I paused trying to think of an answer. It was an important question which I too had pondered, but had yet to find a satisfactory answer to. When my daughter asked me the question, I was reminded of my own journey. Her question was simply this; “What does our surname mean?”
I had picked up some ideas. My father who had come to the UK in the 60’s followed by my mother in the 70’s, both herald from the small island in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius. I knew that surnames during colonialism had been interpreted by officials who may had been Dutch, French or English and who in the early 1800’s had relied on phonics to make sense of the surnames they heard.
My own relationship with my surname, this essential part of my identity has been a sensitive entanglement. I too, like those officials, had tried to make sense of my name, but for different reasons. For me, my surname has never felt right. Even as a child growing up in South East London this tangled web of letters seemed incorrect. It has too many vowels, hellbent on overpowering the consonant in a phonic war for domination. I could imagine the European officials upon hearing the original surname just adding letters in a non discerning way. As a child I struggled to correctly spell or pronounce my name, whilst other Indian names sounded so simple and accessible.
South London was tough. Like other working-class children of colour in the 1980s, my skin colour accompanied by surname was a delectable combination for would be racists. The daily dose of verbal and physical abuse made me sensitive to my difference, which I couldn’t escape.
That sensitivity stayed well passed the cuts and bruises. As an adult, I still feel uneasy and uncomfortable when people, after seeing my surname say “I am not even going to try to say that” or “that is a mouth full”. They often backtrack, when I respond aggressively or they realise I am not amused. However, no matter how much I pretend, that sensitivity and discomfort remains.
I remember early on in my career as a learning and development professional sitting in HR and hearing the recruiter next to me — who I got on well with, exclaim “I can’t even say that surname” as they reviewed the CV. I observed how quickly the CV got dropped into the “no” pile. I said nothing. I did wonder if anyone had had a similar reaction to my CV or if I had missed out on job opportunities purely due to the potential embarrassment of the recruiter having to try and say my name.
Equally, I am always touched when someone makes a genuine effort to pronounce my name or ask about it. I remember I was sorting my mortgage out and the bank teller (who was also from African decent), would greet me as Mr. Bhageerutty. I would in turn greet him in the same manner. It never ceased to put a smile on my face – two children of the colonies, greeting each other in the most gentlemanly fashion . Or post Brexit phoning the Mauritian embassy to enquire about Mauritian citizenship, and as I started to spell my name, the lady (who sounded like one of my aunties) said that would not be necessary as she knew how to spell Bhageerutty, and jokingly reminded me that she, like me, was Mauritian (still haven’t got that passport).
At work when I present and facilitate training, I consciously leave my surname off presentations. My thinking - people are going to struggle with my first name- why complicate things further! Why deal with the fallout and everyone feeling uncomfortable. When meeting new colleagues or external partners, I find myself saying my first name to avoid any potential embarrassment. This discomfort might be of my own creation, however it remains very real to me.
Whereas I have embarrassment around my surname my father had a different approach. I remember we were checking my mother into hospital for another surgery for her arthritis. I was 11. My mother and father were tired and dad was concerned for my Mum. I can imagine him trying to do the mental equations of how he was going to look after me, go to work and look after mum. A nurse sat opposite my parents filling out the admittance form. I remember she was kind and very light in nature. We got to the surname and she said “I am not going to even try to say that”, my dad replied “You are going to have to learn, my wife is going to be in here for a while”. The abruptness of his response changed the interaction as nurse became very formal in tone.
I always felt embarrassed about the incident. I think the embarrassment was felt more deeply, as later that night as I filled up a jug of water for Mum, I overheard the nurse retelling the encounter to her colleague. She stopped when she saw me — our embarrassment now mutual. However, as I reflect as an adult I feel Dad had a point. There are a number of ways the nurse could have tackled the conversation; asking how to pronounce the surname; trying to pronouncing it; or asking a colleague before the meeting.
“The seed must grow regardless,
Of the fact that it’s planted in stone”
Can you See the Pride in the Panther, 2Pac
When my daughter asked the question, those moments come back and I stumbled to respond. The answer to the question is a complicated one. As I shared my parents are from Mauritius. I know I am a mixture of North Indian and Tamil with my ancestry coming from both North and South India. But, how did my ancestors get to a place called Mauritius — an uninhabited island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The answer is summarized in two words: Indentured Servitude.
Indentured Servitude or Indentured Labour was the system put in place in the 1830’s post the abolition of Slavery. After the abolition of slavery, in the 1820s, the slave traders were left with a particular problem — their industry now illegal, they still had demand for people to tend crops, create goods and ensure the colonial industrial machine kept churning. These industrialists had relied on the barbaric imprisonment, ownership and the insurmountable resilience of those they had enslaved. Now they needed a new plan.
In 1820, John Gladstone, the father of the future Prime Minister of England (William Ewart Gladstone), wrote on the 4th January 1836 a letter to Messrs. Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Co., of Calcutta. Gladstone wrote to slave trading companions:
“You will probably be aware that we are very particularly situated with our negro apprentices in the West Indies, and that it is a matter of doubt and uncertainty, how far they may be induced to continue their services on the plantations after their apprenticeship expires in 1840. This, to us, is a subject of great moment and deep interest in the colonies of Demerara and Jamaica. We are, therefore, most desirous to obtain and introduce labourers from other quarters, and particularly from climates similar in their nature.’’
He received a response:
“We thank you for your enquiry. In the last 2 years, an upwards of 2000 natives have been sent from this land to Mauritius….The Dhangers you have spoken of are more akin to the Monkey than the Man, no religion, no education and in their present state no wants apart from eating, drinking and sleeping. And to procure which, they are willing to labour. We are not aware of any difficulty in sending men to the West Indies. The natives being totally ignorant of the place they go to and the length of voyage they are undertaking”.
Dhanger or Coolie, was the disparaging description given to the Indians they were now going to ship to Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Jamaica, Belize, St Lucia, Grenadines, Barbados, Fiji and South Africa. These men and women “more akin to the Monkey”, would be the powerhouse to these new great colonies.
Indentured servitude was a system by which the worker would given their labour to an European Master for a period of 5–7 years after which they were promised a sum of money and land. During the 5–7 years their life belonged to their Masters. The worker had no freewill and did whatever the Master wanted, with the knowledge the contract could be extended.
The workers handed over their labour with a simple thumb print. Many did not know what they were signing away. There have been accounts of the devious means to get Indians to enlist. They were told they were going to the land of Sri Rama or were travelling within India or would return after a brief stint, obscuring the reality of what they were handing over — their life and the life of future generations. So, a few years after the abolition of slavery, Gladstone and other slavers were able to safeguard their fortunes. They replaced the metal chains of bondage with a civilised thumb print.
Sa mem sime tonn montre mwa
Sa mem sim eke mo pou passer
Sa sime la li al laba mem
Sa meme sime ki mo pou passer
Sime La Limiere, Joseph Reginald Topize (Kaya — Mauritian Singer)
Kaya in his song Sime La Limiere, suggest we all travel the same path, illuminated by the same light. His words echo the sentiment that we are all destined to travel on the same waters.
The Kala Pani is a river located in North India in Uttarakhand and since 1998 has been claimed by both India and Nepal. In the 1830s the Kala Pani came to symbolise the journey the Indians would make. The name translates to dark waters, the Kala Pani, an ominous symbol of their fate.
It is estimated that between 1–3 million people made the voyage between 1800–1900. I don’t know if my lineage was amongst the first Tamils who arrived in Mauritius in 1727, or the initial waves of North Indians, or maybe the Indians who came as Immigrants to settle in Mauritius and join the growing Indian petite bourgeois. I estimate at least four generations would have been born in Mauritius.
What I do know the life for those first generation of men and women would have been one of political and economical servitude. Generations of men and women with no rights whose survival would had been at the behest of their European Master. How many were freed? How many were given land? How many died in bondage.
Treatment of the Indentured Labourer to the Slave differed. Laborers had a legal contact, stay with their families and importantly could keep their language and religion. Indians had it better than their African Brothers and Sisters. The slavers knew if they wanted this system to outlast slavery it had to at look humane. The changes were aesthetic only, the dehumanisation and verbal and physical violence did not change. The Masters saw my ancestors as natives, coolies, dhangers, sub-humans who needed to be dominated and servitude was our natural state.
Weapons cannot hurt the Spirit and fire can never burn
Him. Untouched is he by drenching waters, untouched is
He by parching winds
Bhagavata Gita — (2nd Century BCE) Chapter 2 Verse 23
How did Indentured Servitude end? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The modern Western Intellectual reimage Gandhi as a racist and sexual deviant, writing in the same ink as Gladstone, only with less overt distain: “more akin to Monkey”. What ever is written and reimagined, the truth will be that Gandhi defeated the British without throwing a stone. However, before Gandhi wore the Doti, his first incarnation was as a well to do Middle-class solicitor, who understood the world through colonial rule. The young Gandhi after graduating in Britain left to make his name and fortune in South Africa. Then one day, an indentured labourer walked into Gandhi’s office:
I have said that Balasundaram entered my office, head-gear in hand. There was a peculiar pathos about the circumstance which also showed our humiliation. I have already narrated the incident when I was asked to take off my turban. A Practice has been forced upon every indentured labourer and every Indian stranger to take off his head-gear when visiting a European, whether the head-gear were a cap, a turban or a scarf wrapped round the head. A salute even with both hands was not sufficient. Balasundaram thought that he should follow the practice even with me. This was the first case in my experience. I felt humiliated and asked him to tie up his scarf. He did so, not without a certain hesitation, but I could perceive the pleasure on his face.
An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth , M K Gandhi, pg. 151
When Balasundaram entered Gandhi’s office he did so in earnest. His Master had beaten him and he had lost his two front teeth. He was looking for justice and entered Gandhi’s office asking for help. Gandhi took Balasundaram’s case and won. Balasundrama’s justice was having his indenture passed on to a “more” humane European Master.
Balasundaram a lost hero in history, helped to change the course of Gandhi’s life, this indentured worker helped inspire Gandhi to fight to overturn the laws in South Africa and then took that fight and principles to India to end the English Raj. How much does history owe to Balasundaram’s two lost teeth?
In Mauritius it would take the efforts of others such as, A Bissoondoyal, which my dad and his brothers would refer to as Cha Cha, to fight for the rights of people of colour in Mauritius.
Bhagiratha told him two wishes: “If you have pity on me, bless me with a child to continue the line of my forebearers. Secondly, cursed by Kapila Muni, my ancestors lie in a heap of ashes in Patala. The ashes should be washed by the waters of Ganga so that their souls may ascend top heaven. May you be pleased to order Ganga to go down.”
Ramayana — (7th Century BCE) Passage 7
But what does my surname mean? When my ancestors ventured across the Kali Pani and gave my surname to the European officials the name they gave was not Bhageerutty, the name they gave was भागीरथी or Bhagirathi. So where does the name Bhagirathi come from?
The Dharmic and Vedic parable, retold in the Ramayana, tells the story of King Bhagiratha who went into a deep meditation for 1000s of years in order to gain favor with Lord Shiva. The King wanted to save his people from drought. The Lord, impressed with Bhagiratha’s devotion, granted Bhagiratha his wish. The Lord undid his mattered locks, freeing the Ganges to flow. The mouth of the Ganges is called Bhagirathi and means belonging to Bhagiratha. The Kala Pani also flows from the same Ganges river.
My surname means I belong to Bhagiratha and I am of his lineage.
It is a romantic notion to think that the children of Bhagiratha, once Bhagirathi now Bhageerutty, are the product of the boon, bestowed by Lord Shiva. It is an identity I can cling to. A King without land.
My story is not unique. Other people are also the product of Indentured Labourers. Many Chinese were also transported to the same lands, also lost to history. Post slavery other Africans were also asked for their finger print and name.
Bhageerutty is a symbol of a history that is still unclear to me but has a deep meaning. It captures the plight of those millions of Indians forgotten by history who due to Indentured Servitude found themselves in foreign lands destined to be forgotten. My ancestors, were once labelled “more akin to the Monkey than the Man, no religion, no education”, how very wrong, Gladstone and his slaving friends were.