"Still we live on" : the transfiguration of colonial indentured labour photographs in Mauritius.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Over the last four years I have spent many hours and days researching and viewing the photographic portraits of the Indentured Labour Immigrants of Mauritius (1864 - 1914). My initial engagement with these images felt more like a confrontation with the British Empire and the colonial footprint placed upon its subjects. However, now as I come to the end of this research project and return to my initial thoughts and feelings about the archives, I have noticed that slowly and unwittingly my experience and understanding of these photographs has dramatically shifted from the adversarial stance of where I began. This became most apparent to me when recently presenting a paper on the Indentured Labour Portraits at a visual ethnography conference in Paris. The reactions of the audience to the photographs were reminiscent of my own initial critical colonial perspective. Although my paper at this conference presented a visual methodology that encouraged us to see beyond the negative impressions and assumptions of the colonial archive, the audience nevertheless remained focused on the power of Empire emanating from them. They commented on how hard it was to look at the faces of the labourers and some viewers could not bear to gaze at them for any length of time. Others fixated on the expression of the labourer and their eyes, believing they could sense what the labourer was feeling at the moment the photograph was taken. They described sensing the labourer as scared, frightened, intimidated, and helpless. A feeling of anger and disgust also imbued their comments, thrust clearly at the feet of colonialism. I found these comments unsettling because, for me, four years later, I see and feel different things when I look at the photographs. I have not forgotten their historical beginnings, nor the significance of the colonial construction of this photographic archive, yet what I see more persuasively is the individual story of the labourer. I imagine their trials and tribulations both in India before they came to Mauritius and once they arrived and worked as a labourer on the sugar plantation. I also think about the following generations of their descendants, and all the traditions and rituals they have passed on over time. At the same time, I am in awe of the remarkable endeavour of the photographic system, the photographers, their assistants, and the colonial authority that managed to create such images at such an early period in photography’s history. While reflecting on the conference audience reactions, I felt pangs of guilt for having thoughts of admiration for an exploitative system and for daring to see past the domineering nature of the colonial imprint.
My shift in thinking and perspective of the Indentured Labour Portraits has occurred after a long and involved ethnographic encounter with the archives, the images, and the people to whom these photographs have the greatest meaning: the descendants of the indentured labourers. So what does this all mean in relation to my thesis? When I ask myself this question I realise that my own process of engagement with the Indentured Labour Portraits of Mauritius has circled upon itself; the theoretical approaches I have chosen to rely upon are validated by my own research processes, and through a prolonged and in-depth engagement with the photographs, their many dimensions and complex relationships have come to the fore. In essence, by approaching them ethnographically, the controlling purview of their colonial construction has given way to additional knowledge and alternative viewpoints. As such, the ambit of this thesis is not only the social life of the Indentured Labour Portraits, it is also an exploration of how we experience and research photographs, particularly historical images found within colonial archives. Therefore, this thesis is both an introduction and explanation of a valuable colonial photographic archive, as well as a theoretical inquiry into how we engage with photographs in archival research. I do not wish to emphasise one over the other, but rather present them as new sources of knowledge that have emerged from an involved and in-depth study of the photographs and their social world. This thesis represents the Indentured Labour Portrait Archive as found and informed by their Mauritian origin and context.
The title of this thesis "Still we live on" – The Transfiguration of Colonial Indentured Labour Photographs in Mauritius, refers to the resilience of the Indentured Labourers and their descendants and the role the Indentured Labour Photographs play in continuing the indentured labour story in Mauritius. The words 'still we live on' come from Deepchand C. Beeharry's novel That Others Might Live (1976). Throughout this thesis I use inserts from Beeharry’s novel as an introduction for most chapters to help keep present the voice of the indentured labourers. Beeharry’s novel deconstructs the imperialist notion of the indentured labourer as the helpless bearer of history, creating a narrative that historicises the indentured labourer as having agency and influence upon their future, and is therefore a powerful source of lyrical text. I use the term 'transfiguration' in the title to signpost the changing form of the Indentured Labour Photographic Portraits from objects of colonial control and exploitation to treasured objects of veneration and honour.
Although this thesis is primarily textual, the Indentured Labour Portraits are at the forefront of this dissertation. The prominence of the photographs will be visually displayed at various points throughout this work. A photographic collage will commence each chapter, reminding the reader that it is the encounter with these images that informs this research. Throughout this thesis, I rely upon the photographs to facilitate their own form of engagement and interaction with the reader.
There have been many people and organisations involved throughout this research project – most importantly, the descendants of the indentured labourers depicted in these photographs. I hope that this project adds to their continuing curiosity and drive to understand their history and origins.