The British Period
Throughout its history, every new group to arrive in Mauritius has left its mark on the island. When the British captured the island from the French in 1810, they began a period of rapid social and economic change for Mauritius, from the end of slavery to a huge increase in population.
The British arrived and took on roles in the island’s government, but many French businessmen and property owners stayed for the agricultural industry. The plantations continued using slaves to grow and harvest sugarcane. Treatment of these slaves was often brutal, filled with tiring work and harsh living conditions. Historians estimate that about 80% of the island’s population were slaves during this time.
In 1835, the British government abolished slavery in all of its territories – including Mauritius. With the slaves freed, the British needed laborers to work on the island’s plantations. The Great Experiment was their answer to this problem.
The Great Experiment tested a new system of workers called indentured laborers. These workers voluntarily signed up for the job, and worked under a contract, with a set pay, and agreed end date. Still, working on the plantations remained a demanding and difficult job.
The Great Experiment became one of the largest human migrations ever. The British established the Aapravasi Ghat in 1849 as a way to process the massive amount of new arrivals. All indentured laborers had to pass through Aapravasi Ghat, meaning “Immigration Depot” in Hindi, before starting their lives in Mauritius. The laborers mainly arrived from India, with a smaller portion coming from China.
While Mauritius no longer uses indentured labor, many people in the country today descended from these laborers. The majority of the population is of Indian descent, and many Indian customs have become a part of Mauritian culture.
What it lacks in size, Mauritius makes up for with its huge amount of history. When I climbed the steps at Aapravasi Ghat, I thought about the many people who had walked here before me, taking steps that would change their lives and history as we know it.