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*Corresponding author: Jayshree Mungur-Medhi, Manager Technical Section, National Heritage Fund, Research Collaborator, University of Mauritius, Mauritius
How to cite this article: Jayshree M M. ‘Archaeology of Indenture’; Mauritius is Setting up a New Avenue of Archaeological Research. Glob J Arch &
Anthropol. 2019; 10(2): 555783. DOI: 10.19080/GJAA.2019.10.555783
For nearly 20 years now, though with a toddler pace, Mauritius has seen the introduction of systematic archaeological studies as one of the important means of studying the history of the island. Different types of sites have been surveyed and excavated around the island including fortifications, temporary settlements, industrial vestiges and others. Furthermore, archaeological research in Mauritius is a contribution to the global perspective of archaeological investigation as well as to the understanding of World’s history and dynamics marked by phenomena like Colonialism, Slavery and Indenture and even environmental change due to anthropogenic impact. Mauritius has reached a point when defining the different disciplines within the field of archaeology has become very important. This paper is one of the attempts to look at this question and to give a direction to an area of study. It discusses the concept of ‘Archaeology of Indenture’, a disputed term among archaeologists working on the island, for it is a new term being coined and up to now confined to this country. This paper was presented in the international seminar on Indenture held on 28-29 September 2017 in Mauritius.
Figure 1 the first site where archaeological investigation was undertaken in the country was at Fort Frederik Hendrik, a site located in the South Eastern Coast of the island. It was surveyed in 1895 by L.H. de Forbille who presented a report on the ruins to the Comité des Souvenirs Historiques. Nearly 100 years later, in 1972 the Foundation for Cultural History of the Dutch Overseas (CNO) led by Paul Van Vliet undertook a survey of the same site and a test trench was excavated . However, these were standalone, remote investigations which remained unpublished. After that instance, there was no mention of Archaeology at all. As in many parts of the world, Archaeology was not easily accepted by the classical historians in Mauritius as well; it was for long not considered an appropriate method to study the history of the country by many historians as it consists of the recent history of about 300 years, a period rich in archival documents.
Archaeology reappeared in the country through the
archaeological investigation project of the same site in 1997 by a
Dutch team led by the archaeologist Peter Flore. The six seasons
of archaeological field work were spread over six years and were
undertaken in collaboration with the Mauritius Museum Council
. This was indeed the first systematic and well documented
archaeological project with reports and publications which sow
the seed of Historical Archaeology in Mauritius. Fort Frederik
Hendrik is a fortification and settlement site related to the first
occupation of the island that is by the Dutch. The same site was
later occupied by the French who built upon the remains from the
Dutch occupation. Archaeological studies revealed the remains
of the fortification along with other vestiges like the church, the
prison, the bakery and associated features  (Figure 2).
Another fortification site investigated around the same period
is that of Ile de La Passe, an islet on the southeastern coast of
Mauritius. Located on the sea pass to enter the island, Ile de la
Passe, indeed accommodated an important fortification built by
the French and later reinforced and used by the British as well.
The islet was used to control access to the mainland from the
eastern part and played an important role in the Napoleonic
War, ‘Combat de Grand Port’ of 1810. The archaeological project
was led by the British archaeologist Geoffrey Summers and the
architect Francoise Summers. Detailed documentation of all the
features and structures were undertaken followed by excavations
 (Figure 3).
Simultaneously was the Maroon Archaeological project
undertaken by University of Mauritius in the year 2002-2004;
a project commissioned by the National Heritage Fund and led
by the historian Vijaya Teelock and the Indian archaeologist
Amitava Chowdhury, then assistant professor at the university.
This project was an initiation to archaeological investigation into
sites related to slavery. Reconnaissance survey was undertaken on
several sites while in depth archaeological investigation including
excavations were undertaken on 3 sites namely (i) Trois Cavernes,
an underground lava tunnel forming 3 consecutive caves; (ii) Le
Morne Brabant a mountain with several rock shelters and (iii)
Baie du Cap consisting a karst cave in the basaltic formation . Evidence of temporary habitation by fugitive/ maroon slaves has
been documented on those sites. This project did not only reinforce
archaeology as a discipline in the country but also brought new
understanding of slavery and maroon age on the island and in the
world. Based on the findings of the project, was even presented
the nomination dossier in 2005 for Le Morne Cultural Landscape
to be listed World Heritage property in 2008  (Figure 4).
Another important archaeological endeavor within the same
time period was at the Aapravasi Ghat, a site related to indenture
immigration and located in the capital city of Port Louis. The
project was undertaken under the patronage of the Ministry of
Arts and Culture of the republic. Archaeological investigation
on the site started in the year 2000 with a non-intrusive survey
and culminated with excavations in 2003-2005 and 2010-11
. Aapravasi Ghat was an immigration depot of nearly half a
million of immigrants who arrived on the island as indenture
laborer’s, after the abolition of slavery. The site was used to
shelter the immigrants on their arrival for about 48 hours and
all administrative procedures were undertaken on the site before
being sent to work in sugar estates or other working places. The
investigation at the Aapravasi Ghat included intensive archival
works along with site documentation and excavations exposing
major part of the structures and features of what are visible to
visitors today. The findings on the site supported the nomination
dossier submitted in 2004 and the site got nominated as UNESCO
World Heritage in 2006  (Figure 5).
Since then several archaeological projects were initiated
including Archaeological Investigation at Makak, a village
related to slavery [5,6]; A Preliminary Archaeological Study at
Batterie de la Reine, a French fortification site; Architectural and
Archaeological Survey of Flat Island, an islet used as a quarantine
station for indenture arrivals by the British [7,8]; Excavation at
Trianon Sugar Estate Camp, a settlement of indenture laborer’s
attached to a plantation ; Excavation at Le Morne Slave
Cemetery and Cemetery of Bois Marchand whereby the data from
the human skeletons are being studied along with DNA analysis
; Excavation of Maconde rock shelters to know more about
the temporary settlement of the maroons ; Archaeological
Investigation of Bras d’Eau, a plantation site  and recently the Study of Moulin à Poudre, a slave and industrial site related to the
production of gun powder in the French colony [11,12] (Figure 6).
Being in the center of the Indian Ocean, one of the key islands
where trade ships would refuge for provision of fresh supplies
and also used as a strategic point to control movements in the
Indian Ocean during the colonial period, the waters around
Mauritius have preserved a large number of wrecks: wrecks
like Le Magicienne, Le Syrius and Le Coureur which have been
investigated by archaeologists in collaboration with the Mauritius
Museum Council . As highlighted above through the various
archaeological projects, archaeological sites in Mauritius are
diverse including fortifications, settlements, plantations, factories
and even wrecks. The sites moreover range from the Dutch,
French and British period of colonization widely influenced by
slavery and indenture, thus giving rise to specialized fields of
‘Indenture’, a form a forced labor, was adopted after the
abolition of slavery in many colonies in the 19th Century. Mauritius
has been the first country where the system was experimented by
the British Empire in 1834 and it was called the ‘Great Experiment’.
Its successful implementation on the island led to adoption of this
system in many colonies around the World which continued for a
century (Figures 7& 8).
Among all the different fields of study to approach the history
of Mauritius, was coined the term ‘Archaeology of Indenture’
which indeed form a field of specialization in itself. It is intrinsic
to try to trace down the history and context of this term; when did
it cropped up and how did it start to be used. This term has indeed
not been pronounced despite initiation of the archaeological
investigation of Aapravasi Ghat site in 2000, one of the most
important indenture immigration sites in the world. Being part
of the team for the archaeological investigation of this site and
for the preparation of the nomination dossier of Aapravasi Ghat,
I remember discussing the possibility of this term in 2003-2004
but only in friendly discussions, never taken seriously and of
course the term is not used in any publication, despite publication
on the history and archaeology of the site.
In the chapter, The Potential of Archaeology for the Study of
Mauritian Indenture History and Heritage in the publication Angaje
- The impact of Indenture Volume II, the historian Vijayalaskmi
Teelock writes ‘The archaeology of Indenture or immigration’ .
It is for the first time that this term gets published in an official,
formal and widespread publication. However, with an ambiguity
of what term suits best this topic of research and again she is not
sure of whether this discipline should be called Archaeology of
Indenture. Since, then this term is used in the research discourse
in the country, often to discuss if the term makes sense or not.
Personally, feeling the term makes sense as it is an area being
dealt with every day in the world of research in Mauritius, as it is
for the Archaeology of Slavery, I use the term in my presentations
and reports on Aapravasi Ghat. But, with no determination as we
cannot think of a term being coined in Mauritius for the field of research in Archaeology. This privilege has by far been reserved
to the respected and experienced scholars in Archaeology often of
the Western World
Further, not all archaeologists and researchers working in
Mauritius agree with this term as well. Trying to put an end to
this confusion other archaeologists were interviewed on the topic.
The senior most archaeologists here, Geoffrey Summers states
“There is no Archaeology of Indenture, what we have here is
Colonial Archaeology, Plantation Archaeology …” (Interview with
G. Summers in 2016). I wondered ‘Why Plantation Archaeology
but not Archaeology of Indenture’. Plantation Archaeology is a
well-established field in the Caribbean and even in the Americas.
Mauritius does have a big potential for Plantation Archaeology
with plantations especially sugar plantations and the entire
social and economic dynamics around that form a major part of
the Mauritian history. Sites like the sugar estates and the camps
scattered around the island can be grouped within the category
of Plantation Archaeology, however, where to place sites like
Aapravasi Ghat, Vagrant Depot and others of that period but with
Krish Seetah, another archaeologist from Stanford, often
working in Mauritius has been arguing the same as G. Summers
until 2015 when he publishes The Archaeology of Mauritius and
he writes “Mauritian archaeology could have an impact on the
development of global archaeological practice more generally: the
archaeology of indenture” . George Abungu, archaeologist and
heritage expert from Kenya and running some heritage projects
in Mauritius explains “the broader context is colonial for it is
the colonial history but yes there is an Archaeology of Indenture
in the same way as there is an Archaeology of Slavery” and he
continues by saying “Colonial Archaeology has existed much
before Archaeology of Slavery and Archaeology of Indenture as a
discipline but it does not mean they are not there” (Interview with
G. Abungu in 2017)
Well, it is time to look at things from a different perspective,
from the perspectives of the slaves and the indenture as highlighted
by the historian Amit Mishra in his key note address for the
International Indenture Seminar in September 2017; ‘To look at
the other side of the story’, from the perspective of the community
of the descendants of those populations and their heritage. The
increase focus on community in the last few years  in a way
demands also the right term in relation to the study related to
that community. As put forward by Renfrew “…. archaeology is
an exciting quest – the quest for knowledge about ourselves and
about our past…. The materials the archaeologists find does not
tell us directly what to think……It is we today who have to make
sense of these things” . Following this line of thoughts, it is high
time to look at the archaeological studies from the perspectives
of those populations; the enslaved and the indentured and later
their descendants. It is true that colonialism gave rise to these
systems and framed the lives of people within the system but the
populations were the slaves and the indenture, so why not calling it the Archaeology of Slavery and Archaeology of Indenture when
certainly the settlements, the lives and the culture of those people
are being studied. Is it not time to use of the right term to study
the people and not again using a term which give the impression
of being colonized again, now for academic purpose?
This approach can be qualified as praxis or post processual
one where the actor or people under study who has shaped the
social experience and who are owners of the material culture
become the central focus by already using the term relating them;
rather than looking at them from the elite system of the time; same
applies for Archaeology of Slavery or Archaeology of Indenture
or any other form of human society where the population is the
focus. Though at the same time it can be argued that slavery and
indenture was also imposed by that an elite group. Nevertheless,
as stressed in the book Archaeology, during the past three
decades there has been a major realization that archaeology
has much to contribute in recent historical periods . It led to
the development of specialized field like Colonial Archaeology.
Archaeology of the recent past that is historical periods is giving
new insight in the field of archaeology and in the understanding
of our recent past. It unveils the importance of disciplines that not
only covers the geography and the chronology but also ideology,
whereby the terms of Archaeology of Slavery and Archaeology of
Mauritius is up to now the only country where indentured
sites are being investigated archaeologically. The role played
by Mauritius in the Indenture Diaspora gained international
recognition in 2006 with the inscription of Aapravasi Ghat, an
immigration depot of the 19th century, on the UNESCO World
Heritage Property list . Along, other indenture sites have been
surveyed and are being studied including Flat Island, a quarantine
station ; Trianon, a sugar estate camp ; Mon Desert Mon
Tresor, a sugar estate camp ; Bras d’Eau, another sugar
estate  among others. An overall archaeological mapping
of Mauritius has estimated more than 100 sites associated with
Indenture (Figures 9 & 10).
As for now Archaeology of Indenture is confined to Mauritius.
However, this discipline is not to be restricted to Mauritius. It
includes all the countries which has witnessed indenture as a major
part of their history. Indenture has shown a flow of more than 2.2
million people mostly from India to at least 26 countries around
the world . It formed the Diaspora of Indenture population
and a systematic settlement pattern in the various countries
where these people landed. Hence, Archaeology of Indenture
can be developed as a global discipline which can add up in our
understanding of the history of the indentured people as well as
the system that dominated the world in the 19th century. It can
be studied and compared. If the archaeology of one geographical
space with its material culture, for instance Egypt, can give rise to
specialized field of study like Egyptology or Egyptian Archaeology; then why not an international phenomenon like indenture which
shaped the lives of millions of people and impacted on the
landscape and culture of so many countries around the world [19-
Other countries which were heavily shaped by Indenture
system and where the heritage can be experienced are Trinidad
and Tobago, Surinam, Guyana, Jamaica, Fiji Islands, Guadeloupe
and Reunion among others. Guyana, with the biggest number of
indentured populations after Mauritius; according to historical
sources Indentured laborers landed all along the Berbice River
in Guyana, but no archaeological studies undertaken in those
regions yet and neither within the settlements of indentured
population. Trinidad is the third most important country in the
world for the indenture period after Mauritius and Guyana, in
terms of numbers. There, indenture started in 1845 and some 200
000 Indians were brought as well as a large number of Chinese
to work mostly on sugar and coconut plantations. Remains of
those settlements still exist in ruins [22-24]. Further, in Trinidad
itself Nelson Island and other small islets nearby were used as the
landing place for the indentured population: these sites are yet to
be studied. In Jamaica the landing place of the immigrants arriving
on the island as from 1840s is located in the coast of Old Harbor.
This area is now quite abandoned. No remains or ruins are visible
on ground, a reason more for archaeological investigation. Along
with landing places, depots, quarantine stations and settlement
camps there are also the religious and ritualistic places like the
shrines in Mauritius and in Guadeloupe and others to mention but
a few (Figures 11 & 12).
The scope for Archaeology of Indenture is immense; spread
across the globe with different geographical, environmental and
political contexts, there are different types of sites. Indenture
gave rise to new system, new pattern, new settlement and
new material culture; though it is clear that there has been site of continuity from slavery to indenture, as in Mauritius. The
cultural backgrounds and beliefs from countries of origin like
Madagascar, India, China and South East Asian countries forged
the environment with creation of spaces having traces of different
cultures influenced by each other. The material remains include
types barracks or huts built with knowledge of the country of
origins, reflected in the style and architecture adapted to local raw
materials; artefacts introduced with the movement of people or
those produced locally with the knowhow from the roots.
It is true that this part of history has for long been avoided
or forgotten in many of these countries. However, since the last
two decades there is a revival for the awareness of the past
and importance of the heritage, resulting in the foundation
of commemorative monuments in the different countries to
commemorate the arrival of the indenture population or abolition
of the system. This growing awareness is without a doubt setting
the base for a discipline like Archaeology of Indenture. Yes,
it is affirmative, there is an Archaeology of Indenture for the
scope is immense. However, what we have to be conscious and
cautious about is that Archaeology of Indenture or archaeology in
general in these geographical spaces is often not linear. Sites are
greatly mixed, with often no cultural gaps. There is a continuity
of the different periods, continuity with the events of slavery
and indenture giving rise to both, Archaeology of Slavery and
Archaeology of Indenture often on the same sites. It is clear
for Mauritius that sites give no straight story line and consist
of a mixture: most often the sites are occupied by the different
populations, in different historical period and with no cultural
The mixing of people with populations from different parts
of the world, with different cultures and their adaptations in
the environmental and cultural context; further increase the
complexities and challenges of understanding the history, the
culture and the people themselves through their material remains.
The beauty of undertaking archaeological research in such areas
and within that time period; is this complexity of continuity along
with discontinuity; and this represents a major challenge. Indeed,
Archaeology of Indenture has a large potential in Mauritius and
worldwide with all its complexities. Today there is Diaspora as
a result of Indenture meaning there is also the heritage of the
Indenture Diaspora including archaeological sites. Hence, the use
of Indentured Diaspora Community and Heritage and Archaeology
of Indenture are terms that will be more and more used to talk
relate to this population.
It is also important to note that even the methodology for
Archaeology of Indenture cannot be confined to the traditional
archaeological approach. It has to be a combination of different
methodologies from archival research, anthropology, oral history,
ethnography, heritage and other possible fields to complement
archaeological approach so as to understand and reconstruct to
its best the history and lives of indentured people of this recent
past. As an ending note an Interview of Mahendra Chaudhry, the
general secretary of the National Farmers Union in Fiji, on Girmit
Divas Celebration in 2004 can be quoted. The latter was asked by
a journalist: “Mauritius also had Indian indentured laborer’s but
the country today is in a totally opposite state than Fiji. Where
do you think Fiji or the people here went wrong? He answers:
“Yes, but the situation there is completely different. The leaders of
Mauritius have been able to translate their visions into reality…….
We have a lot to learn from them.” Adding to this statement it can
be said that even scholars in Mauritius have been able to do so:
the Archaeological Investigation of Aapravasi Ghat was a vision of
VijayaTeelock and Amitava chowdhury which was achieved.
The interview continues further when he is asked “What are
some of the major issues that will confront Indians in Fiji over
the next 10 years? And are they mostly political? “And he replies
“These are manifold and include landlessness, unemployment,
racial discrimination, and non-recognition of the role they have
played and continue to play in Fiji’s development….Yes, most of
these are political in nature and originate from bad governance
and racial prejudice…..However, these issues can be effectively
addressed and overcome if we, as a people, can learn to live by
universal human values.”
I would here reinforce the statement by including “by valuing
the Heritage as well”. With the above I believe Mauritius has
indeed set up the foundation stone for Archaeology of Indenture
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