Located at Grand River North West, the Vagrant Depot is like a standing monument, silenced through the ages with its door closed, guarding the entry point of La Tour Koenig and Pointes aux sables. This building has an intriguing past which the new generation should know about.
The location of the depot extends over an area of approx. 2 acres. While the depot was mainly used to incarcerate prisoners, it should be noted that it has an important link to the history of indentured labour in Mauritius
After the acquisition of Isle de France through the Treaty of Paris in 1814, ending up the war between France and the 6th coalition (part of the Napoleonic war). The British was given the legal administrative control of the island; hence, the 1st Governor of Mauritius was assigned to Isle de France. Robert Townsend Farquhar will play an important role in establishing rapports with the British authorities in Bengal, Bombay, Madras and including Ceylon.
Through engaged correspondences, Farquhar will get the support of Bengal for a short period. Having abolished the slave trade in 1807 throughout the British Colonies, Farquhar believed that introducing convict labour as used during his governance as Lieutenant- Governor in Penang would be favourable to the colonial treasury. Hence engaging in correspondences with authorities in Bengal where his request was approved. Approx. 981 Bengal Presidency Felons were transported to the island in between 1815 and 1828 with the first ship being Lady Barlow departing on the 10th of Sept. 1815 with 130 embarked.
The vagrant depot formerly known as the Convict Barracks would be established in 1816 as the Convict Headquarters through the Proclamation 193 on convict management, with the establishment of living quarters for the convicted labours in the area. They would be taking on work performed by slave labour from the Genie Civil, such as maintenance of public infrastructures i.e., roads, bridges, canals and public buildings in the Port Louis and its suburbs.
The expenses of the Convict department would be met through the Maroonage Fund of the island. This fund was the financial contribution made by slave owners who would not provide the government with their slaves for corvee. The Head Quarter would be under the supervision of Captain Francis Rossi with 10 soldiers being employed as convict overseers. Unlike punishment to the slaves, the soldiers would be given authority to punish the convicts for up to 50 lashes which were appointed in front of all the convicts as a lesson and reminder.
For complex and more serious offences, the convicted were retransported to Robben Island or Van Diemen’s Land in Australia or trial for execution.In some cases, convicts would desert the convict barracks or the regions assigned such as the case of the notorious convicts Sheik Adam which was a troublesome deserter for the British administration in Mauritius, causing havocs and then transferred to Australian Penal Colony Van Diemen’s Land in 1842.
In between 1826 and 1836 approx. 500 convicts were sent from Bombay to work on the island. Around 1500 convicts would be transported onto the island according to the research proposed by C. Anderson compared to the number of contractual labourers which would join the indenture system later.
The barracks would operate until 1853 with its last convicts and with the concern in the rise in vagrancy, the barracks would be converted into a vagrant depot after a decade of closure due to the overpopulating prisons in Mauritius. The next part will focus on the vagrancy and the set up of the vagrant depot in 1864.
Allen, R. B., 1999. Slaves, Freedmen & Indentured Laborers in colonial Mauritius, s.l.: Cambridge University Press.
Anderson, C., 2009. The Politics of Punishment in Colonial Mauritius, 1766-1887, s.l.: University of Warwick.
Anderson, C., n.d. Indian Convicts in Mauritius 1815-53, UK: School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester.
Peerthum, S., n.d. The Vagrant Depot of Grand River North West 1816-86, Port Louis: AGTF.