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‘A few Tarzans and men Fridays … of obscure origin’ — Britain’s shameful history of indenture

Chagos

Image: © Commonwealth Foundation

Priya N Hein talks about her fictionalised account of Britain’s shameful treatment of the Chagos islanders in the second of our series of interviews with the contributors to ‘We Mark Your Memory: writings from the descendants of indenture’. Published by the School of Advanced Study and the Commonwealth Foundation in association with Commonwealth Writers, it explores through poetry and prose, the indentured heritage of the 21st century.

Why did you decide to take part in this anthology?

I responded to a call for submissions issued last year by Commonwealth Writers, who were looking for submissions from descendants of Indian indentured labourers. I decided to submit a piece about the Chagos islands and was very pleased that it was selected.

Prior to the book, were you aware of the scale of the Indian indentured labour system? And was it, in fact, merely a ‘sanitised’ form of slavery?

Being a direct descendant of Indian indentured labourers, who arrived on the island of Mauritius in 1874, I was aware of the system but not the full scale.

In 1834, Mauritius was selected by the British Government for what was known as ‘The Great Experiment’ to test the system of indentured labour. Although the system was meant to replace slavery, it was in fact just another form of exploitation so in that sense, it was a ‘sanitised’ form of slavery.

I was able to learn more about the scale of the Indian indentured labour system when I visited the Immigration Depot ‘Aapravasi Ghat’ in Port-Louis, a UNESCO world heritage site, where the indentured labour diaspora began. It was built to receive labourers mainly from India, Africa and Madagascar to work on the island’s sugar estates as part of the ‘Great Experiment’. It is now a museum, which represents the historic testimony of indenture and holds great symbolic meaning for the millions of descendants.

The success of this ‘Great Experiment’ in Mauritius led to its adoption by other colonial powers, resulting in a worldwide migration of more than two million indentured labourers. Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million indentured labourers arrived in Mauritius from India to work on the island’s sugar plantations, or to be transferred to the neighbouring Reunion Island, or to Australia, southern and eastern Africa and the Caribbean. This global economic system became one of the greatest migrations in history.

What has giving voice to the individuals featured in the book meant for you?

Although the characters in my piece, ‘Paradise Island’, are fictional, the story is based on the actual deportation of the Chagossian population in the 1960s–70s. The background to the story is a complex political landscape in which a whole population became pawns. The Chagos islands was home to the Chagossians, and this forced exile enacted by the British government was because it wanted to lease the islands to the US for the deployment of a military base. The strategic position of the Chagos archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean, has made it one of America’s main military bases (for example, Diego Garcia is used as a launchpad for bombing missions in Afghanistan).

ChagosA few years ago, I visited a temporary exhibition about the Chagos hosted by the Blue Penny Museum in Port-Louis. I was moved by their horrific stories, especially by the official communiqué (right, click to enlarge) dated 1966 describing the Chagossians as ‘a few Tarzans and men Fridays…of obscure origin’, and wanted to learn more about the Chagos islands. The more I discovered about the small Chagossian population, the more I wanted to give voice to their tragic story and the way they had been mistreated and ‘dumped’ on Mauritius.

For my research, I was in touch with Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugee Group, who is actively fighting for their right to return to their original homeland.

‘We are a small population living in exile…But we ask the world to respect us and let us return home,’ pleads Bancoult.

How do you think the book has been received so far?

Although it is still early, I believe the anthology, which brings together for the first time, writing from across the Commonwealth, has been very well received. It has already had good coverage in the Mauritian press. I am happy that so many descendants of indentured labourers have been brought together in such a way. It inspiring but also empowering, and will enable us to promote the work even further.

What will you be working on next?

I am currently in the process of finalising a bilingual children’s book (in French and Creole), sponsored by the Rodrigues division of l’Alliance Française, and published shortly by Editions Vizavi in Mauritius. The main character is a ‘Dodo solitaire’ from Rodrigues. The illustrations were done by a group of Rodriguan children in a workshop led by the illustrator Sophie Bazin (aka Mary-des-Ailes) using recycled material and the ancient Gond art technique which originates from Madhya Pradesh. I am also working on a novella that is set in London and Mauritius.

Born in Mauritius, Priya N Hein is the author and illustrator of several popular children’s books published in English, French, Mauritian Creole and German. She has participated in numerous book fairs and programmes for Mauritian radio and television, and was shortlisted for the Outstanding Young Person’s Award, Mauritian Achievers Award and nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

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