In the district of Port Louis, lies the 1,640 m2 site where the modern indentured labour diaspora began. In 1834, the British Government selected the island of Mauritius to be the first site for what it called ‘the great experiment’ in the use of ‘free’ labour to replace slaves. Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million indentured labourers arrived from India at Aapravasi Ghat to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius, or to be transferred to Reunion Island, Australia, southern and eastern Africa or the Caribbean. The buildings of Aapravasi Ghat are among the earliest explicit manifestations of what was to become a global economic system and one of the greatest migrations in history.
In 1721 the French took formal possession of Mauritius. Because of its sheltered position, Trou Fanfaron, became the landing point for the first French settlers who begun the construction of Port Louis in 1732, using labour from India, Africa and the Malagasy. Large defensive walls and a hospital with foursquare walls around a court were some of the earliest constructions. The hospital still exists in the buffer zone.
The hinterland of Trou Fanfaron became the cosmopolitan commercial centre of Port Louis: in the 18th century Malagasy, African and India freemen settled there and they were joined by merchants from India and China in the 19th century. A "Mauritian" style of architecture soon begun to emerge, based on walls of stone with lime mortar or latanier wood, and roofs of argamasse mortar over shingles (a technique imported from India) or latanier leaves. The lime mortar included yoghurt, egg whites, butter and "gingely" oil - a recipe that is still in use today, and being used for restoration work on Aapravasi Ghat.From the mid 18th century sugar plantations were developed on the island, worked by slaves.
In the early 19 century, the British were expanding their influence in the Indian Ocean. At the end of 1810, the British marched into Port Louis and the French surrendered. Under the British, sugar production increased, Port Louis was transformed into a free port, roads were built and trade flourished. With the abolition of slavery in 1834, the system of indentured labout was introduced by the British government to maintain a supply of labour, particularly for the sugar plantations. Thousands of people begun to arrive each year from India and were housed initially in a depot in Port Louis until they could be dispersed to the plantations. th The nominated site is the remains of this depot. Aapravasi Ghat is located on the east side of the bay of Trou Fanfaron. There were three main phases for the history of reception arrangements for immigrant labourers.
In the first phase from 1834 to 1849, when immigration began and the system of indentured labour was first established, it appears that there was initially no fixed immigration depot and several buildings in different locations around the bay were used for disembarkation by arriving labourers. Around 1840 a building later converted into a smallpox hospital served as the immigration depot. Its location is not known. In 1843 there is a written reference to ‘old stone buildings' being used and these have been identified with part of the Military hospital complex built in the 1740s. At least three other buildings are also known to have been used.
The site of Aapravasi Ghat was chosen in 1849. An old French building built before 1775 then existed on the site and this seems to have formed the core for other structures subsequently added. A plan of the site drawn up in 1849 shows the additions made. As with most plans it is not clear if all of what is shown was constructed. The plan shows six buildings around a yard the whole complex adjacent to stone steps leading down to the harbour. Almost immediately it became clear that the new structures were inadequate to cope with the numbers of immigrants arriving: there were at time as many as 1,000 men, women and children in the depot at any one time. The space was enlarged in the 1850s and a new landing space created. Further enlargements were approved in 1856.
By 1857 all available land had been built upon. Further land was then acquired and the site improve by installing privies, roofing the buildings in French tiles rather than tin to give better insulation and ventilation and constructing a wharf wall along the waterfront. All this was completed by 1859. The Protector of Immigrants describes the complex in detail in his report for 1859. He mentions large buildings some with bitumen floors, tile roofs, and planked walls, and says that 600 people can be accommodated "without the slightest inconvenience". The newly improved depot was photographed in 1859.
In the 1860s further changes were made to separate new and old immigrants and to provide separate toilets and bathing places. All the changes between 1864-5 are documented.
In 1864 the construction of a railway cut the immigration depot into two and walls were constructed along the edges of the tracks. Further minor modifications were made up to 1923.
Indentured immigration declined during the 1870s and finally ceased in 1923. The buildings were put to other uses. Many survived until a bus station was constructed in the 1970s and a motorway (the M2 national road) was put through the site in the 1980s. Others were demolished to ‘tidy up' the area. In the 1990s part of the site was landscaped as a commemorative space.
In 1865 the depot consisted of: Gatekeeper's office, Surgery, Kitchens, Immigration office, Sirdars' sheds, offices of the depot Keeper and Store Keeper, Immigrants' Sheds, privies and steps leading to the wharf. Of these only the gatekeeper's office, surgery and wharf steps survive. There are archaeological remains of the kitchens, sirdars' quarters, part of the immigration sheds and privies.
During the 1980s awareness was fostered by determined local residents of the importance of the site. A practice was inaugurated of holding a religious ceremony at the site every November to honour the jehaji bhai spirit. The remains were proclaimed a national monument in 1987 and in 1988 the site was vested in the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture.
In 1999 a project was started to renovate the remaining buildings on the site together with a study of the extensive archival evidence that is extant. In 2001 archaeological excavations were begun by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. This project led to some controversy and it was agreed that a legal framework for the development should be put in place. In 2001 the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund was established. This has led to more intensive archaeological work being carried out and a project to reverse inappropriate work carried out in the 1990s. In 2001 the name of the site was changed from Immigration Depot to Aapravasi Ghat. To some sections of the population in Mauritius this change has signalled the association of the site with Hindu indentured labourers rather than all indentured labourers, as some were not Hindu but Muslims.