THE EARLY INDIAN PRESENCE IN MAURITIUS

The use of Indian languages on the island is associated by most of us with the huge immigrations of the 19th century. In fact, the Indian presence dates from the earliest days of human settlement of Mauritius. There were slaves and convicts from Bengal and South India on the island during the years of Dutch occupation, who no doubt conversed in their own languages with other immigrants from their regions of origin. No details of their linguistic skills from this period, survive, however. Their numbers were very small, and we can at present only guess at their means of communication with fellow-Indians and with the heterogeneous slave population of Dutch Mauritius.

The free South Indian community of the Isle of France, known as the Malabars, are the best known of these groups of early Indian arrivals. They lent their name to an entire section of the capital, which became known as the Camp de Malabars (present day Plaine Verte and its environs), occupied important posts in the government of the day, and were a significant element of the local socio-political scene. The Isle of France was not a secular state – Christianity was the religion of the rulers, and Christian names were imposed for the purposes of civil status records.  An important group within  the Malabar community was already Catholic, many having been influenced by the strong Jesuit presence in South India, but another faction remained staunchly Hindu.  Like a third community of Indian origin in the Isle of France, the free Lascar or Muslim population, they paid only lip-service to the state religion, adopting Christian first names and accepting baptism where necessary, but adhering to their own faith. The Muslim community was more heterogeneous in composition, comprising members from as far afield as Bengal and Bombay, as well as some South Indians. Many of their number had originally been seafarers, but by the late 18th century, many Muslims had settled permanently on the Isle of France, as cultivators of land, market traders and the like. Finally, the slaves brought from India and sold to Isle of France inhabitants were also from various regions of the country, and hence spoke different languages.  Records clearly indicate that amongst the servile population of the island were Bengalis, Telegus, Tamils and even some Marathis, so that all of these languages must have been spoken on the island at this time. Again, however, few records survive, and the impulse towards creolisation was strong.

THE PRE-INDENTURE 19TH CENTURY

Even before the streams of indentured labour which began in 1834 and were to revolutionise the demographic make-up of Mauritius, new Indian immigrants made an impact on the new British colony. Indeed, Indian troops participated in the capture of the island itself, and whilst most were shipped back to fight other wars for the British within a few months of the conquest, it is possible that some stayed on. The new British administrators brought civil servants from India who were competent in English and who occupied clerical positions in the new colony. Annasamy, a Tamil who went on to be an important planter, owning Bon Espoir, was one of several Indians who arrived in the first few years of British rule, to take up employment in a government department.

Indeed it was the Tamil language which was the most influential of the Indian vernaculars in Mauritius prior to the mass arrival of Bhojpuri speaking North Indians. Trading communities of South Indian Tamils and Western Indian Gujarati speakers were the first to establish printed material in their languages on the island, and it is no coincidence that on Mauritian banknotes the Tamil language takes pride of place, and that Gujarati also figures. This is a throwback to the relative importance of these languages in the past – an issue which has recently caused controversy in a modern Mauritius where Hindi is now the dominant Indian vernacular. An attempt to give Hindi a more prominent place on the banknotes resulted in a climbdown after Tamils – and others with a sense of history! – protested.  It was a strong indication that language remains, and has always been, a political question on the island.