The movement for abolition of slavery in the British Colonies started in England towards 1798 when protest marches were taken out on the streets of London. Finally, a motion was tabled in the British Parliament in 1808. In this same year, the East India Company lost 22 ships to pirates who had their bases in Ile de France, (Mauritius) and Bourbon (Reunion). The pirate, Robert Surcouf, posed a great danger to the East India Company whose trading enterprise suffered huge losses. In this period, England was occupied in fighting wars with France, under the rule of Napoleon.
When the East India Company decided to wage war against these two islands, England could not lend them full support, hence the Governor General in India, at that time, Lord Wellesley, launched a battle against Ile de France and Bourbon. The East India Company had their Indian sepoys and only two warships from England to assist them; both these islands were annexed.
The Treaty of Paris in 1814 established the British as absolute owner of Mauritius; Bourbon or Reunion was returned to the French during negotiations of this Treaty. Having wrested Mauritius from the French in 1810, the East India Company was at a loss of how to develop the islands. Since the abolition of slavery proposal was tabled in the British Parliament in 1808, the British could not send slaves from India.
Mauritius was under the economic control of the French Planters, who during this period, had about 55,000 black slaves, mainly from Mozambique, working on their plantations. There also were a few Indians slaves in the island as well as free Indian traders, jewelers, carpenters, masons and others. R.T. Farquhar was the first British Governor in Mauritius. By a Proclamation dated 18th May 1816, he compelled the free Indians who had settled in Mauritius during the French occupation to return to India. Major General Gage Hall, the second British Governor, compelled the French Planters to pay 26,000 dollars to the 800 Indian labourers, prior to their departure back to India, in 1817.
Hence to develop Mauritius, Farquhar requested the East India Company for man power from India. To solve the situation, Lord Hastings, the then Governor General of India, decided to send Indian convicts undergoing life imprisonment to Mauritius, Australia and Ben Coolen.
The topography of Mauritius changed drastically during a short spell of time, with new bridges, paved roads, and new buildings. These Convicts carried themselves with examplary dignity and hard work, which, besides inspiring a few French poets to write about them, set the planters thinking that it would be a good idea to import Indian workers in large numbers to replace the indolent black slaves, who were always causing trouble to the planters by their frequent marooning.
Finally in 1833, slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Soon after the abolition of slavery, the planters in Mauritius who were paid about £ 2,000,000 to liberate their black slaves, lost no time in sending their agents to recruit Indian labourers to work in their plantations. The first terms for Indentured labour were set down by the French planters in Mauritius.
In 1834, G.C. Arbuthnot, a private recruiting agent, signed an agreement on September 9th, 1834, in the presence of the Chief Magistrate, and the Superintendent of the Calcutta Police, which enabled him to take 36 Hill Coolies to Mauritius. These coolies were illiterate and they were made to affix their thumb impressions on this very first contract that contained the following clauses:-
1. Contract of five years.
2. To and fro-free passage.
3. Rs.5 per month as wages.
4. Six months advance pay.
5. Rupee One to be deducted per month, on account of repatriation passage. If the contract of five years were fulfilled, the entire amount totaling Rs.60 would be refunded.
6. Free rations.
7. Free accommodation.
8. Free clothing.
The above eight conditions of the contract in 1834, satisfied the members of the Council of the East India Company, who allowed these departures. 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.
It will be noted that return free passage was one of the main clauses incorporated in these contracts and later on, formed part of the Colonial Emigration Acts. The planters in Mauritius and later on Natal and other colonies found ways and means to prevent the return of the natives of India, so that they could economise expenses on Agents’ fees and to and fro fares and other incidental expenses.
Governor Nicolay (1833-1840) of Mauritius insisted on better men to be recruited and women to be encouraged to migrate. By 1838, 24,000 Indian labourers had reached Mauritius. 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.
The Indian workers were made to toil for 14 to 16 hours a day, without holidays on Sundays or Public Holidays. The planters inflicted corporal punishment, and without proper police protection, these emigrants could not get a proper hearing in any Court of Law, where they were not understood due to language problems. The labourers were not allowed free movement and could not visit each other from one estate to another, even after working hours.
The Local Governor and the Mauritius Council approved of these working conditions, under Ordinances 16 and 17 of 1835, which led the Government of England to veto a few Ordinances. The Government of India, by 1837 received so many complaints when it was decided that private agents would no longer be authorized to recruit immigrants. Governor Nicolay then laid down certain conditions on emigration such as compulsory vaccination, medical inspection, free passage back to India, a clause already included in the contract executed in 1834. Nicolay also insisted that periodical records of returns of emigrants be sent to Mauritius.