During the mid-1970s, the Old Labourers? Quarters of Trianon were decreed national monument by the Government of Mauritius. Unfortunately, over the last three decades, it has remained largely neglected and it is already in an advanced stage of decay. Premlall Mahadeo, the Director of the National Heritage Trust Fund, explains that our country?s ?National monuments constitute a veritable treasure trove which exude edifying imprints of their epoch on the Mauritian identity.? The Old Labourers? Quarters are such a national monument because it is intimately intertwined with the history of the indentured labourers and the sugar estate camps of Mauritius.
Between 1834 and 1924, more than 454,000 Indian indentured labourers were brought to Mauritius mostly to work on the island?s sugar estates. In general, after leaving the Aapravasi Ghat or the Coolie Depot, the indentured workers had to settle in one part of the estate which became known as ?Camp des Indiens? as well as ?estate camps? or ?sugar camps?. During the entire period that the indenture system existed in Mauritius and until the late twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Indian labourers and their descendants lived for many years in these estate camps. Furthermore, on many of the large Mauritian sugar plantations, there were usually hundreds of male and female labourers who lived in those sugar camps with their children.
In order to accommodate so many individuals, the large estates had one or several separate estate camps.
During the nineteenth century, camp dwellings consisted mostly of long rows of thatched huts and barrack-style housing which were made mostly of earth, wood, cow dung and cane straw. A few of these living quarters were made of bricks and stones. In the 1800s, in the Plaines Wilhems district, large sugar plantations, such as the one at Trianon, provided some of their labourers with living quarters which consisted of stone barracks.
The Old Labourers? Quarters at Trianon were built sometime during the first half of the nineteenth century. It has often been called a barrack complex and it consists of 15 large chambers and it is mostly black in color. The Old Labourers? Quarters are made of basalt stone blocks and it has very thick walls, the structure is mostly in tact, but decaying very rapidly.
There are some documents in the Mauritius Archives which make brief references to this structure. In 1880, the Protector of Immigrants informed the manager of Trianon Sugar Estate that the stone barracks, where the Indian labourers were housed, was in an unhealthy state. The Protector took a personal interest in this matter and even summoned the manager to the Coolie Depot, or the present-day Aapravasi Ghat, and urged him to rectify the matter as soon as possible.
It was mostly during the winter months that the Indian labourers suffered a lot from the dampness and unhealthy conditions in the stone structure. Unfortunately for them, the manager and owners of Trianon Sugar Estate did not follow the Protector?s instructions and the situation remained the same throughout the 1880s. After all, in 1889, Mr. B.A. Francis, the Inspector of Immigrants, in his report on the sugar estates for the Plaines Wilhems district, observed that the estate workers at Trianon, in particular those who resided in stone barracks, still had to endure unhealthy conditions.
During the course of that same year, it was reported that there were 1 469 Indian men, women, and children who lived in the camps of Trianon Sugar Estate. The overwhelming majority among them lived in small huts and only a small number of the indentured labourers and their families lived in the stone barracks. In general, the archival records clearly show that by the late nineteenth century, the Old Labourers? Quarters had been in use for several decades and it was already in a dilapidated state.
In 1909, a document was submitted to the royal commissioners, who were in Mauritius to investigate the island?s sugar industry, which briefly mentions a labourers? quarters made of stone at Trianon where Indian workers were housed. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the stone barracks or the Old Labourers? Quarters at Trianon were still used to house Indian labourers. In 1960, after the passage of the cyclone Carol, the 15 large rooms of this structure were renovated, with eight of the fifteen chambers being provided with a small kitchen which was built of concrete. The Old Labourers? Quarters were used to house some of the estate workers who had lost their homes during the cyclone. Therefore, until the early 1960s, this structure was still occupied by Indian labourers.
In September 1974, the Old Labourers? Quarters were decreed national monument through Government Notice No.666. In fact, this structure is one of the rare monuments in Mauritius which offers us an insight into what the living conditions of Indian labourers might have been like. In a few years, a fully renovated Old Labourers? Quarters may even form part of a local Mauritian Indenture Route Project which would include the Aapravasi Ghat and the Vagrant Depot. After all, these three national monuments are closely associated with the history of more than seventy percent of the Mauritian population.
Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, this structure has played a central role in the daily lives of some of the Indian workers and their families who lived on Trianon Sugar Estate. Therefore, the Old Labourers? Quarters were directly and tangibly linked with the way of life of the Indian labourers who lived in the sugar camps during and after the indenture period in Mauritius. Several months ago, a detailed survey of this stone structure was carried by Dr. Vijaya Teelock, Amitava Chowdhury, and some of their students from the University of Mauritius who clearly recognised its historic and heritage value.
Recently, the Honourable Paul Bérenger, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, has expressed a strong interest in the historical importance of this national monument. A few weeks ago, at a meeting with the ICOMOS delegation from India, Mr Bérenger mentioned that along with the Aapravasi Ghat and the Vagrant Depot, the Old Labourers? Quarters of Trianon also had to be renovated. Hopefully, in the near future, the Government of Mauritius will undertake the preservation of this rare national monument which offers us a window into the past.