Endangered Archives

EAP863: Preserving a unique archive of diaspora and disease in the Indian Ocean from 1868 to 1930: a test case from Mauritius

Dr Krish Seetah, Indpendent Researcher
2015 award - Major project
£29,571 for 8 months

Archival partner: Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund

Project Overview

This archive is a near-complete set of burial records, dating back to January 1868, of individuals who have been interred in the Bois Marchand Cemetery in Mauritius. This was the largest cemetery in the Indian Ocean at the time it was inscribed (1867) and these records effectively provide a unique repository of demographic and disease data. At present, no other such archive exists for this entire region of the Indian Ocean. It has huge potential for historians, archaeologists and anthropologists researching disease, demography, and diaspora in this part of the world, and as a comparative to the Atlantic.

The records detail the demographic data for individuals buried in Bois Marchand, a cemetery that is segregated according to religious/vocational affiliation i.e. Christian, Hindu or Muslim, for example, or, Military Personnel, or Police Force. These ascriptions exemplify the divided nature of the historic Mauritian society, thus, the archives are an insight into social norms surrounding burial practice, as well as a reflection on the circumstances for the living (i.e., inhabiting a society stratified in this way).

Along with its local historical value, the records include details as to the point of origin for the interred, in some instances as far afield as Ireland and Jamaica, but generally focused on India, Africa and China; cause of death; where the individual died on Mauritius etc. This forms a remarkable dataset for historians to mine in order to better understand the context of political action and reaction in response to death and disease. It is worth remembering, this cemetery was set up precisely because so many individuals had died from epidemics of malaria in preceding years. Quarantining facilities were also established. In short, the British Empire and her subjects were dealing with death on a monumental scale. These archives offer a unique lens as to what was taking place ‘on the ground’. They could hold the key to unravelling the true role of disease within the post-medieval labour diasporas in the Indian Ocean, a topic that has been overwhelmingly focused on the Atlantic (slave) context. The potential impacts of disease was outlined in Arnold’s seminal article (1990) titled: “The Indian Ocean as a Disease Zone”; with these burial records we now have a valuable dataset with which to leverage a better assessment of disease impact.

The Indian Ocean has served as an important seascape within the context of human migration since antiquity. This vast oceanic basin has been the nexus of a complex array of geopolitical, socio-cultural and religious systems, characterised by the recurrent multidirectional movement of people. Mauritius is a critical node in these larger networks of human migration. The island’s historical significance in global migration history is revealed, for example, in the fact that it was at the centre of large-scale slave trading networks that stretched not only across the Indian Ocean, but also into the Atlantic world. Of equal, if not greater, global significance is the fact that Mauritius was the crucial test case for the British Empire’s ‘Great Experiment’ to replace slaves with indentured labourers in the post-emancipation colonial world. The net result was one of the largest migrations of African, Indian, Malagasy and South East Asian men, women and children throughout a colonial plantation world that stretched from the Caribbean, eastward across the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific and South America. These movements are captured within the burial records that will be secured and digitised. In addition, they add an important dimension, detailing facets of a particularly important feature of global diaspora that has received little attention: disease. This topic bridges historic, archaeological and anthropological concerns.

Some 100 volumes within the overall body of archival burial records (at least 250 volumes) are of historic significance, dating from January 1868 to 1930. Approximately 20,000 images will be generated from this study. The original materials will be relocated to the National Archives in Coromandel, Port Louis, Mauritius and re-housed in archival storage boxes. A digital archive will also be deposited with the National Archive. Locally, a master digital archive will be deposited with the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund (UNESCO World Heritage Site), who now oversee the study of the cemetery and who are responsible for promoting research on the indentured labour diaspora.

Project Outcome