The Legacy of Indentured Labor

  • Kathleen Harrington-WattEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter will present and discuss the system of indentured labor established by the British Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a new form of labor acquisition for the colonies. The indentured labor system was created in response to the British Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833. This chapter will outline the nature of the indentured labor system, why it was started, and how it functioned. It will then examine how such a migrant labor system impacted upon both the migrants and receiving colonies, paying particular attention to the notion of ethnicity and the development of multiethnic communities. Mauritius is one such host society that dramatically changed due to the impact of indentured labor migrants arriving on its shores; it will therefore serve as a useful case study to examine the significant role indentured labor has played in the formation of Mauritian society today.


Indentured labor Indo-Mauritian Plural society Multiethnic Ethnicity and diversity Indian ancestry Labor migration 


Like all events in history, it is important to understand the many contexts that exist in a particular time and place. The indentured labor system began in the British colonies during the early nineteenth century and was seemingly a well-controlled and highly structured model of labor acquisition and supply. It involved specific laws, work contracts, and administrative processes that were applied to each host nation; however, each colony developed differently as new ethnic groups and communities arrived, settled, and grew over time. One could premise that all migrations of people adapt to their environment accordingly. However, in this chapter, I argue that the British indentured labor system of the nineteenth century impacted greatly on the future ethnic makeup of indentured labor host societies. These impacts, what I term the “legacies of indenture,” were the consequences of the various arrangements that were imposed or developed by the indentured labor system itself. With that said, because each host society has its own historical and cultural context, each site of indentured labor has developed its own flavor of nationhood and complex of ethnic identities. What is important to highlight is that the indentured labor process meant that there were large numbers of migrants dislocated from their homeland and adapting to their new circumstances. This chapter takes a cultural historical view of the legacies of indentured labor on the receiving societies. It will begin by setting the stage of indentured labor, explaining what it was and why it was established. Following this, it will look more specifically at the indentured labor system as it was applied in Mauritius and make links to specific indentured labor circumstances that influenced the makeup of ethnicity in Mauritius today (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Images of indentured laborers taken as ID photographs in Mauritius from 1865 to 1910. Photographs with permission from Mauritian National Archives and Mahatma Gandhi Institute, Moka Mauritius

Setting the Stage of the British Indentured Labor System

Indentured labor was a form of labor recruitment for the plantation colonies of the British Empire. Indentured labor is labor based upon a voluntary work contract. This form of labor provision could be described as a global phenomenon of the last 200 years. The origins of a systemized form of indentured labor began as a consequence of the British Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833, where slavery, after much debate and criticism in the British parliament, was determined an immoral process of obtaining labor for the colonies. Royal assent was granted in the British Parliament on August 28, 1833, and the abolition of slavery took effect on August 1, 1834. This meant that hundreds of thousands of British slaves who had been kidnapped and made to work in the colonies were to be freed from bondage.
Fig. 2

Map showing the general regions of indentured laborers origins and the three main ports of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta – used for ship transportation to Mauritius. Large crosses mark the general regions of Indian indentured labor origins

The British colonies who had relied on slavery to provide a workforce for their plantation economies had already experienced an influx of migrating populations. There were previous free settlers, traders, and laborers who had travelled to the colonies to establish new homes, businesses, and work opportunities, respectively. These migrants brought with them their own language, culture, and traditions. There were also those that arrived as slaves who came with their own language, culture, social systems, and traditions but were forced to live and work in a setting that attempted to forcibly stamp out all notions of their original culture, religion, and identity. It is essential that we understand that the foundations of indentured labor began in response to the cessation of slavery.

The transition of slavery and its abolition differed for each British colony according to its own colonial and/or indigenous history. The general impact of abolition meant that with the emancipation of slaves, the plantation owners had a problem obtaining enough labor to keep productivity and export markets profitable. The indentured labor system was proposed as a way to alleviate this crisis and was titled “the great labor experiment” (Carter 1996:19).

A voluntary contracted labor agreement was the foundation of the indentured labor process and was perceived as a new and improved method of acquiring labor. Indentured labor was deemed significantly different to slavery, because the system was voluntary and the labor contract specified wages, work and living conditions, and arrangements for transportation to and from the country of employment. This system aimed to encourage the mass migration of people from their homelands to outreaching colonies that were desperate to fill labor shortages (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Identification photographs of indentured laborers in Mauritius, from the indentured labor colonial ledger. Identification names and numbers removed as according to publication policy of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute Indentured Labor Archive, Moka Mauritius

This new system of labor recruitment provided opportunities for laborers and the peasant classes in other countries to obtain much needed work. Many of these recruits had been displaced off their land, due to floods and famine, or from the impacts of capitalism that had effected massive economic changes in the colonies. Consequently, there was a ready-made population in countries such as India, China, and Africa, with masses of people needing work to support their families and villages. Like slavery, the indentured labor system saw, yet again, the large-scale movement of people from one country to another.

Alongside this large-scale movement of people, the laborers brought with them their language, social customs, religion, and cultural practices. The sheer number of laborers migrating from specific regions to the colonies meant they could continue to associate with others from their place of origin with similar cultural backgrounds. Unlike the circumstances of slavery, the employers were invested in trying to keep the laborers in their employ and paid greater attention to the significance of the laborer’s individual, family, social, religious, and cultural needs. There have been numerous debates surrounding the differences and similarities of slavery and indentured labor, and for the purposes of this chapter, it is unnecessary to discuss this well-covered topic here, though it is important to appreciate, as does Brij Lal (1998), that both slavery and indentured labor systems were ultimately exploitative. What was significantly different between these two labor systems was that the indentured laborer had a greater freedom to transfer and adapt their social and cultural traditions to their new homes, something tragically absent for those subjected to slavery. While this chapter begins to discuss the legacy of indentured labor and ethnicity, it is important to keep in sight the background of slavery of which indentured labor emerged. At the core of this new labor system, while perhaps not intended in the minds of the colonial administrators who were more concerned with productivity and global trade, was the notion of ethnicity.

Colonies such as Mauritius, La Reunion, Fiji, Trinidad Tobago, Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica, and South Africa relied on this new form of labor supply. To obtain labor for the colonies, a new system regulating methods of recruitment, wages, and living conditions was required. At the heart of this new labor system was a complex administrative recording system (Addison and Hazareesingh 1984; Richard Allen 1999; Clare Anderson 2009; Satyendra Peerthum 2012). Consequently, the indentured labor system resulted in large numbers of people shifting from their place of origin to new locations, places with distinctly different geographies and ethnic populations. Ad Knotter (2015) refers to organized labor systems as “intervening institutions” where laborers were recruited from countries with large groups of people seeking employment and opportunity. The sheer number of laborers migrating to the colonies, over the span of approximately 80 years, meant that this system of labor migration had a significant impact on the communities in which they arrived, worked, and, for many, chose to permanently reside. As such, the indentured labor system directly and indirectly influenced how these varied cultural groups negotiated their place in their host settings and how these sites of cross-cultural migration have developed over time (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Example of Old Immigrant Ticket, given to indentured laborer once they had completed their work contract. Original document as found in colonial ledgers, Mauritian National Archives

One of the largest recruitment sites for indentured labor during the nineteenth and early twentieth century was India. It is no surprise that India became such a proficient provider of labor. At the time the official British indentured labor system began, in 1842, India was already an established British colony and had undergone major changes to land tax and land ownership laws imposed by the colonial administration. These changes impacted heavily upon the agricultural sector, particularly small landowners and farmers who could no longer afford to remain on their ancestral land. Consequently, there was a large and growing peasant class looking for employment, who were shifting towards populated centers hoping for new opportunities. As such we can see that the consequence of the British Land Tenure and Tax laws provided, somewhat surreptitiously, a desperate and available labor workforce.

The British colonial system of indentured labor and its relationship with India serves as a good example of shifting labor populations. The significance of the British colonial indentured labor enterprise on the history of South Asian global migration and ethnic group formation in indentured labor colonies should not be underestimated. Around the globe, we find South Asian-based communities/diasporas that were formed during the nineteenth century as a consequence of the extensive movement of laborers from India to many British colonies around the globe. As a result, these Indian-based communities have grown and developed their own understanding of their ethnic identity often holding onto their Indian ancestral origins. Indentured labor has had an important demographic, economic, cultural, and social impact on these colonial host societies. While indentured labor had its own social, cultural, and economic consequences in the countries of labor recruitment and employment, these consequences remain relevant to our understanding of migration and notions of ethnicity and identity today. To understand more fully the legacy of indentured labor on ethnicity, it is useful to focus on a particular site of indentured labor. This chapter will focus on the Island of Mauritius as a way of explaining how the system of indentured labor influenced the particular characteristics of ethnicity in Mauritius today.

Mauritius, Indentured Labor, and Indo-Mauritians

Krish Seetah (2016:265) states that, “New plural societies, characterized by cultural hybridity, were created around the world as a consequence of labor diasporas in the late historic period.” Mauritius was one of these plural societies created as a consequence of the British Empire’s indentured labor system. Mauritius is a small island situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, often referred to as “Little India” as coined by Patrick Eisenlohr (2006), referencing its strong links to India as a nation today. Mauritius is located approximately 800 km east of Madagascar. It was uninhabited until seafarers attempted to settle on the island in the late 1500s. Since then, it has been under colonial control by Dutch, French, and the British Empire over the last 300 years. Mauritius has no original indigenous population and today consists of multiethnic communities that all originated as migrants from Europe, China, India, and Africa. Today, it has a population of 1.4 million and has been an independent republic since 1968.

Mauritius was the first site of the formalized indentured labor system. It also received the largest number of indentured laborers over a period of 68 years, from 1842 to 1910, approximately 453,000 people (Vijayalakshmi Teelock 2009). While the indentured laborers came predominantly from India, there were also smaller numbers of contracted laborers from China, Malaysia, and East Africa. For the purposes of exploring the legacy of indentured labor, this chapter will focus on the migration of indentured laborers from India, justified by the significantly large number of Mauritian indentured laborer’s of Indian origin. Similar legacies of the indentured labor system in Mauritius can also be found in other countries whose Indian communities originally stemmed from the migration of indentured laborers from India. It is also important to stress that these other indentured labor colonies have their own local histories and influences that created their own national character and configurations of ethnic diversity. In other words, while the British system of indentured labor was very much mirrored in each receiving British colony, the particular dynamics of geography and other resident indigenous and ethnic communities means that each location has negotiated its own unique multiethnic character (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Muslim prayer shrine, Creve Couer Mauritius. Surrounded by newly planted sugar crop. Authors photo, 2014

To understand the unique cultural and social milieu of Mauritius and the legacies of the indentured labor system, we need to contextualize the history of Mauritius and how the implementation of an indentured labor system has influenced its ethnic and cultural makeup. To do this, this chapter discusses several topics that piece together the complex legacies of indentured labor in Mauritius. We start with a brief summary of the history of Mauritius before the arrival of the indentured laborers. We then consider the need for indentured labor in Mauritius and examine how the indentured laborers negotiated their new lives in Mauritius. The second half of this chapter will focus on the various forces operating during the indentured labor period in Mauritius, from both inside and outside the indentured labor community influencing the formation of distinct ethnically bounded communities.

Mauritius and the Indentured Labor System

The previous colonial rulers of Mauritius, in particular the French, played a significant role in the development of Mauritian society. Even though the British annexed Mauritius from the French in 1810, after defeating the French in the naval Napoleonic wars, they negotiated lenient terms for the population already living in Mauritius. The existing population were allowed to keep possession of their property and their way of life, including language, laws, religion, and customs (Addison and Hazareesingh 1984; Teelock 2009). Therefore, the influence of French culture in Mauritius has persisted over time. Other migrant groups arrived in Mauritius during and after the French period, namely slaves from Africa who arrived during both periods of French and British colonial rule as well as British migrants and civil servants who came to Mauritius after the British took control of the colony. There were also Indian migrants who had arrived in Mauritius as either indentured laborers on private contracts or as free settlers or traders. A limited number of Chinese migrants also came as laborers or traders. The population of Mauritius is now made up of these main migrant groups (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

Kalimai shrine found amidst sugar plantations, Flaq Mauritius. Author Photo, 2014. (Performing rituals at the Kalimai shrine is still strong today, especially in rural Mauritius and especially among women who perform rituals asking for the protection of the goddess Kali and making offerings to appease her. The shrines are used by different people for different rituals that vary based primarily on gender and caste, and although Sanantanist Hindi-speaking Hindus are the primary practitioners, Mauritians from a variety of backgrounds make offerings and prayers at the Kalimai shrines, recognizing the powers of the goddess (Mauritian Hinduism, The Pluralism Project, 2018)

During the nineteenth century, sugarcane agriculture was labor intensive, requiring individuals to plant, water, harvest, and transport the sugar crop to the nearest sugar mill for processing. Prior to 1833, when the British Slavery Abolition Act came into force, the sugar plantation labor supply was obtained through the importation of slaves from nearby Madagascar and the East Coast of Africa (Teelock 2009). With specific reference to Mauritius, the enforcement of the Slavery Abolition Act happened in 1835 – a year later than other parts of the British colonial empire, due to the strong resistance from Mauritian planters (Addison and Hazareesingh 1984: 48). Prior to the abolition of slavery in Mauritius, planters had already foreseen the labor shortage and an apprenticeship system was established. The apprenticeship system, under the guise of retraining and educating ex-slaves, forced them to continue as paid laborers under a labor contract period for 6 years (Allen 1999: 55–56). In practice, this system forced ex-slaves to keep working on the sugar plantations, where they were paid a minimal sum and were restricted by laws that governed marriage, meetings, land ownership, vagrancy, and corporal punishment. Consequently, the apprentice was neither slave nor free. The Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, and its potential impact on laborers on the sugar plantation in Mauritius, was thwarted by the apprenticeship system. Consequently, ex-slaves would choose either maroonage and run away from their place of work, or manumission and work out the remainder of their contracted period (Richard B. Allen 2002). As a consequence, by the time the apprenticeship system ceased in 1839, the general reaction of ex-slaves was to leave the vicinity of the sugar plantations altogether, distancing themselves from the tyranny of the plantation, and moving to more urban center’s or unpopulated regions on the island where they could established their own communities (Mishra 2009).

One significant difference between the system of slavery and indentured labor was their administration. The indentured labor system involved the documentation of each individual’s journey, from their point of recruitment overseas to their contracted employment on the sugar estate, to their death or departure from Mauritius. The British colonial administration recorded each laborer’s name, father’s name, age, village of origin, region, religion, caste, ship, date of arrival, place of contract, and physical features. This detailed documentation can be read in two ways: one as a criticism of the methods used by the colonizers to control and monitor their subjects; and two, as often presented in Mauritius today, a redeeming feature of the British colonial governing system, enabling histories to be traced and the laborer’s points of origin and identities to be retrieved.

In Mauritius, the lack of detailed documentation for slaves continues to impact their descendants and their ability to make links with their ancestral history. In contrast, many descendants of the indentured laborers have a gamut of information available to research their ancestral and familial heritage. With this said, the level of documentation recorded under the indentured labor system was unlikely to have been done for the future good of the laborers and their descendants. Instead, it mirrored the documentation systems already in use by the British administration in other colonies. These systems were used to record and control the colonial population, as with the colonial recording systems used in India. The fact that the descendants of the indentured laborers have such a wealth of historical information about their ancestors today is by coincidence rather than design. Yet has had a great deal of influence on their perceptions of ethnicity and identity.
Table 1

Indentured labor system pathway

Emigration of the Indian laborers was carried out under a government-regulated recruitment strategy from three principal ports – Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. The Indian emigrants who went to distant plantation settlements under the contract system came from diverse regions, including the tribal regions of Eastern India, Bihar, the North West Provinces (present Uttar Pradesh), the Madras Presidency, and Western India. In the later period, many laborers from the northern regions, such as Western parts of the United Provinces and present day Haryana, also emigrated. The main regions of labor supply were the tribal regions of Chota Nagpur in Eastern India, Saran, Chapra, Shahabad, Champaran, Gaya, and Patna in Bihar; Banaras, Ghazipur, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Basti, Bahraich, and Jaunpur in the United Provinces; Chingalpet, Tanjore, Tiruchirappalli, South and North Arcot, Salem, Coimbatore, and Vizagapatam in Southern India; and Ratnagiri in Western India, as shown on the following map (Mishra 2009) (Fig. 2).

The relative proximity of Mauritius to India, already a British colony, along with the abundant supply of potential laborers from the growing unemployed and landless classes, made the ports of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay ideal recruitment and transportation centers for indentured labor. The regions around these ports were primarily agricultural, and the laborers from these areas were deemed to be knowledgeable about farming, as well as fit and strong. Regional events, such as floods, famine, and political unrest, and unemployment resulted in willing participants for the recruitment process. There have been several critiques of the “willingness” of laborers, in particular the inaccurate/false promises of recruiters and the exploitative operations of the indentured labor system. Frequently, the living, work, and pay conditions that actualized once the laborer was stationed in Mauritius did not meet the expectations of the laborers themselves (Teelock 2009; Hugh Tinker 1974; Allen 1999; Carter 1992, 1995, 1996).

Another fundamental difference between the indentured labor system and slavery was the temporality of the indenture contract. For instance, the Mauritian Ordinance of 1849 determined a 3-year contract, and a following ordinance in 1862 reauthorized the period to a 5-year contract (Allen 1999:60). Slavery, on the other hand, was indefinite. The indentured labor system followed a pathway from recruitment to the completion of the labor contract. This pathway became more regulated as time passed. The following diagram depicts the indentured labor system as it was employed in Mauritius and other colonies (Table 1).

The pathway began with the ever increasing demand for sugar in England, as G.L. Beer (cited in Sidney Mintz 1985:39) stated in 1948: “From the middle of the eighteenth century these islands seem never to have been able to produce much more sugar than was needed for consumption in the mother country.” When a planter (the owner of a sugar plantation) required new labor for his estate, they would make a request to the colonial government of Mauritius for new labor recruits. These requests were then transferred to India and other areas where recruitment agents were stationed. The recruitment agents sought out potential laborers and organized the signing of contracts and the placement of prospective laborers into immigration depots at the nearest port. From here, they awaited transportation to Mauritius by ship. On the signing of their contracts and registering as an indentured laborer, the immigrants’ details were entered into administrative records and ledgers and became part of the detailed British colonial record. These records followed the immigrants’ embarkation on the ship, their journey and arrival at their destination, their stay at the Immigration Depot in Port Louis, and their dispatch to specified plantations for their contracted period of labor. All these steps and movements were recorded at certain processing stages. One particular stage that is highly relevant to the topic of ethnicity was the immigrant ticket system.

The immigrant pass or “ticket,” system identified the laborer as an indentured immigrant and therefore subject to specific rules. These rules governed the living and working arrangements of the indentured laborers while resident on the island. The immigrant ticket became an essential document in the laborers day-to-day lives. Containing identifying details such as name, immigration number, date of arrival, name of sugar estate, and from 1865 the ticket included an identification photograph.

The immigrant pass system played an active and vigorous role in the lives of the indentured laborers. In fact, as noted by Peerthum and Peerthum (2014), the ticket system and the high level of vagrancy due to lost or misplaced tickets were at the core of both the colonial government’s attempt to control the laborers and the laborers attempt to resist the regulatory systems imposed on them. It could also be argued that the immigrant ticket system was one of the tangible differences between the systems of slavery and indenture, as it served to classify and identify the laborer with a direct link to their work contract and the terms of the contract agreement. While acting as a controlling and monitoring device, it also ambiguously provided the laborer with a form of verification and legitimacy of movement around the island, keeping the laborer from being labelled and charged as a vagrant. The pass system also served to identify the laborer as a particular kind of immigrant, one from another country, encouraging the identification of a very specific migrant group. The regulatory indentured labor immigrant ticket system and the lengths the colonial government and planters went to keep the required level of laborers available for work emphasizes just how high the economic stakes of the sugar industry were.

In Mauritius, the recruitment of indentured laborers ended in 1910. The Indian indentured labor population was expanding rapidly. The laborers had already formed community groups associated with language, religious practices, and points of origin in the labor camps. A large percentage of laborers had chosen to remain in Mauritius and settle. Some laborers had taken the opportunity to become landowners often in the same area in which they had worked on the sugar plantation, keeping them close to their established social networks. Identifying temples began to dot the land as well as mosques and churches. The growing Indo-Mauritian community had a clear idea of their ancestral heritage, and began to perceive each other and their ancestors as having a significant historical Mauritian story, one of struggle and survival. The growing population of the descendants of the indentured laborers has, in turn, impacted greatly on the demography and cultural landscape of Mauritius, today contributing to what Rosabell Boswell (2006:196–197) describes as, “… the island’s rich tapestry of cultures” or what Erikson (1998: ix) refers to as, a “laboratory of diversity’ that can ‘profoundly’ deepen our understanding of ethnic processes.”

Ethnicity and Diversity

Ethnicity: “The systematic and enduring social reproduction of basic classificatory differences between categories of people who perceive each other as being culturally discrete” (Erikson 1993:3).

Mauritius is frequently described as a country made up of multiple ethnic groups and is often referred to metaphorically as a “rainbow nation.” In fact, Megan Vaughan (2006) describes Mauritius as, “… the most ethnically diverse country on Earth.” The following discussion attempts to explain this ethnic diversity in relation to the impacts of indentured labor on the sociocultural makeup of Mauritius. Today, the people of Indian descent (predominantly descendants of the indentured laborers) are called Indo-Mauritians and identify religiously as either Hindu or Muslim, with the exception of a small number of Indian Catholics who came as indentured laborers from India (Marcel Chowriamah 2010). The people of African descent are called Afro-Mauritians, or Creole, and Europeans are predominantly distinguished as Franco-Mauritians; both these communities associate largely with the Catholic Church. The minority group of Sino-Mauritians, those of Chinese origin, follow Buddhism or Christianity. According to the 2011 census conducted by Statistics Mauritius, Hinduism is the dominant religion with followers making up 48.5% of the population, followed by Christianity (32.7%), Islam (17.3%), and Buddhism (0.4%) (Mauritian Government 2011).

The Indo-Mauritian diaspora contains further complicated religious and cultural differentiations, based on religion and Indian regional languages. The Hindu community in Mauritius includes subgroups, these groups are defined by corresponding languages and religious groups, such as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Marathi. It is the religious and cultural identities that distinguish these Hindu groups, whereas religion remains a unifying signifier for the Muslim Indo-Mauritian community (Selvam 2003).

These diverse communities determine the cultural and religious makeup of Mauritius and while there is crossover for business, trade, employment, education, and national events, they remain markedly separate in social, cultural, and religious contexts. Multiple readings and research would suggest that in social, religious, and kinship matters, these different groups function exclusively. Metaphorically, the edges of each color of the rainbow are clearly bounded rather than blended.

Erikson (2001) refers to ethnicity as a social relationship that is negotiated between people, where ethnic identity is constructed by forces within and outside the group. There is a complex of pressures and ideologies that influence how the concept of an ethnic group forms, develops, and continues to change over time. These include laws, economic resources, language, marriage rules, cultural practices, religious practices, associations with place of origin, food, and dress. The development of ethnic identities and categories in Mauritius is no exception, and the indentured labor system and its legacies have played an important role in the construction of existing community ethnic boundaries. Tijo Salverda (2015:546) comments that, “Most Mauritians see themselves through a mental framework of ethnic belonging and accept ethnicity as a dominant organizing principle of social life.”

The descendants of the indentured laborers are very much entrenched in the organizing principle of ethnicity. The Indian indentured laborers came from highly structured social systems in India. At the time of the indentured labor system, India was predominantly ruled by the British colonial government, functioning as a colonial hierarchical system. The social structure of the Hindu caste system was also a highly structured and hierarchical system. At the time of indenture, the caste system functioned as the dominant social system in India. At the top of this system is the Brahmin, the temple priests who are believed to be the link between the people and gods. Next is the Kshatriya, the rulers and warriors, and after them comes the Vaishya, the merchants and farmers. Beneath them are the Shudras, the unskilled labor classes, and at the bottom of (or below) this group are the untouchables. Lying at the heart of the caste system are Hindu concepts of purity and pollution, where the higher the caste category, the more pure, and the lower the caste category, the more polluted. While this is an extremely simplistic description of a very complex social structure, what is important to recognize in the indentured labor context is that the majority of indentured laborers were Hindu and were familiar with living inside defined social categories where caste laws influenced and governed all areas of social life, such as: (a) the importance of endogamy (marrying within one’s own community), (b) the maintenance of religious rituals and practices, (c) the significance of ancestral genealogy and family origins, (d) the importance of language and culture, (e) the significance of rules around food preparation and consumption, and many more…

The notion of caste was weakened during the process of the indentured labor system and some would argue that it actually dissipated during this time, where the recruitment and transportation circumstances of the laborers meant a mixing of all recruits at the immigration depots, on the ships, and in the labor camps regardless of an individual’s caste. It was difficult for labor migrants to maintain traditions and intentions of purity and religious ritual in such settings. However, even though the laborers found it difficult to maintain caste and religious purity, the idea of a bounded community remained a familiar concept, and as Hollup (1994) argues, the notion of caste became again more relevant in Mauritius post-independence especially within the Indo-Mauritian political domain.

Indentured Labor and Ethnic Boundaries

The following section considers the impacts of the indentured labor system on the formation of distinct ethnic boundaries in Mauritius. If we unpack the indentured labor system as it existed in Mauritius, we find certain features that have helped shape the formation of an ethnic group identity. These features are listed below and will be discussed in detail.
  1. (1)

    The categorization of race and ethnicity

  2. (2)

    Mass migration of Indian laborers

  3. (3)

    The indentured laborer category

  4. (4)

    Land ownership

  5. (5)

    The reinvigoration of endogamy

  6. (6)

    Language, religion, and identity

  7. (7)

    Independence and Indo-Mauritian political power

  8. (8)

    Ancestral heritage and cultural capital


The Categorization of Race and Ethnicity

Before Mauritius became a British colony in 1810, the British empire had already been actively categorizing people into specific racial and ethnic groupings through scientific and anthropological investigations, determining categories of racial types through physical, cultural and behavioral differences. These investigations treated communities of race in a similar way to other colonial scientific investigations such as the study of exotic (foreign) flora, fauna, and geography. “Foreign” subjects were subjected to being measured, photographed, and observed. These investigations sought to clearly define a hierarchy of race and distance the colonial empire from “other” races. The colonial administrators in the colonies sought to make clear distinctions between the multiethnic communities they found themselves governing in the colonies.

The categorization of people during the colonial period helped to structure what we can still see today as official categories of race and ethnicity. The census was one such tool that ordered and classified the various populations in the colonies. In Mauritius, beginning as early as 1830, the census referred to three categories: European, Free Black, and Slave. With private Indian indentured labor contracts beginning in 1834, by 1837 the census included European/Free Black, Apprentice, and Indian categories. The Mauritian census has continued to change and adjust to population and political shifts, such as the further distinction between Hindu and Muslim Indians, Chinese, and a broadening General Population category. Today, as with other postindependence colonies, the use of an ethnic question in the census was removed to help symbolically “forge a common nationalism” and replaced today by a question of language (A. J. Christopher 2005).

Mass Migration of Indian Laborers

Yancey et al. (1976) describe ethnicity as a phenomenon rather than a category; it is something that develops and changes as groups and individuals change over time. For post-migrant communities, to identify as a particular ethnicity, the members of this migrant network must expand, form, and maintain ties with, what Grieco (1998: 705) describes as, other “co-ethnics”. The large numbers of indentured laborers to Mauritius during the nineteenth century meant that their community in Mauritius was already buoyed by large numbers of Indian laborers who were working and living together. These social networks were strengthened by a variety of ties between other indentured laborers. The decision to distribute the newly arrived laborers to the same plantations as other family members or with those from the same village or region encouraged the association of laborers with family ties and similar connections through language, religious practices, and familiar cultural expressions. This intention, though there were many exceptions to this rule, was an attempt by the colonial administration to ensure the labor population remained in Mauritius by encouraging connections with other co-ethnics with similar Indian regional identities. The laborers were therefore able to find support and maintain ties with their Indian origins and what could be described as a continued sense of “Indianness.”

Initially, the indentured labor recruits were predominantly male. In 1839, the ratio of male to female was 56:1. This gender disparity became a concern for the colonial authorities in Mauritius, who saw a close link between the shortage of women and the lack of moral restraint in the indentured labor camps resulting in difficulties maintaining law and order in the colony. As a strategy to correct this imbalance and stabilize the indentured labor population, the authorities introduced new recruitment laws, beginning in 1857, that specified that at least 35% of immigrants arriving in Mauritius had to be women. This was increased to 40% in 1858 and 50% from 1859 to 1865 (Allen 1999:162). Not all women who came to Mauritius were contracted as laborers, some came as wives and daughters, or free migrants. While not contracted laborers, they still performed important roles on the sugar estates. They planted and looked after the labor camp gardens, managed livestock, and were often employed as staff on the sugar estate. The increase in women arriving in Mauritius impacted on the social dynamics of the camps, increasing the practice of religious rituals and marriage. The birth of children in the labor camps encouraged the development of baitkas, (a social meeting place to pray, perform religious rituals and instruction) and a greater desire to settle in Mauritius permanently. By the 1880s, fewer old immigrants returned to India at the cessation of their work contract. In 1880, the island became home to more than 113,000 Indo-Mauritians who had been born in Mauritius and who accounted for 45% of the Islands Indian residents (Allen 1999: 162).

The Indentured Laborer Category

With specific regard to the indentured labor system in Mauritius and ethnic categories, the indentured labor system classified the Indian migrants as a specific kind of migrant in Mauritius. They were governed by different laws regarding work contracts, living conditions, wages, food, and the ability to move around the island. These laws enforced identification processes, criminal convictions, marriage, private trade, and so on. From the moment they arrived in Mauritius, they were numbered, distributed, and monitored as a distinct group. Their records contained specific details that documented their name, origins, tribe, village, religion, caste, physical markings, and photographic identification. They were effectively branded by their status as an “indenture immigrant” and while restrictive in practice, unintentionally over time, allowed for the continued connection between the indentured laborer, their place of origin and ancestral heritage. Today, the indentured labor category is perceived as one of ancestral pride and honor, what Eisenlohr (2007:100) refers to as an ideology of “ancestral culture.” This has encouraged the forming of strong ties between the Indo-Mauritian groups and their Indian origins, and invigorated an ancestral collective memory of struggle, survival, and achievement, helping to legitimize the rise of Indo-Mauritian political power in contemporary Mauritius (Eisenlohr 2007).

Land Ownership

During the mid-nineteenth century in Mauritius, the Indian indentured labor population grew and continued to grow within the labor camps of the sugar estates, as well as in nearby villages where the old laborers would set up homes, and shops. By the 1880s, there were two changes to the plantation economy in Mauritius that created a dramatic shift in the indentured labor landscape greatly influencing the social and political makeup of Mauritius. Firstly, in the late nineteenth century, the sugar industry became more centralized, where the size of sugar mills expanded but decreased in number due to greater efficiency. Secondly, as a result of a drop in the global market for sugar, many small plantation owners lost their business and larger sugar estates sold off parcels of land to survive the slump (Teelock 2009). As a consequence, the indentured laborer was given the opportunity to buy land, called the grand morcellement. Most of the newly available land was purchased by Indian families and laborers. This developed into a growing Indo-Mauritian land owning class. By 1935, 39% of sugar cane plantations were owned by Indo-Mauritians (Eisenlohr 2007; Teelock 2009). As a consequence of land acquisition, there was a movement away from the sugar estates and Indian village communities developed around the rural areas of Mauritius.

The Reinvigoration of Endogamy

One of the most powerful ties in post-migrant communities is the practice of endogamy (marrying only within one’s own community) serving to reinforce a form of social closure and establishing a clear boundary marked by a commitment to a particular ethnic identity. Ari Nave (2000:348) suggests that, “ … an adequate understanding of ethnic group boundaries requires knowledge of the proximate mechanisms driving endogamy and cultural reproduction.”

The majority of Indian indentured laborers practiced endogamy in their Indian homelands, both Hindu and Muslim laborers. Just as with the practice of the caste system, endogamy was difficult to maintain at the time of the indentured labor scheme. Initially, the low levels of female laborers and the mixing of laborers from varied regions made following an endogamous system difficult. As we have already discussed, initially the indentured labor recruits were predominantly male, in 1839, the ratio of male to female was 56:1. Consequently, during the period of indenture, mixed marriages were common. By 1891, the colonial administration in Mauritius produced guidelines on how to collect data on the children of intermarriages, where the child was assigned the ethnic identity of the father, no matter their appearance or cultural identification. The increase in women arriving in Mauritius impacted on the social milieu of the camps, with an increase in the practice of religious ritual and endogamous marriages.

As the population of Indian indentured laborers grew, the traditional practice of endogamy was reinvigorated. Mauritians in general have a clear preference for marrying someone of the same ethnic group. Franco-Mauritians’ also have a preference for marrying “white” conforming to the endogamous marriage patterns of all Mauritian communities (Nave 2000: 548). We understand these preferences to be based upon a preference to marry someone with shared social norms and values. Research done on interethnic marriage by Nave (2000) found that ethnic groups in Mauritius maintained distinct boundaries through dress, religious beliefs and cultural practices, and the practice of endogamy.

Mauritius is commonly described as a plural society: a “fruit salad” of multiculturalism. The discourse about unity in diversity is strong in Mauritius. It has been widely assumed by researchers that in plural societies, rates of interethnic (involving people of different ethnicities) marriage is a common indicator of the level of social integration between groups. However, in Mauritius, we find that interethnic marriages are uncommon, and that intra-ethnic (involving people of same ethnicity) marriages are the predominant organizing principle of marriage. Endogamy and intra-ethnic marriage is important for the continuation of ethnic culture, whereas interethnic marriages reduce the possibilities of passing on ancestral cultural practices and beliefs to the next generation. This is particularly true in Mauritius where heritage and cultural diversity are celebrated and endorsed as National ideologies, where ethnicity and the practice of endogamy is socially accepted (Ng Tseung-Wong and Verkuyten, 2015: 690).

There are of course exceptions to the rule where intermarriage occurs, and in the Indo-Mauritian context, where endogamy is well entrenched. The practice of interethnic marriage is often socially challenging for those families involved (Erikson 1997 cited: Hans Vermeulen and Cora Govers ed. 1997). This is particularly so with marriages between Muslim and Hindu couples, due to strict religious doctrines and tensions between these two groups. Ng Tseung-Wong and Verkuyten (2015) found Mauritius exemplifies a country that is multicultural at the national and public level but is ethnically bounded at the family and cultural community level. They use a descriptive phrase from their research on intermarriage in Mauritius in their title which references directly the common attitude towards endogamy, “I’d rather we be neighbors than lovers”: the two-sidedness of multiculturalism (Ng Tseung-Wong and Verkuyten 2015:690). The common Mauritian discourse rejects “mixed” marriages and is found among all communities. This discourse is encouraged by the significance of ethnic affiliation in Mauritian society, and as Erikson (2012) notes, there is little appeal to having a hybrid identity. So, with the practice of endogamy prevalent in Mauritius, we see how cultural ethnicity can remain a powerful invigorator of social boundaries and ethnic identities within essentially plural societies.

Language, Religion, and Identity

The circumstances of language in Mauritius reflect a similar dichotomy to both nationalism and pluralism. Language in Mauritius can symbolize both unity and disunity. At the time of the 2000 National Census, the languages spoken, in order of prevalence and followed by the number of speakers, were: Creole (806,152); Bhojpuri (142,387); French (39,953); Hindi (7250); Tamil (3623); Telugu (3623); Marathi (1888); Urdu (1189); and Chinese/Hakka (1606). Today, Creole remains the vernacular language of Mauritius, cutting across group boundaries and identities (Tiroumalechetty 2014:17–18). There are many languages spoken in Mauritius and many people speak three or more of them. Language in Mauritius is heavily caught up in debates around communalism and ethnic division in Mauritius. The ideology of a united and inclusive multicultural nation is undermined by post-colonial policies that foster ancestral culture and heritage (Eisenlohr 2007: 264). In recent times, there have been attempts to standardize and institutionalize Mauritian Creole, where it is described as the only cultural feature that transcends all ethnic boundaries in Mauritius. Yet, there has been strong opposition within the dominant Hindu community, who take issue with favoring a national Creole language for fear that the Creole community will claim Creole as their own distinct language base as the national language (Eisenlohr 2007). Consequently, the “ancestral cultural” ideology is gaining a stronger foothold in Mauritius as more and more Indo-Mauritians choose to promote their own ancestral language. The growth in speaking, writing, and publishing of Indian ancestral languages in Mauritius continues to demark ethnic subgroups.

Religion also plays a deciding role in the ethnic divisions of Mauritius. There are three broad religious groupings in Mauritius: Catholic, Hindu, and Islam. As Selvam (2003:28) comments, in the case of Mauritius, “ … in addition to factors such as language and place of origin, religion and places of worship play a significant cementing role in the formation and existence of ethnic groups and maintenance of an ethnic consciousness.” With respect to the indentured labor migrants, religion and identity have gone hand in hand. As previously explained, the indentured laborers were able to continue their religious rituals and practices, albeit in adapted forms and settings that accommodated their new circumstances on the sugar plantations and in the villages of Mauritius.

Today, it is still possible to find clear links between the indentured laborers, the sugar plantation, and traditional religious practices, such as small shrines or temples found among the sugar plantation fields. During the indenture period, the sugar plantation owners realized that religious practice was essential to the well-being of the laborers and therefore allowed for the construction of religious prayer structures in the labor camp. For the Indian indentured laborers, the faithful performance of religious tradition and ritual was directly related to their sense of survival in what was initially experienced as a hostile and laborious circumstance. As is believed in the performance of rituals such as Shivratri and Kavadee today, if these rituals were not performed or done properly, a great misfortune would befall the laborer, their family, village, and community (Tiroumalechetty 2014:67). Tiroumalechetty (2014:67) suggests as an example that religious rituals for Tamil indentured laborers, “… provided the emotional support and strength to face the miseries and injustices of the time and, secondly, it became a binding force grouping the Tamils together under common beliefs, customs and traditions.” The sugar plantations today exemplify how laborer religious practices and rituals continue to signify religious affiliations and traditions by the Indo-Mauritian community. Although there are different religious subgroups within the broader Hindu community, there also exists an overall Hindu unity that functions as a powerful tool for mainatining political influence in Mauritius. So much so, that the advancement of Hinduism in Mauritius is perceived as a threat to the well-being of other ethnic communities (Clare Sisisky 2016). Leo Couacaud (2013) agrees that religion has become the most significant indicator of ethnic differentiation in Mauritius, especially in view of the extent to which religion has been instrumental in constructing group identity and belonging, particularly for Indo-Mauritian ethnic groups.

Independence and Indo-Mauritian Political Power

Throughout the twentieth century and more recently the start of the twenty-first century, we can still see the impacts of indentured labor on ethnicity being played out in the social and political realms of Mauritius. In the words of Patrick Eisenlohr (2011:262), “…peaceful coexistence through the acceptance and promotion of ethnic and religious pluralism is considered “a supreme common good” in Mauritius. Mauritius is described as a plural society, a medley of people who mix, but do not combine. Each distinct group represents different sections of Mauritian society where they live side by side, but separate, yet governed within the same political system (Mehta 1995). Mehta defines Mauritian society as one based on a cultural pluralist model. Ethnicity has a significant influence on Mauritius society, where it continues to divide communities into multiethnic, heterogenous groups. Consequently, each group has its own dynamics of population size, majority or minority groupings, history, and socioeconomic conditions. As such, some groups have greater representation and political force than others.

Throughout the twentieth century, the descendants of the indentured laborers grew in numbers becoming the largest population group in Mauritius, of which Indo-Mauritians were the largest group of indentured laborers. The next largest ethnic category is what the census defines as “the general population” made up of European white settlers, African Creoles, and mixed Creoles, making up 25% of the population. Within this group, and who represent only 1% of the population, are the Franco-Mauritians, who hold the greatest economic power (Mehta 1995). Although the Franco-Mauritians have the greatest economic power in Mauritius, as the dominant land and international business owners, it is the Indo-Mauritian ethnic community that holds the greatest political power. Unlike other British indentured labor colonies, the indentured labor descendant population of Mauritius has managed to forge their way into a dominant political position.

There are a variety of complex factors that have supported this development, and for the purposes of this chapter, we will focus on factors that are directly linked to the history of indentured labor. As previously mentioned, the fast expanding demographics of the post-indentured labor population has played a large role in Indo-Mauritians having a powerful stake hold in the government of Mauritius. The postindependence electoral voting process has favored rural constituencies which have been dominated by Hindu Mauritian communities. Historically, over the last century, there has been strong protest and debate around the exploitation and subjugation of indentured laborers, which led to the implementation of progressive laws that protected their rights.

While the Hindu Indo-Mauritian community was improving its social and economic position in Mauritius, there were also growing tensions between the ethnic communities, concerned with their growing political dominance over minority groups. By the 1960s leading up to the independence of Mauritius from British colonial rule in 1968, there was a growing fear among non-Indian communities that their political and social position would be overshadowed by a dominant Indo-Mauritian Hindu community. This tension saw a large number of Mauritians migrate outside of Mauritius, in particular, members of Catholic Creole communities. To help balance the fears of minority groups being swamped by a Hindu-based government, the Best Loser System (BLS) was introduced as part of the new postindependence electoral system. The aim was to guarantee political representation of “all” communities, especially minority groups. The implementation of the BLS system incorporated ethnic distinctions into the constitution, namely, Hindus, Muslims, Sino-Mauritians, and General Population (Salverda 2015:540).

Again we see the use of ethnic categories to identify the separate communities of Mauritius. As Boswell (2006) suggests, instrumentalization of ethnicity is hard to undo. In plural societies, behind the outward appearance of interethnic compromise, there exists competition between the various ethnic groups who are all attempting to improve their social, economic, and political position. As such, competition and tensions occur between groups, where each aim to have their own priorities and needs met. This is also true for Mauritius.

With the growing indentured labor descendant population and greater political representation, there came a growing interest in the promotion of Indian regional languages, traditions, and cultural events. With an emerging Indo-Mauritian middle class, the community became more confident in the development of family businesses, accessing comprehensive education and the strengthening of intra-ethnic ties through kinship, marriage, business, and caste networks (Salverda 2015: 549).

Hollup noted in 1994 that since post-independence, there has been a revival of caste consciousness in political contexts. Generally speaking, mentioning the caste system in Mauritius is politically incorrect, where the question of a caste structure in the Indo-Mauritian community is highly controversial (Claveyrolas 2016). For some Mauritians, it exists, and for others, it does not. Whether caste is relevant or not relevant in Mauritius today is a complex topic that cannot be addressed sufficiently here; however, what is apparent in Mauritius is the notion of “backing” that can be described as a derivative of the caste system. Rosabell Boswell (2006:155) claims that “backing” is widely used in Mauritius. This practice results in the preferential employment of European and Indo-Mauritian descendants in the private sector and civil service, respectively. Today, jobs and promotions within government and business sectors are still commonly influenced by an employee’s ethnic network (Bunwaree 2002). These links may exist through family and kinship networks, caste or religious group membership. The existence of “backing” serves to create further tensions between the different ethnic communities in Mauritius, where some groups appear to have greater access to resources and opportunities than others (Lyn M Hempel 2009).

Even though there exist marked differentiations between each ethnic community in Mauritius, Mauritians manage to unconsciously and routinely navigate these differences at a national level, where there does exist a sense of social cohesion. This is exemplified by the creole term “Lakorite, a word that does not have a direct equivalence (or roots) in the English or French language but means a common nationhood (Salverda 2015). Erikson (1998) has commented on the positive atmosphere of interethnic compromise and cooperation in Mauritius; however, Boswell (2005: 201) also suggests that this sense of social cohesion is a veneer, covering over the real competition and struggles that exist between groups for hegemony (leadership) and control. One such example of this is the underlying negative discourse associated with the descendants of slaves, identified as belonging to the Creole community, where they are perceived by other Mauritian ethnic groups to be of mixed heritage and therefore a hybrid group, with no clear ethnicity. This becomes particularly difficult for the Creole community when the majority of Mauritians emphasize ethnicity and ancestral origins as highly significant in Mauritian society. Consequently, today there is a great push towards connecting the descendants of Afro-Mauritians and Slaves with their African origins (Boswell 2005). This is a way for the Creole community to strengthen their political position in Mauritius, as a bounded community determined by a similar heritage and particular cultural traits. As Boswell (2005:212) observed, “…knowing one’s origins and celebrating it … was becoming more important because it had become the only thing that tells others who one is and establishes belonging.” Hence, there is a focus on researching Afro-Mauritian history in Mauritius, including research of archaeological sites and a growing interest in promoting music, dance, and language that can be linked to their African heritage.

Ancestral Heritage and Cultural Capital

The shifting status of the indentured laborers as colonial subjects (objects of labor) to the transformation over time of the status of their descendants is astounding given their subservient beginnings. The transformative narrative of the Indo-Mauritian community is central to their sense of identity and belonging. For the descendants of the indentured laborers today, the valorization of ancestors has become a form of “cultural memorialization” through a repetitive narrative (Hirsch 1997:4). In Hirsch’s words: “this involves an activity occurring in the present in which the past is continuously modified and re-described, even as it continues to shape the future.” Ancestral heritage and memorialization could also be described as a form of cultural capital: an asset that can be institutionalized, objectified, or embodied, that helps promote social mobility, that is different to financial capital (David Throsby 1999). The narrative of the indentured laborers as brave, strong, and tenacious helps to further substantiate the Indo-Mauritian’s social status and negates any old narratives of the indentured laborers as slaves, victims, as downtrodden, sick, or weak. This narrative is reinforced by the descendants’ continual reference to their indentured labor ancestors with pride, honor, and gratitude.

Ancestor worship takes on a very powerful role in reaffirming family and descendant community histories and is inherently involved in Indo-Mauritian religious practices and rituals. Because the Indo-Mauritian community dominates national and political arenas, indentured labor heritage sites, objects, and cultural traditions have become important cultural capital in Mauritius. These findings resonate with those of Eisenlohr (2007:100), where he claims that the improved social and political status of the Indo-Mauritian community is explained by their adherence to ancestral traditions, “Hindus in Mauritius have in the end been redeemed by their steadfast attachment to ancestral traditions and values, which are responsible for their economic success and climb upward from a previously inferior position in the political system.” According to Eisenlohr (2007), because all communities in Mauritius have origins from “elsewhere,” the cultivation of ancestral traditions and historical narratives help to cement the successes of the postcolonial experience.

Hinduism, while remarkably old, complex, and diverse, has always incorporated ideas of ancestral worship and ancestral rites (Sayers 2015). These ideas and practices most certainly travelled with the indentured laborers from India and were cultured and nurtured amidst the new environment of the indentured labor camps. While these traditions and religious practices have adapted over time, having a more Mauritian flavor, they have nevertheless remained a stable indicator of Indo-Mauritian identity and culture. The practice of Indo-Mauritian religious pilgrimages, such as Shivratri and Kavadee, and the ancestor ritual of Gran Dimoun are good examples of just how important ancestral and religious traditions are in contemporary Mauritius today.

Gran Dimoun is a family ritual usually conducted in the home on the 1st January each year. It is specifically practiced to honor family ancestors. Thaipoosam Cavadee is a yearly celebration performed in devotion of Lord Murugan. On this day the Tamil people show deep thanks and appreciation for having a prosperous year and ask for the deity’s blessing. It involves, purity rituals and fasting as well as physical sacrifice, such as body piercing, walking on nailed shoes, carrying the heavy wooden cavadee (mountain) etc. It is considered so significant it has been given public holiday status. The Mauritian Maha Shivaratri festival is the largest Hindu pilgrimage outside of India. Thousands of devotees walk from all corners of the island to Ganga Talao the sacred lake in the centre of the island also called Grand Bassin, where the great night of Lord Shiva is celebrated. The festival exemplifies the Hindu tradition of pilgrimage, an imperative aspect of Hindu religion that connects the human world with the sacred. (cited from The Pluralism Project Harvard University In the Indo-Mauritian context, these are not only religious performances but also collective re-enactments and commemorations of the past sufferings of the immigrant ancestors (Eisenlohr 2004:93). There are many examples of religious performances enacted in Mauritius depending on the particular religious community (Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, etc.) and their calendar of religious festivals and auspicious days. The social lives of Indo-Mauritians are centered around these religious events and auspicious occasions. As such, we also find the celebration of festivals and ethnic group identity celebrated and supported at the Government level, where public holidays include specific days for each ethnic community in Mauritius.

As previously discussed, language has also played an important role in defining ethnic boundaries in Mauritius and also performs as an important form of cultural capital. Patrick Eisenlohr (2007:173) discusses the attachment and reinvigoration of ancestral languages in Mauritius performing in similar ways to religious traditions. He notes how traditional ancestral languages have grown as a political focus in Mauritius since post-independence. Today, the teaching of regional Indian languages in respect to ancestral tradition also continues the “valorization” of their ancestral heritage and helps to ensure the continuity of their Indian origins and culture. In turn, the practice of ancestral language keeps the Indo-Mauritian community tightly bound.


The indentured labor system, by its reliance on migrant labor and its innate categorizing structure, encouraged the development of a plural society; a society with strong ethnic affiliations that differentiate each group from another. While the influx of indentured laborers does not explain fully the development of a multiethnic society in Mauritius, as there were already clear divisions between the Franco-Mauritians, slaves, and others before the arrival of the indentured laborers, it has, however, fostered clear divisions between the indentured labor migrants, their employers, and other Mauritian communities. The indentured laborers were perceived as distinctly different to any other group. They were allowed to speak their own language, practice religious rituals and cultural traditions, remain endogamous, eat and dress according to their own customs, build temples and shrines, own parcels of land, and eventually become business owners. These opportunities all began within the auspices of the indentured labor system, a system that strongly signified difference and bounded this particular group through specific laws and administrative processes. It is no surprise that as the indentured laborers completed their work contracts and chose to remain in Mauritius, they had already established strong social networks and belonged to clearly marked ethnic communities. The sheer number of indentured laborers that arrived and remained in Mauritius had a pronounced impact on the demographics of Mauritius and altered the social, economic, and political constitution of the island. At a broader social level, this has resulted in an imbalance of ethnic group population numbers, political representation, and access to resources and equal opportunities. While there does exist a perception of social cohesion at the national level, the significance of ethnicity and group identity remains a dominant force. The growing interest in ethnic group identity, history, and ancestral heritage would suggest that the cultural plurality of Mauritius is likely to continue with further cultural and ethnic distinctions and boundaries being further defined and encouraged.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.AnthropologyCanterbury UniversityChristchurchNew Zealand

Section editors and affiliations

  • Lyndon Fraser

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