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.