that emigration was authorized to any other place besides Mauritius.
To be continued...
1. Philip Woodruff - The men who ruled India - Vol. I (The Founders) p.148 - Jarrold & Sons Ltd., 1963 edition
1. House of Commons records, 1841
*For Acts Please refer to “Colonial Emigration Acts 1837-1932, Indentured Labour, Slavery to Salvation” by Leela Gujadhur Sarup- Page 257-258, 259-260, 261.