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How the Intercontinental Slavery Museum in Mauritius Promotes Peace and Justice

According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, is one of only five countries in the world free from both domestic and international conflict. The Sustaining Peace Project at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity has been learning from people in sustainably peaceful societies, such as Mauritius, in order to refine its model of lasting peace. One core factor in influencing peaceful dynamics that has emerged is the way that history is told and remembered.

In October 2020, Mauritius launched an Intercontinental Slavery Museum with a temporary exhibition, ‘Breaking the Silence,’ at the site of the future museum. In the Q&A below, we ask Jimmy Harmon, a member of the museum’s board of directors, about this museum and how it may contribute to peace.

Harmon is an independent researcher in the Centre for Research on Slavery and Indentured Labour at the University of Mauritius, and is the deputy director at the Diocesan Service of Catholic Education. Previously, he was the director of the Nelson Mandela Centre for African & Kreol Culture, and he also worked as a part-time researcher with the Truth and Justice Commission.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

jimmy harmon stands in front of childrens drawings
Dr. Jimmy Harmon with children’s drawings from an activity to mark the opening of the exhibition. The activity asked elementary students from Notre Dame de Lourdes Roman Catholic School to imagine a day in the life of a child during slavery.

Can you briefly describe the impetus behind the creation of an Intercontinental Slavery Museum in Mauritius? What do you hope the museum will help achieve?

The Intercontinental Slavery Museum is one of the major recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission of Mauritius, which in 2009 set up public platforms to investigate the legacy of slavery and indentured labor from colonial days to date. It was the first truth commission in the world to specifically be about slavery. The main issues which were investigated were land, race discourse, the impact of slavery in terms of socio-economic development, and it also investigated indentured labor which came after the abolition of slavery. The commission came up with a report in 2011 with 290 recommendations, and one was to set up a slavery museum in the capital city of Port Louis to be something visible which acknowledges the contributions of slaves in the development of the country.

Port Louis was a hub during the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, a stop-over from when slaves were taken from Africa or from India. We are calling it an Intercontinental Slavery Museum, because we are focusing not only on Mauritius, but are showing the links between the different continents, and how Mauritius was a stop-over for slave traders to then go to the United States. There is a lot of documentation on the transatlantic slave trade, but the Indian Ocean slave trade is quite a recent research area, so this shows the importance of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum.

In 2011, the idea of a museum on slavery was approved by the government, but from 2011-2020, it took a lot of time because there were lots of obstacles, a lot of resistance. There was opposition to the museum itself, but the main opposition that I felt was around the site. At one point in time, there was an unofficial suggestion that at that site, there should be a museum on human beings, a Musée De L’homme, and then at the back, there would be a room for slavery. I rejected that. No, we are not going to dilute. We’re going to talk about slavery.

This museum is to be located at a place that was used as a hospital for sailors and slaves during the French colonization. We are calling it a “site of conscience.” We had to look for a place highly symbolic — it is not just a place to display artifacts, it is a site of memory. When you come here, you feel something. You visit the museum, and then when you leave, you say “no more.”

Mauritius ranks very highly on several global indices of peace. How does the legacy of slavery impact Mauritius today? Does this complicate the notion of Mauritius as a peaceful multicultural society? If so, how?

The legacy of slavery still impacts today. It is not clear cut, rather it is enmeshed, it is embedded. Maybe one visible element is ethnic politics, and this is not only in Mauritius, it is like most postcolonial societies. The paradox is that we Mauritians live together, we are good neighbors, but we don’t do more than that. And when it comes to politics, when it comes to access to resources, it’s on an ethnic basis, what we call here “communalism.”

I think how this is linked to slavery is that even when slaves were brought here, the slaves were divided into two types of slaves — those who worked as domestic servants in homes, and those working in the field. And with time you had an evolution, those slaves who were working as domestic servants, some had the chance to get some slave owners who had some kind of humanity, who helped them to read and write, and it is from that group that we see some social mobility. But those who moved up the social ladder would look down upon slaves in the sugar plantation. Right at the beginning, there was that division.

Later, the Indian immigrants came to replace the slaves. And in fact, there has always been a… not a competition, but it’s you know, you were working, and then you were replaced by somebody else. This is in the psyche of Mauritians. And when the indentured laborers came to work, they were paid less than slaves would have been paid. Because when the British came and abolished slavery, the slaves had to be paid, and what a slave owner would have had to pay to a former slave would cost him more than what he would have to pay to an indentured laborer. So it’s more or less like the current situation today where you have immigrants coming to your country who will work for less than the locals. So, this is how things developed between these two communities over the years, over centuries. When indentured laborers came, there was a drastic change in the population profiles. Suddenly the slaves who were the majority became a minority. And with time, when we got independence, power was transferred to the Indians.

So today in Mauritius, we have two big communities: descendants whose ancestors were enslaved, the Creole community, and on the other hand you have descendants of Indian immigrants who now have political power. And in fact both have been victims of the system. But it’s a question of getting access to resources, who controls. This new power relationship is underpinned by the legacy of slavery. And this is another main avenue the museum would explore, to work towards a common identity. I think when people learn how slavery and indentured labor was, we’ll be able to really work together.

Some research suggests that the ways in which history is remembered and accounted for can be critical to bringing about and maintaining peace. How might recognizing the legacy of slavery in Mauritius contribute to sustaining peace?

Very true. In fact, I wrote a paper: Re-membering the Past, Educating for Present and Building our Future. In postcolonial studies, especially from the Caribbean countries, Derek Walcott and others use this term re-membering. When I see the museum, I see history, and it’s an opportunity to bring together all the dismembered elements of society. So this new museum will be a re-membering of a population.

Then second is education. The museum should not be a dead museum, it should be a living museum. One objective is to work on curriculum development, educating about the past. In Mauritius, in your fifth year of secondary education, you sit for the Cambridge Certificate. Out of 17,592 candidates, only 48 sit for history of Mauritius. This gives an indication of how we have educated Mauritians with masters and doctorates, but when it comes to our history, there are very few. We study the history of Mauritius at school, but not really as a subject. One reason for that is it has always been very difficult to elaborate a national curriculum for history because there are so many contested memories. History has always been told in terms of communities. You know only the history of your community, but you don’t know the richness of others. It has not been told in terms of a shared history. I think we have to move forward, we have to go beyond that to have a shared history.

So for me, this re-membering is critical, bringing together the different members through education is critical, and then we have to build on hybridity. By hybridity I mean, even myself — I will not venture that I am from one origin only, probably I might also have ancestors who have been slaveholders, or ancestors who have come from India. For the time being, I’ve defined myself as a Creole, putting more emphasis on that African and European heritage, but I know that I am a hybrid, you know, coming from a mixture. I think all Mauritians, if we had to do a DNA test, we will discover surprisingly that we can’t claim to be from only one origin. So I think the role of the new museum is to bring this out, each member of the population has different elements.

But at the same time, I have a note of caution because I see a tension coming. I can hear some people saying now, “You know the museum is not for Creoles only, it’s a museum for all Mauritians.” I’m okay with that. Yes, it’s a museum for all Mauritians, but we must not forget that the main raison d’etre of that museum came from a Truth and Justice Commission, which said that for cultural reparations to the Creole community, it’s important that we showcase the history and the contributions of that community. Yes, it’s for all Mauritians, but at the same time, you should not dispossess the Creoles. Now we are valorizing that history and culture.

What are your hopes for the future regarding how Mauritius can address the lingering consequences of slavery and colonization?

My hope is that one day in 20 years, anybody who comes to the museum, especially Mauritians, will see the history of our country. And not only of our country, but because it is intercontinental, that we belong also to this region, and we are connected, and we have a common destiny in terms of humanity. And my hope is that this triggers a deep reflection in people that we have to stand up against all injustices, against all forms of oppression, from whatever quarters it comes. And for me, the most oppressed, those who have suffered the most injustices, are the Creoles. I’m not fighting because we are Creoles, I’m fighting because we are victims of injustices, and I would like that one day, whatever situation may happen in the future, we have people engaging themselves for those who are being dispossessed. I think this is the lesson future generations should learn.

Allegra Chen-Carrel is the program manager for the Sustaining Peace Project at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity.

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Teresa Turner
Teresa Turner
3 years ago

This is a very good article that articulates the discussions that need to take place on a global scale.