The Indian trading community in 19th century Mauritius

Published: 01st November 2007
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To be able to have a broad view of the Indian Trading Community and the role played by them in the colony's fortune some questions need to be answered. For example, who were the Indian traders? What were they dealing in? Were they sole traders? How did they fare vis-a -vis the European Traders and later the Chinese retail traders? What was their role in this budding society? Had their role had any impact on our society?

With the abolition of slavery and the arrival of the Indentured labourer in 1834. The trade with India knew a sudden rise. The merchants who were already trading in the Indian seas started coming to Mauritius. Why? The Indian firm established branches in order to take advantage of expanding commercial prospects. Firms that were based in Indian port as well as in Mauritius actively bid for contract for the transport of the Indian. The British and the Indian firms were both involved in the recruitment of contractual labourers and in fact they had already had experience during the French period as a Free Port as the trading links between Mauritius and India trace back to early days of colonization and were often accompanied by migration of forced indentured or free immigration. With the beginning of the century and the very quick expansion of the coolie trade, there was rapid expansion in trade with India. Total imports from India increased constantly and later the exports would also increase. This enhanced exchanged between British, India and Mauritius was without doubt the coolie trade, as Indenture immigration would deeply modify the demography of the island. The feeding and clothing of the immigrants would favour commercial transaction with India, but the transport of the Indian from Indian to Mauritius was an even greater business. Hence, since the onset of the coolie trade. For instance during 1870's sugar from Western Indian Ocean Region was imported in Mauritius and re exported to Australia, U.K and Cape of Good Hope. By 1880 Continental India was among the first partners to receive goods from foreign origin from Mauritius. Re-export trade in 1885 and it rose to 10% in 1890 and 16% in 1895. Meanwhile 8% of the export to India in 1880 consisted of re-export groups and 14% in 1895 and 1900, 50% of the total imports of Mauritius originated from India and the volumes of transaction increased over the 2nd half of the 19th century. The number of ships joining Mauritius expanded between 1850 and 1860's (introduction of steamers). The size increased due to steam vessels and greater volume of cargo could l be transported and the trade with India was done by Cossigny system. A number of all sailors and retailers ordered a varied quantity of specific goods from agents who then export these good against a commission and the agent had business partner in a Indian port city. These agents would charter the ships from their owners and exports would go through the same channels.

Indenture immigration would deeply modify the demography pf the island. The feeding and clothing of the immigrants favouring commercial transaction with India..

There was great competition to bring the Indian labourer with adequate supplies foods and clothing. On the other and there would be export of sugar to India which would open new prospects . In the ninteenth century half of the trades of the island was carried out with India

Who were the Indians and in what were they trading? The Indian Trading Community was not an homogeneous one but consisted of several castes and communities. They settled in the island. Either on a temporary basis or a permanent one. The Gujrati and muslims were of the caste of the Mehmans and the Sunni Surtee. They made up the majority of the Traders and settlers. The Farsi and the Chettiars also participated in the trades.

By 1840 around 25% of the local import originated from Indian Sub-continent consisting from basic food items like rice, dholl, wheat, barleys, edible oil, salt, fish, spices as well as a variety of other products furniture tobacco and opium and simultaneously few locally based Indian firms imported few volume of articles on consignments. We have the example of a Gujrati speaking Parsi who had a company which was responsible for the major part of this trade as he was the agent of 17 ships and most of them transporting Indian labourer as well as cargo. Simultaneously several firms has established connections with the Arabian Seaports. Mobility was even higher in the case of Indian Company some company started as branch of other company and later on operated under the traders own name.

However later with the economic boom of 1850, prospects expanded and a number of firms started operating in Port Louis The Indo Mauritian trade would evolve towards a concentration in favour of a few large firms of British or Indian extraction and with the elimination of small operators during the second half of the 19th century . In certain cases the Indian ended in Bankruptcy after the owner's death.
Thus there would be elimination of small operators and the Gujjrati would invested in land market and plantation with sugar mills. The Gujjrati would emerge as major economic agents in the 19th century. Whether directly or indirectly they would act as principal financers and stock brokers

How did the Indian Trading Community fare in competition with the British companies? Navigation act of 1815 was abrogated in 1851 by Britain which had severely restricted the arrival of ships of foreign nationality in British Port. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the emergence of the steamers the journey was made shorter and extension of regional network and rise in transaction, however, the ships carrying capacity increased both in passengers traffic and cargo. Though many ships bore Muslim name some of them were British's ship for example Athieth Rohoman (Rostom). The Arab barks (3 masts) had the Arabs as masters while the British Ships whether from Britain or India had British Masters. The British masters were supported by a small team of British and European officers while the sailors were Hindus and Muslims. In 1840 the ships linking Mauritius in Indian ports were of small tonnage varying from 193 and 465 tons and they were mainly of British construction and ownership and having the British names. There were firms like Rogers, Scott and Company and so on. Regular lines were established with the Indian sub-continent. However, most of the vessels linking India to Mauritius were chartered specifically for the Indo- Mauritian trade. In 1840's tonnage was around 193 while Scott and company mostly chartered vessels for the VISL Co on the other hand we had the Muslim traders like Sulliman who usually chartered steam ships belonging to Cassim Joosub of Bombay. They seem to be partner as they were jointly owner of one steam vessel named Steamer Ackbar of 1441 tons. In 1885 the ship steamer TAIF, 2100 tons, was brought by Haji Cassim Joossub. Thus if much of the most lucrative part of the trade were controlled by the British the part left to the Indian trading community allowed them enough space for expansion and development provided they wanted to invest and take risks.

How did the Indian Trading Community in competition with the Chinese community who had monopoly over the retail trade. Retail shops had the important role of supplying the labourers with goods of first necessity, the shops were located in the main sugar estates. This prevented the labourers from going to Port Louis Most shops on the estates were to Chinese. The objective of the colonial government was to establish a retail trade that would service the laboring class, As for Chinese they provided the laboring communities with goods at very cheap price. Though the Chinese form a responsible class of shopkeeper they undermined the trades of the Indian Trading Communities, for the Chinese were in direct competition with them as they would prefer to buy from a Chinese grocer rather than an Indian one. However, many Indians overcame these obstacles by working as hawkers roaming from villages to villages.

If there is any assertion of the Indian Trading Community's role being important then there would be the question of whether their role was most prominent in the transport of the Indian Indentured labourer or their role was most prominent at the time of the 'Grand Morcellement'. Certainly the Gujrati firms had invested large sums in immovable property especially in the town at the time of the 'petit morcellement'. In the last decades of the 19th century with the 'Grand Morcellement' there was increased investment in plantations by taking control of the estates or indirectly through loans or advance on crops. Companies like I.M.Sulliman and Ajum Goollam Hossen directly owned several sugar estate with factories in the 1890's. Some of them took charge of recruiting workers from India and transport them in their own ships to work on the estates in Mauritius. The Gujrati firms participated in the lucrative business of buying estates from bankrupt owners parceling them out and selling them to former indentured workers. This led to the emergence of a new class in the society the small planters community.

Another great accomplishment on the part of the Indian Community was the invitation given and to the Mahatma Gandhi and his visit in our island which would lead to the arrival of a Gujrati lawyer from Bombay Manilall Doctor. 'The Hindustani' a newspaper that Manilall Doctor would start with the help of Tamil's powerful elite in the country, would serve to help in the uprising of political consciousness in the Indian community.

However, the Indian Trading Community in contrast with the small Chinese trading community despite their number and their vast resources available do not seem to have had great impact on the development of the island, their actions seem to be restricted to small spasmodic reaction to opportunities at a certain period, over a given number of time. There do not seem to have been coordination between the different members or even cooperation like in the Chinese, Franco-Mauritian or even British Trading communities and also there does not seem to have any medium or long term planning.

It should be understood that the Indian Trading Community were from the Elite class which mean that they perhaps differentiated themselves away from the coolies who were of the lowest class. Their role in the transport and in the provision of the indentured labourer were pure commercial and it was not in their interest to try to change things however, they have played a major role in being by their privilege position the stimulus to aspiration of indentured labourer to aspire to the desire of becoming small planters which led to the creation of a small planters' community and later to help the Indian community in greater political consciousness have helped this community to stand on its feet which later led to the independence of our nation.

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