The History of Aapravasi Ghat
December 28 2018
December 28 2018
The extraordinary island nation of Mauritius is the perfect holiday destination. Dramatic rocky backdrops are juxtaposed with soft white beaches and glittering crystalline waters, waiting to be explored, and with an array of land- and water-based activities and luxury resorts, it offers everything you could possibly want for an unforgettable holiday in the sun.
What many don’t know is that underpinning the island’s colourful landscapes, bustling cities, luxury resorts and amazing people of Mauritius with their unique, Mauritian culture, is a fascinating, albeit, chequered history.
Mauritius was said to be an untouched tropical “Eden” until it was inhabited by the Dutch settlers in the 16th century, but, because of difficult conditions, they abandoned it in 1710. When the Dutch had left, Mauritius caught the eye of the French, who claimed it in 1715. As the French began to settle in Mauritius, they introduced slaves to the island, primarily from Madagascar, Mozambique and other parts of Africa, to work in the sugar plantations. The French later lost Mauritius to the British in 1810 as a result of the Anglo-French war.
Sadly, slavery—which was considered vital for plantation colonies at the time, as massive profits from the sugar industry relied on cheap labour—existed in Mauritius until the British abolished it in 1834. The British knew, however, that for the sugar plantations in Mauritius to continue to thrive, they would still need a workforce of some sort. In the same year that the British abolished slavery in Mauritius, they decided this remote island nation would also be the first location of their “Great Experiment”—instead of using slaves for the work they needed to be done, they would use ‘free’ labour.
And so they introduced ‘indentured labourers’ to Mauritius, many of which were initially convicts, who were brought from India. India was one of Britain's other colonies and so it seemed a natural choice for them at the time. The indentured labourers that weren’t sent to the plantations were often those that were otherwise skilled, some of which even helped to launch the opium and silk production on the island. The indentured labourers that were brought to Mauritius then entered into a contract with the British Government: transport to a colony would be provided in return for work for a fixed period.
In the 1830s, there was the occasional suspension of imported Indian labourers, which led to the British finding ‘alternatives’ between 1839 and 1842 to Indian labour. This is when they looked to Africa, Madagascar (which made for cheaper labourers because of the shorter journey) and the east. In 1842, Indian migration was once again allowed and Indians held the majority of the indentured labour force in Mauritius.
Today, in the capital city of Port Louis, an incredibly important site from this period still exists; Aapravasi Ghat. The name “Aapravasi Ghat” has been used for this site since 1987, and translates from Hindi to English as “immigration depot”, or the immigration interface, due to its geographical location between the land and the sea. It also has a deeper, more symbolic meaning; the interface between the labourers’ old and new lives.
This historical site spans 1 640m2 and was at the heart of the indentured labour ‘programme’.
Aapravasi Ghat becomes the centre for indentured labourers who arrived from India, and who would then be used as labour in the sugar plantations in Mauritius or sent to other British colonies such as Reunion, parts of Africa, Australia or the Caribbean to work. This resulted in some half a million indentured labourers being brought to Mauritius alone between 1834 and 1920. The Great Experiment proved a great “success” for the British Empire, and the model was adopted in other British, French and Dutch colonies around the world from the 1840s. These included Guyana, South Africa, Trinidad, Cuba, Peru and Reunion Island.
The structures at Aapravasi Ghat, built in 1849 to receive the indentured labourers, are unique in that they are the only existing structures of their kind. This complex represented a system that went on to reach global heights and set in motion one of the biggest migrations of all time. Aapravasi Ghat, which is situated in the bay of Trou Fanfaron in Port Louis, was conveniently sheltered and yet close to the sea which made it the perfect spot for the immigration depot.
The complex was altered between 1864 and 1865, evident in archival and architectural drawings of it. These drawings reveal a significant amount about the complex and its purpose. Today, there are only remains but the buildings that still exist provide significant evidence of the system and the functioning of the depot. Sadly, there isn’t much documentation on any work done to the structures before 2003, but work which has been executed since has been recorded and carefully conducted.
This complex signifies the beginning of contractual labour, but it also represents the cultures, memories and traditions of those that were brought here, which were carried with them from their countries of origin and passed down to their descendants in Mauritius, which made for a wonderfully diverse people. With some 70% of the population descending from indentured labours, Aapravasi Ghat is an incredibly important site and exists as a symbol of Mauritian identity, despite the fact that only 15% of the authentic structure survives today.
Today, visitors can see the partial remains of the housing sheds, kitchens, lavatories and the hospital block of the immigration depot. The 14 steps that all labourers would have had to take to enter the depot also remain and are highly symbolic.
Seen as one of the key monuments in Mauritian history, Aapravasi Ghat has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the status of which it received in 2006). It is owned by the Ministry of Arts and Culture and protected as a National Heritage in line with the National Heritage Fund Act 2003 and the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund Act 2001. The Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund is responsible for the day-to-day runnings of the site and a specialised technical team, part of this fund, is responsible for consulting with international experts regarding the conservation work at the site.
To preserve the structure, a “buffer zone”, controlled by the Municipal Council of Port Louis under the Local Government Act, was introduced. The Management Plan of the Aapravasi Ghat site (2006-2011) is in place to support the sustainable long-term development and conservation of the property, with one of the major concerns being the very buffer zones set up to protect the site, and now threaten its existence.
If you visit the site today, you will be able to learn more about the history of Aapravasi Ghat through the Beekrumsing Ramlallah Interpretation Centre (BRIC). There are also amazing displays of artefacts that have been found during excavations at the site, which include everything from ship replicas to pipes, medicine bottles and old alcohol bottles (from the British). It’s a truly unique and immensely important site and is well worth a visit while on a holiday in Mauritius.