How are the oppressed remembered across cultures? Who remembers them and what do the differences in their remembrance tell us about what events and phenomena nations consider as part of desired history? These are questions that I began thinking about on a recent visit to Mauritius, a country whose recent history is remarkably different from the ancient places that I study. It is an island that was first represented on maps in the 16th century and was successively colonised from the 17th century onwards by the Dutch, French and the British. It was first permanently settled during Dutch times with slaves and, from the 19th century onwards, with indentured labour.
In Mauritius, there was no avoiding the question of memory, which forms the basis of personal continuity and self-identity. There are fascinating books penned by Mauritians, many of which are anchored around recollections of things past. Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother is a hearth-wrenching tale girded by “the electric-shock of memories”. A French-Mauritian novelist of Indian origin, Appanah captures the landscapes of childhood of the novel’s protagonist which range from the sugar plantations to a prison in the midst of tropical forests and Jewish exiles who were shipped and jailed there in the 1940s. The lives of Indian indentured labour, their oppression by plantation owners, the brutal bashing that children and wives endured at the hands of their own men, the strange sight of white Jews jailed on the island and the friendship that two children strike up in the midst of this sadness – all of this is told by an old man looking back at his childhood and recounted, in fact, through his eyes and voice as a young boy.
After reading Appanah, it is impossible to look at the miles upon miles of cane fields across Mauritius – where much of the farming is now mechanised – without imagining the oppression of the early labour camps. It is also impossible to feel celebratory about immigrants who left the shore of India as the Kidderpore memorial in Kolkata would have us believe, with its message of their “pioneering spirit, endurance, determination and resilience”.
The journeys and lineages pieced together by immigrants separated from their toiling ancestors by many generations provide another window where history and memory meet. Rishi Jheengun’s Untangling the Knot – Tribulations and Legacy of a Coolie and Vishwananden Govinden and Mariana Carter’s Gokoola – Family, Temple & Village are two of them. Such accounts depend on poignant descriptions of places and peoples there, passed from family to family as also mined out of the memories of old neighbours and residents. In this search for roots, the archives of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute at Moka provide precious information about the first immigrants.
Set up as a joint initiative by the governments of Mauritius and India in 1970, the Institute provides a treasure trove of information on immigrant labour – from the ports of origin to their date of arrival and distinguishing marks on their bodies. Also, we know what those who arrived from 1865 onwards looked like because a photographic unit then began taking photographs of each immigrant, one of which was get in the Immigration Depot’s records. Looking at those pages of photographs, I realised that while I know the names of my great grandparents, I certainly have no clue about what they looked like.
Among the range of remembrances that I encountered, perhaps it is the imprints on the physical landscape that will remain with me for a long time. The major heritage sites of Mauritius memorialise bondage and oppression. The Aapravasi Ghat built in 1849 is one of them, an immigration depot which was inscribed in 2006 on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is here that the largest number of people who became Mauritian entered the island as indentured labour across a century – with two-third of them from India, and others from Madagascar, Mozambique, China and Southeast Asia. The system of contract labour replaced slavery when it was abolished by the British Government in 1834. This was a system of awful servitude that bound those who came in inhuman contracts, and it was at this ghat that some half a million men, women and children took their first steps into Mauritius.
Excavations have revealed the different landing places used by these immigrants, and where they were temporarily accommodated and fed. The lotas and plates, the oil lamps and stoves, the gunny bags, along with a Ramayana, displayed in the museum there, provide a window into the precious personal belongings that the newcomers brought with them. These are not artefacts recovered from excavations, but donated by families whose ancestors carried them to these new shores.
Interestingly, when the question of the UNESCO inscription of Aapravasi Ghat was discussed, it was strongly opposed by International Council on Monuments and Sites on the grounds of the lack of integrity of the unspectacular buildings at the site which, that body argued, were not of outstanding universal value. It was countries like Madagascar, India, Morocco, Kenya and Benin that successfully pushed for it. They did so because of the meaning that it had in the memory of indentured labour. The lack of integrity, as subsequent excavations there have revealed, was deceptively impressionistic. Archaeology has revealed foundations and partly preserved earlier buildings of the immigration depot and earlier structures going back to the time of French colonisation and, thus, possibly emblematic of slavery.
The other UNESCO World Heritage site is Le Morne, a stunning mountain landscape at the edge of the Indian Ocean in south-west Mauritius which is strongly associated in popular memory with slavery, especially among Mauritians who trace their descent from slaves. It is connected with escaped slaves who found shelter in the mountain, which then became the site of a maroon settlement. This is a collective memory that is supported by letters and other documents of the 18th century that describe Le Morne as a citadel of maroons. That slaves lived in the overhangs and hidden caves is also underlined by the archaeological investigations which revealed a human-made wall, small fires and broken animal bones. Its importance comes from it being a symbol of the resistance offered by slaves who set up maroon settlements in different parts of the world and thus, was seen as having a value beyond its own geographical location.
Le Morne and Aapravasi Ghat are reference points for what Mauritius thinks is worth preserving for future generations. These are not usual sorts of places that get inscribed in universal or even national lists elsewhere. Those are overwhelmingly dominated by high culture – the sort that can be seen in the category of what is heritage in India where there are almost always architectural marvels around religions and rulers. Instead, these memorialise a fairly recent past, one which resonates among its people today.
In India’s modern history, on the other hand, there is a curious paradox: while oppression of various types was rampant, apart from colonial oppression, all else is rendered invisible. Why, for instance, have we never made sites of caste oppression part of our national heritage? To put it another way, are there places worth recognising as national monuments that make Dalits visible?
The one place which comes to mind is Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra, a place where colonial and caste histories are inextricably linked. The pillar there may well have been put up by the British to commemorate the battle of Koregaon but was simultaneously seen by the “untouchable” Mahars as their site since a large number of their men – their names being inscribed on it – lost their lives fighting against their upper caste oppressors. That is why a place of colonial victory has emerged as a site of pilgrimage ever since Bhimrao Ambedkar went there on January 1, 1927.
On the anniversary of Ambedkar’s visit, the possibility of seeing this as a national monument is worth considering. Surely, as a mature democracy, we should be able to confront our brutal past and recognise that Bhima Koregaon is a symbol of redemption and of what Dalits believe they can achieve if they have enough single-mindedness and determination. Surely, if histories are preserved through monuments, India’s monuments list in which there are no memories of caste oppression and resistance reflects poorly on us and what we have opted to omit in our anxiety to fabricate a national heritage.
Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor of History at Ashoka University. Her latest book is Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India.