chapter  2
20 Pages

Photographic portraits of migrants from the Indentured Labour Archives in Mauritius: a cross-cultural encounter

ByKATHLEEN HARRINGTON-WATT

Between 1839 and 1842 two entirely different experiments were realised in Europe: the first was the invention of photography in 1839, and the second was the start of the ‘great indentured labour experiment’ in 1842. 1 These two disparate and foreign systems dramatically changed societies around the globe: the photograph revolutionised how people viewed the world, enabling reality to become a recorded object fixed in time, and indenture became the alternative cheap labour system for the colonies after the British slave trade was abolished in 1833. The island of Mauritius was the first and largest site of the British regulated indenture system, where labourers were recruited from other colonies, predominantly from India, at a critical time when newly freed slaves moved off the sugar plantations to establish their own self-sufficient communities. The need for cheap labour in Mauritius was tied directly to the ever-increasing demand for sugar and its profitability. Sugar’s profitability was relative to high yields and low production costs; hence the supply and control of cheap labour was of great significance to colonial authorities. 2 The sugar trade industry heavily underscores both the history of indentured labour in Mauritius and the indentured labour photographs that are the subject of this chapter.