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Coolitude and the symbolism of the Aapravasi ghat

"The importance of Coolitude lies in its potential to transgress boundaries.
It aims at creating a quilt which constitutes a poetics of migration, a force
of mosaicness that lies at the heart of all multicultural societies…" 1

Khal Torabully

It is with utmost pleasure that I am penning these words to respond to the invitation of the Aapravasi ghat, asking me to write a brief article on the coolitude2 of this space, to muse on its role on a multiethnic island, and on its symbolical potency, in view of its possible contributions to our present world with troubled landmarks.

The ghat and the poetics of space

It would be fallacious to compare the ghat with the Taj Mahal as some enthusiasts had done, when it was classified as World Heritage monument by Unesco last year. I would not risk an architectural and a topographical comparison between the Moghul mausoleum and the dreary premises where the coolies landed under British administration in the 19 th century. Rather, I would contend that the ghat bears a considerable symbolical stature, not only in a country  where the challenges are often weighed against the values of the different components of its variegated population, but also for the Indian Ocean region and beyond, just as Gorée island, off Dakar, in Senegal, has been a major landmark for the History of slavery for mankind at large.

The ghat can be a heraldic space for the humanism evolved in Mauritius since the indentured set foot on this island, and can uphold the teachings of this encounter with exile and otherness, sharing its resulting coolitude with other spaces, bearing in mind, that its symbolism is not to be entrapped in narrow visions closing oneself on an atavistic identity.

The ghat is for the upliftment of all Mauritians and of all human beings, this is why Unesco classified it as a World Heritage site, as a stepstone for nation building in Mauritius, bearing in mind that it should enrich humanity in the process, and act as a stimulus for lands where a dialogue between human beings of different cultures and creeds needs to be enhanced.

The foremost poetics of space of the ghat is contained in the humanism of coolitude, which "also encompasses the experience of vast migrational waves of Italians, Germans, Polish, of all those who fled the misery of the 18 th and 19th centuries, to settle in Canada, Australia, New Zealand - all those who set forth for a brighter future, or from a past riddled with failures and broken dreams. Thus, coolitude doesn't only represent a restricted type of migration, with an Indian tinge. It is verily a hymn to migratory labour in its fullest sense. It offers us a wider scope and space, enabling us to read History with its entanglement of experiences and mosaic imaginaries"3.

It is with this symbolism that the ghat, which cannot be a ghetto, while highlighting the identured's plight and promises, can uphold the coolitude of its space as its intrinsic poetics, defined as an open and vast vision of the world where migrations with a contract are more and more prevalent nowadays (as exemplified by the cybercoolies for instance).

The ghat, a catalyst for a culture of peace

The Aapravasi ghat is a new space of memory, serving to shed light on a particular history of migrations, which was essentially written in the wake of the abolition of slavery in the first third of the 19 th century. Indeed, let us revisit some facts, even if they would sound quite obvious for many.

The indentured system was founded on a contract which defined the labour and wage conditions of the indentured or coolies (let us not forget that the ancient name of this site was the Coolie ghat), and constituted the first experimentation of salaried alien manpower after the abolition of slavery. Those indentured of the sugar cane, of mines or of the railway, initiated a migratory wave which undoubtedly modified the physiognomy of several countries. This is an important moment in the History of Mankind, and Mauritius was the nerve centre of what was termed the coolie trade. It still treasures the greatest amount of documents related to this "trade", and I bet that the ghat can serve as a fit monument for the whole world as regards the potentialities of transdisciplinary studies and research this country offers through this specific paradigm.

The ghat thus represents a monument for the millions of indentured who started principally from India, China, but also from numerous other lands, such as Japan, Ethiopia, Brittany, Pays du Gers, Madagascar and other African countries4.

It is in this intersection of migratory experiences that the ghat derives its particularity : it should promote the symbolical values of the indentured, to open it to the profound experience of migrations, which will always be a constant movement of this Earth, whether it be freely accepted or forced.

The sharing of memories, a necessity

I would thus advocate for one thing : that the ghat's black basaltic stones, which Indian experts are returning to light and our gaze, patiently unearthing them, classifying them so as to reconstitute the site, could speak and partake of their secrets so as to inspire us in our present life. The ghat must be a leaven of memory, not for a "duty of memory" but for a labour on memory. Allow me to relate to French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur: "Ricoeur defines memory as the present of the past, which is to be recaptured rather through a labour on memory than by a duty towards it, as the latter can also "forget" its engagements towards other memories. The idea, here, is still fraught by the work of relating ( mise en relation) in a "poetics of narrative" (récit), working the mise en relation by a set of facts and historical sequences…so as to build a modus vivendi based on diverse and differed histories"5.

My idea is clear: far from the fossilisation of the past, the ghat must work for a mosaic nation which is still in limbo on the verge of its 40 years of independence. It is with this philosophy that Moussa Ali-Iyé, the head of the Slave Route of Unesco, entrusted me with a task:  to initiate a series of activities entitled Sharing of Memories (Partage des mémoires), so as to make these stones, full of sighs, dreams and sharp voices, yield their deep meanings, for this country, for this region and Mankind.

The Aapravasi ghat and the humanism of coolitude.

I would pen off with a plea, springing from the heart of coolitude,: let us share our memories at the ghat. Let us make its stones speak to us and yield their meanings, those which, cleaned from their dust and pitfalls, will enhance the memory of our forefathers, who, in spite of the vagaries of the indentured system, not only tilled the soil, came up with highways and cybercities, but also made us the heirs to a dignified humanism. Their coolitude is the deepest expression of faith in the future of Mankind, because, as the voiceless of History, and to quote anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, as people outside History, confined to shameful contracts, taylorisation and utilitarianism,   confronted to dire hardships in sugar-cane fields, guano pits, or the railways, they have evolved, with patience and sacrifice, a vision whereby otherness is not excluded, where ahimsa is potent, where imaginaries and languages have conversed, leading us to wider avenues of cultural diversity, those which we have to explore for the benefit of a culture of peace and understanding, as promoted by Unesco.

On this auspicious day, combining the first year of the classification of the ghat by Unesco, and the commemoration of the migrant, I wish the Aapravasi ghat to chart new routes of research and brotherhood among peoples, imaginaries and cultures.

Khal Torabully, La Pointe aux Canonniers, Mauritius, 2 November 2007.
© Khal Torabully, 2007.

Footnote :

  1. Shivani Gurunathan, unpublished PHD thesis on coolitude, Warwick University, 2007, under the supervision of David Dabydeen.
  2. Coolitude, in a nutshell, is a philosophy and aesthetics resulting from the encounters between the indentured and otherness in the process of migrations and displacements. For further reading on this aesthetics and migratory concept, please consult Coolitude, An anthology of Indian labour diaspora, by Dr Marina Carter and Dr Khal Torabully, Anthem Press, London, 2002; Gendered voyages into coolitude, by Véronique Bragard, Belgium, 2004 and "Coolitude",  Missives, Société littéraire de France Télécom, Paris, June 2004. Or click   coolitude on google.
  3. Dr Marina Carter, "Coolitude", Missives, op. cit .
  4. Le dernier frère, the recent novel by talented Natacha Appanah, springing from the displacements of a young Jew meeting the descent of a coolie in Mauritius is the continuation of this experience through literature, as is La Case à Chine, the latest book by the prolific novelist  Raphaël Confiant, which, after the coolitude of La Panse du chacal, featuring the odyssey of coolie migration in Martinique, portrays the displacement of other indentured of Chinese origin on this French Caribbean island, therefore continuing Confiant's exploration of coolitude and créolité. I would also bring to attention the recent publication of The First Crossing (1837-1838), the diary of British surgeon Theophilus Richmond who sailed on the first coolie ship, the Hesperus, that brought indentured labourers from Calcutta, India to Mauritius and Georgetown, by Dr Dabydeen et al, at Derek Walcott Press.
  5. Khal Torabully, «Esclaves et coolies: pour un rapprochement des mémoires», in  Africultures n° 67, Paris, June 2006.

© Khal Torabully, 2007.

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