Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Mauritius: Freedom from Slavery

Every year, Mauritius observes a national holiday on February 1st. For, this day marks a defining moment in the collective memory of the Mauritian people's struggle for dignity and human rights. Almost two centuries ago, it was on this day in 1835 that the abominable practice of Slavery was formally abolished in the Island State, liberating a mass of humanity from the clutches of an oppressive social order. 

The story of how Mauritius- once a virtually uninhabited Island off the southeast coast of Africa, became home to close to 1.5 million people today; professing various faiths- including Hinduism, Christianity, Islam- and speaking different languages, including Creole, French, English, Tamil, Urdu, Hindi and Bhojpuri and Chinese- is a fascinating chapter in the making of the modern world. There is little doubt that the modern identity of Mauritius as ‘a rainbow nation’ is a tribute to the cultural confluences it inherited from its complex past. 

Originally discovered by the Arabs in the 9th century; successively colonized by the different European powers from the 17th century- the Deutch, the French and the British- in the last four centuries; modern Mauritius is, in many ways, shaped by this Island nation's encounter with the different phases of global capitalism and the trajectories of the European imperial forays into Africa and Asia, including the strategic control of the Indian Ocean region for safeguarding their vital, commercial interests. The detachment of a part of the Mauritian territory- the Chagos Archipelago and offering the same on a virtual, perpetual lease to the United States by the last colonial power- Britain- before the granting of national independence to Mauritius in 1968, continue to remind all of us in the global South about the long shadows of imperial hubris that permanently scar the psyche of nations and peoples. (For a review of the continuing Mauritius-UK dispute over the Chagos Archipelago, click here).

Even as the colonial masters sought to subjugate the nations they conquered through military means, they found it politically convenient to stake the moral high ground of good governance, rule of law and human rights in the shaping of national policies. Hence, the colonial, administrative practices in the Indian Ocean region, including in relation to questions of slavery and ‘rule of law’ in the conquered territories vis-a vis the subjugated peoples, can be seen as a partial concession to the tectonic shifts in the global thinking around questions of human dignity and basic rights. The abolition of slavery in the British colonies and the introduction of the system of ‘contract labour’ with a semblance of rights and privileges for the migrant working class can only be seen against this backdrop.

With the British colonialist rulers abolishing Slavery in Mauritius in 1835; the African slaves (who were ill-treated during the days of slavery and now liberated from their bondage through the new Law) mostly chose to abandon the agricultural fields and move to small coastal villages. To protect their commercial interests and to source cheap labour to the growing sugar cane industry, the British planters in Mauritius invented the system of ‘Indentured Labour’ (“Coolees”/contract workers). ‘Indenture’ was simply a written contract signed by a person to work for another person or company for a fixed tenure and sum of money. Compared to “slave” labour, indenture was projected as “free” labour, even though the workers were bonded by contract for five years under harsh conditions. The system was so stalked in favour of the colonisers and the workers had to face appalling conditions on a daily basis- recruitment, transportation, housing, living, working, etc.- that the scholar Hugh Tinker would call it “a new system of slavery”, in his seminal book on the subject. (A New System of Slavery, Hugh Tinker, Oxford University Press, 1974). 

As it happened, in about 80 years from 1835, more than two million Indian labourers were transported to different British colonies, including the Caribbean islands. Historians today consider this episode as one of the biggest international movement of workers in the modern times, laying also in its wake, the foundation for the large global Indian diaspora that we see today.

While many of these workers returned to India after their contracts, a majority of them chose to stay back by obtaining a new indenture. From slave-like working and living conditions, through their incredible hard work and persistent efforts, the labourers became planters, taking over the plantations and parcels of land from their erstwhile colonial masters. Hence, the labourers who remained built up vibrant Indian communities and sometimes even changing forever the demographies and socio-cultural and political histories of the colonies. Consider the statistics: ‘In Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, Indians constitute 40%, 51% and 35%, respectively, of the population’. Today, nearly 65% of Mauritians are of Indian origin; giving them dominance in national politics. 

The fact that the descendants of the indentured labourers went on to become leaders of their nations complete the picture of an extraordinary shift in material fortunes in the odyssey of generations of bonded labourers; calling our attention to the cycle of history that the Qur’an constantly alludes to. Today, Mauritius is the Divinely-chosen abode of His Manifestation in our times. Hadhrat Munir Ahmad Azim Saheb (atba), the Divinely-inspired exemplar of Islam and renewer of all faiths, lives in the country. Come to think of it, Hadhrat Saheb (atba) himself is the descendant of a generation of Indian immigrants in Mauritius who had seen life in all its vagaries under very trying circumstances. The very fact that Allah (swt), in His Infinite Wisdom, raised a Messenger in this era among this people holds its own significance for those who reflect on the matter, Alhamdulillah. 

As the Qur’an indicates through the story of the Children of Israel; when Allah (swt) decides to end a people’s servitude, He emancipates them from slavery and gives them sovereignty in the land and material fortunes. Even more importantly, Prophets and Messengers are raised among them; to complete the Divine favour and bestow dignity and eminence on an enslaved people. Like a Moses (as) in the times of a Pharaoh, a Divine Elect is raised to liberate them from the bondage of their circumstances. In his Friday Sermon of 02 February 2018 (15 Jamad’ul Awwal 1439 AH), Muhyi-ud-Din Al Khalifatullah Hadhrat Munir Ahmad Azim Saheb of Mauritius spoke succinctly on the previous generations' struggles for dignity and rights and the duty of everyone today to remember and pray for those who knew harsh times in the past and to remain grateful for the Divine favours in our times, including freedom from slavery and other degrading national and spiritual conditions.

Read the Extracts below:  


And yesterday, as you all know, was a public holiday, marking 183 years since the abolition of slavery. Our grandparents (of all nations) have faced countless atrocities, hardships, and great difficulties, where their fundamental rights, their human rights, had been trampled. It was in the 1800s that the countries of the world began one by one to abolish slavery, but see how much Islam - the perfect religion - is great!

It is Islam first, since the 7th century in Arabia, with the advent of the greatest prophet that the world has ever known and shall never witness again in the future (that is, such a prophet of his calibre), that the divine commandments came down to teach humanity how to abolish slavery little by little. This step towards the abolition of slavery was so enormous because at that time the slaves were treated like animals and with the arrival of the noble prophet Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh), the slaves, who were considered as less than nothing found their rights, their human rights, and therefore Allah through the Quranic teaching and also through the example of His prophet (pbuh) opened the door to the emancipation of slaves where they had the opportunity to regain their dignity as human beings and their freedom. Alhamdulillah, Summa Alhamdulillah.

We must thank Allah that He has brought us into being as Muslims and with all our human rights. In truth, we are very lucky when we think about the people of the past, and the utter destitution they suffered when they were abducted and sold and forced to become slaves, and where they were uprooted from their homelands and shipped to other countries to work like animals in these countries. May Allah have mercy on all those who have lived in these atrocious conditions, and may Allah reward them for all the sacrifices and patience they have taken in such difficult situations. Ameen.”