Servants, Sirdars and Settlers: Indians in Mauritius 1834-1874

Author:   Carter, Marina
Publisher:   Oxford University Press
Reviewer:   Sabah Khan

Carter, Marina. 1995. Servants, Sirdars and Settlers: Indians in Mauritius 1834-1874. Delhi: Oxford University Press, ISBN-10: 0195632966pp.343    


Servants, Sirdars and Settlers: Indians in Mauritius 1834-1874 is a descriptive work by historian Marina Carter, which deals with the character of the nineteenth century indentured migration. This book offers a comprehensive account of Indian indentured labor in Mauritius, particularly, the transition from migrants to settlers. It provides an exhaustive account of how labor recruitment evolved through years and living conditions on the plantation between 1834 to 1874. 

This text moves beyond the prevalent perspectives of officials, planters and historians. Historians like Hugh Tinker saw indenture as ‘a new system of slavery’, but for Carter it offers a static view which does not incorporate changes over time in the conditions of indentured workers. In contrast to these approaches, the revisionist studies have brought a new dimension to the historiography by the use of quantitative data which has destroyed stereotypes of official accounts. Most studies on indentured migration have assumed that either recruits were obtained by deception or those who were unemployed voluntarily engaged in it. The issue of how recruitment of bonded labour system was maintained has been scarcely explored. Carter’s study comes as a breakthrough, which explores the means by which Indian indentured workforce was recruited for Mauritius through the use of returnees.    

Most of the literature available are historical studies of indenture but this particular work relied on local correspondence between the Mauritian immigration Office and its emigration agents in India, petitions and statements of Indians under indenture.  The arguments in the book are substantiated with statistical tables and graphs. Carter has taken archival data in a systematic way, adding temporal dimension to it which marks the systematization. The temporal aspect becomes important as it was in 1834 that indentured immigration began and 1874 represented a watershed in the history of indenture as it marked a slow process of retreat and reform. This book can be classified under old diaspora but unlike other studies of the period which had primarily relied on records, this work takes account of an important category of ‘returnee’. 

Carter has provided a wholistic picture of indentureship in the eight chapters, beginning with the ideological and economic foundations of the system i.e. as ‘great experiment’ testing the proposition of free labor as more productive than slaves; while economic foundations being that of cheap labour supply. She offers a discussion of push and pull factors of migration, who migrated, from where, their religious and caste profiles, the experience of the voyage, at the depot, modes of controlling workforce through mechanisms of pass system and labour contract. This text also takes account of migration of women not in terms of an escape but the issues they faced with in the colony i.e. their dependency on men as they were not directly recruited, their vulnerability due to imprisonment of men, etc. Carter's study is admirable for the attention that it pays to gender, bringing out three images of women like immoral, polyandrous; secondly, that of reproducers of labor force and thirdly, women as small planters and heads of households. 

The book includes an elaborate discussion on family, culture and religion in the plantation context. It sheds light on how the estate labourers refashioned their cultural, traditional symbols and practices in Mauritius, which they had carried over from the old society. Indenture was generally seen as destructive for family, but Carter emphasized on the stability of family and how people were able to recreate the sacred topography of India in Mauritius with their religious traditions, symbols, festivals and temples. It distinctively acknowledges the presence of caste in diaspora and its transformation in immigrant cultures from structure to culture. In her discussion of such aspects she has marked as shift from other scholars writing on the same issue.

In chapter eight of the book, author discussed the impact of indenture based primarily on statistical data. Between 1846-1871 percentage of males employed in sugar cultivation fell and the Indians working for proprietors gradually diminished in favor of job-contracting system. Some Indians were now planters in their own right, others entered commerce, primarily, transport sector. Old immigrants purchased small plots of land and moved off estates. The only real beneficiaries of indenture and those most likely to become coolie millionaires were the sirdars and job-contractors whose wages and benefits far outweighed the earnings of ordinary labourers. Sirdars received higher wages and double rations from planters and became money lenders and shopkeepers. Overall only a minority of immigrants were able to profit from the indenture. Indentured servants did become settlers in Mauritius, but their status remained insecure and dependent upon the acquisition of property and wealth in sufficient quantity.

One of the objectives of this study has been ‘to chart shifts in strategies of labour mobilization from tacit acceptance of male-dominated migrations to espousal of family settlement’ (Carter 1995:6). It emphasizes those areas of migrant experience which were outside the realm of official world, for instance the role of returnee migrants or sirdars in creation of migrant streams. Unlike the Tinkerian school, which tended to minimize the impact of family or group migration on the indentured experience, Carter emphasizes on the opportunities created from migration and the ability of the individual indentured laborers to shape their own destiny. Its premise seems convincing that labour migration in Mauritius can be classed as somewhere between the Kangani and indenture models. Kangani being a labour recruitment system in parts of Southeast Asia under British colonial rule. Under this system, the recruitment was taken up by the Kangani (the foreman), an Indian immigrant himself, who would directly recruit migrants from India. 

This book deals with three important categories of sirdars. First category is of sirdars, who were elected by the planters or labourers to supervise the field labour and also involved in returnee recruitment; second category is that of settlers who emerged from the rank of indentured servants and often followed the path leading from indenture to sirdari and ultimately, to the purchase of land and acquisition of status of small planter. Third category is returnee i.e. dissatisfied with the quality of migrants dispatched by commercial collectors, planters began to send back Indians who had worked well to recruit others, who often recruited amongst their own kin or village community. Carter has brought out the important role of returnees in indentured migration. Returnees played a significant role in labour mobilization as well as in reduction of capital wastage in recruiting. They were also important transmitters of information to new recruits about the changing conditions in colony. Returnees transformed the image of overseas destinations from an unknown to a known world for potential migrants. 

Marina Carter achieves the task set out, i.e. to go beyond the official correspondence and colonial discourse, presents a range of new data and insights into the mobilization of indentured labourers and their patterns of settlement overseas. This meticulous text brings out the distinctive pattern of labour migration that emerged in Mauritius, distinguishing it from slavery and other forms of migration. There are some limitations to the work as well, as it leaves one important area unexplored: namely, the emerging nature of the relationships between the Indians and the ex-apprentice populations as the two groups struggled. Another shortcoming in Carter’s work is the lack of definitions for the variables used in the work like ‘servants’ and ‘settlers.’ Nevertheless, it remains an engaging book offering a nuanced understanding of indentured labour. This book would be resourceful for scholars studying history, migration and diaspora.  


Sabah Khan, Doctoral Student, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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