DIASPORIC TRAJECTORIES (FROM BARBODHAN TO BELLE ROSE) : The settlement of a small Gujarati passenger Indian community in Mauritius (c.1860-1900)
5 Nov 2014 15h00344
The series Z2D at the Mauritius Archives record the arrivals of all individuals coming to Mauritius as passengers during the nineteenth century; hence the term passenger immigrant is used. Flipping through the pages of these documents, a fair amount of Indians – both Hindus and Muslims – came as free passenger immigrants. Their names were often bastardized by British immigration officers. Unlike indentured Indians who were given a number and can therefore be traced at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI), the tracing of passenger Indians can prove to be extremely laborious and sometimes impossible at the Archives. The passenger register for the early twentieth century can be less daunting.
Since the 1830s a handful of passenger Indians, mostly Meimon merchants originally from Bhuj in Gujarat but based at Calcutta and two Parsi merchants from Surat came to open business outlets dealing in coolie stores (rice, pulses, oil) in Port Louis. As from the mid 1840s textile merchants, mostly from Surat and its hinterland, specially Rander and Khator, both rich textile industrial cities migrated to Mauritius. These merchants who ‘acted as intermediaries between different producers and consumers’ (Middleton.J), created the impression that most passenger Gujarati Indians were associated with wealth.
This short narrative explores the early settlement of the last group of Sunnee Vohras – the Barbodhanians. Unlike the two previous Surtee groups i.e coming from the administrative district of Surat, they were mostly agriculturalists. As they had small amount of capital, the main intention was to set up general stores – called dukans in Gujarati – in the rural areas. Hence they were referred to as dukanwallahs or “marchands arabes” in Mauritian Creole language of the time.
On 23 January 1861,the Kirkland under the command of Captain Thomas Colledge docked in at Port Louis after a month’s voyage from Bombay. Amongst the passengers was a group of nine persons coming from Surat, Gujarat. They had to register themselves, their names had been bastardized and only three of them have been identified, namely Assenjee 44 years old, Ibraham Sullayman 20 years old and Dawoojee Hassenjee 14 years old. They all bore the family name of Atchia. They came from the small coastal and agricultural village of Barbodhan, some 25 km from the industrial city of Surat. It is safe to assume that the other six passengers also came from the same village and were kin members. They all gave their occupation as traders.
The restriction of cotton mill production by Britain in an attempt to protect British produced cotton fabrics affected the growth of cotton by the farmers of Bardodhan. The drought and subsequent famines in Gujarat of the early 1850s had motivated the Bardodhanians to migrate to other countries of the empire. Rangoon in Burma had been an initial choice followed by Mauritius. There must have been reconnoitering visits to the island before. It could well be that the presence of two village folks, IbrahimjeeTeelee Bahemia and Ismael Jeewa, at Rose Hill might have influenced the Atchias to open a dukan at the junction of Avenue Belle Rose and the main road to Mahebourg. At first they took a shack on lease and built a straw hut to house the other members. Water was obtained across the main road from the river Plaines Wilhems. Ibrahim Sulleiman Atchia (Major Atchia’s father) married – contracted nikah – with the daughter of an Indentured Indian. One characteristic of this group was that they were exogamous. My own grandmother, Halima, was the daughter of Shumshoodeen 285980 from Chigleput, Madras. Others took wives from the gens de couleur. Most males took their spouses to Barbodhan to be socialized in the Surtee tradition.
This first batch of Barbodhanians had a very difficult life. Most of them had come with just a pair of trousers, waistcoat and shirts (Khameez) in a small suitcase made from ‘’petroleum tin’. Shop assistants were sent with a cart loaded with materials to the various labour lines. Later mules drawn carts were provided. Others had to carry bundles of materials for sale. Some of them were peddlers.
Dawoojee and Ibrahim Sulleiman Atchia were targeting the nearby sugar plantations of Belle Rose, Trianon, Beau Sejour and Ebène where there was a substantial South Indian indentured labourers working. They must have brought some of the goods, especially from Madras to cater for this ethnic group. We do not have information on the other goods stored. We can assume that the firm Goolam Hossen and Co supplied them with some items. To certain extent, the Atchias were pioneers in setting shop in Lower Plaines Wilhems. At that time this area was served by only one main road and Rose Hill was just a hamlet, inhabited mostly by the Whites with large domains and large sugar plantations like Stanley and Roches Brunes. There was only one dukan run by the Barbodhanians, Teelee Baheima and Jeewa. One of the first ventures was to set up the Rose Hill Sunnee mosque in 1863.
In the late 1860s another group of Bardodhanians came with my great grandfather Moosa Dawood Kalla and his brother Ismael. As the former was married in the Atchias’ household, he opened a dukan next to his in laws. With them came other village folks – all were somehow related as all marriages were within the village. A small community of Barbodhanians based on these two general stores having as namesakes Adia,Gajra/Moosajee,Hossen/Rawat,Jeewa/Atchia, Nalla,Rajah,Saleh/Atchia led a life of extremely hard work. They lived in small wood and thatched stores ;very often five to six persons in a small room. Most of their work consisted of being hawkers. Some of these served an apprenticeship at these two retail stores before being helped to set their own dukans. Ibrahim Sulleiman Atchia (I.S.Atchia) acted as mentor to most of them. The Rajahs set up a dukan at St Pierre, the Rawats were at Moka, a Jeewah opened a dukan at Camp de Masque and Nalla started a store at Vacoas. They thus extended trade at very high capital risk to areas of the Central Plateau, which were hardly touched by development. The main focus of this community of some fifteen Barbodhanians was the Rose Hill Sunnee mosque. They associated themselves readily with the Indentured population. In 1888 they set up a waqf for the mosque, madressa and the cemetery (Sir Gaëtan Duval stadium today). In 1889, the Atchias opened the first Indian – at that time called Mohamedan – government aided school (popularly known as Ecole Noorooya) for the local population next to the mosque.
The coming of the railways from Port-Louis to Mahebourg across the centre of the island and the movement of population following the outbreak of malaria in late 1860s led to the growth of many settlements next to the various stations and along the main road. Rose Hill became a major village. The economic progress of the Barbodhanians was closely linked to the economic growth of the Central plateau, specially the corridor along the railway line to Curepipe.
An Enterprising Community
The Atchias diversified their economic activities. They invested their savings in real estates. They bought small parcels of marginal land from the different sugar plantations which were in economic difficulties. By mid 1870s they were selling small plots to the Creole and time expired indentured Indian population. In early 1880s they petitioned the Governor for a plot of land on the main road at Rose Hill. Their request was rejected. Dawoojee Atchia moved to Curepipe, while Ibrahim.S .Atchia took a plot of land on the main road at Rose Hill on lease to run a dukan. Dawoojee first started the building of a mosque. Both bought land and sold small plots to the Indian and Creole population. As Curepipe was still very forested, the Atchias started a timber business. Later they went into partnership with Enaeth and Purmessur, ex-indentured Indians, to lease and lumber 200 acres of forested land in the Mont Blanc, Savanne. In1891, I.S.Atchia set up a’ “société with Chedy, Ramtoola, Runnoo and Baccus Heera’ to exploit a sugar cane plantation at Chamarel. I.S.Atchia and his sons started and aloe fiber factory, a tannery and sawmills in Rose Hill. Amode I Atchia, the second son known as Major, was to initiate the project of producing hydroelectricity at Réduit. Both in Rose Hill and Curepipe, the Atchias expanded their dukans to cater for the niche market of the newly settled Whites and gens de couleur by importing textiles from Europe. The Atchias encouraged and sponsored other Barbodhanians to open shops and diversified their stocks. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were a dozen of “marchands arabes” in Rose Hill and in the early twentieth century some of them were wholesalers of imported fabrics in Port Louis. In 1901 the Atchias hosted Gandhiji for few days at Rose-Hill and the community was thus able to exchange ideas. No doubt the latter encouraged them to send their children to schools. The entertainment business specially cinemas attracted the Atchias of Rose Hill and the Rawats. The next century ushered in with many more ventures from this community.
The Barbodhanians adopted a cosmopolitan approach in all their dealings. Unlike the other Surtees, they borrowed heavily on the local capital market to initiate developmental projects. They readily extended credits to the time expired indentured Indians – both Hindus and Moslems. They went into partnership with other communities. During the twentieth century, Goolam Dawjee Atchia was to become the first Indian mayor of Port Louis and a close associate of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam.
Like the Barbodhanians, hundreds of passenger immigrants came to Mauritius as small shopkeepers, hawkers, accountants, priests, cooks, tailors, interpreters, teachers, women and children and some of them had to labour hard to be successful. Some failed and returned to India or migrated to other countries.