On 1 April 2016 Marc Trabsky presented a paper titled ‘Techniques of Administration and Indentured Labourers in the Isle of Mauritius’ at the University of Connecticut Law School, during the Nineteenth Annual Conference, Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities. The theme of the conference was Reading Race, Writing Race and Living Race.
The Aapravasi Ghat on the waterfront of Port Louis is a remnant of the ‘great experiment’ of indentured labour in the nineteenth century. The Isle of Mauritius was imagined by the British Empire as a fertile space for experimenting with techniques of colonial administration following the demise of slavery. The indentured labourer emerged as a solution to the problem of how to continue the project of colonisation in the absence of slaves. The Office of Protector of Immigrants was tasked in 1842 with the duty of supervising the indentured system and reporting to the Empire on the welfare of the island’s labourers. At his disposal was an arsenal of legal techniques for disciplining bodies and managing populations.
Modern techniques of administration, management and supervision of migrant labourers were developed in the course of this experiment. The implementation of the White Australian Policy, following the Second World War, during the twentieth century, enhanced, developed and refined such techniques. In Mauritius, the identity of the ‘indentured labourer’ was a product of the combined use of forms, photography and files. The arrangement of these techniques was integral for producing the racialized identity of the ‘free worker’ and binding this worker to white plantation owners. In Australia, the migrant was racially profiled, classified and processed through enhanced techniques of screening and inventorying.
This paper argues that the history of the indentured labourer in Mauritius and the migrant labourer in Australia signifies the racialization of legal techniques of ordering, recording and filing persons. Law was integral to both regimes, from the taking of photographs of labourers as they arrived at the Ghat to the testing of language skills in Australian detention centres to the printing of authorised ‘tickets’ in Mauritius, which served as a labourer’s identity card and residency permit. The Ghat marked a legal, technical and spatial gateway to a grand experiment, which was enhanced in Australia, in cultivating lawful relations with migrant labourers.
Marc Trabsky is a Lecturer and the Director of Engagement at La Trobe Law School. He writes in the intersections of legal theory, history and aesthetics. His research examines a history of legal institutions and techniques of jurisdiction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has published nationally and internationally on law and the dead, coronial law and forensic medicine, and the relationship between law and technology. Marc is a Managing Editor of the socio-legal studies journal Law in Context and he co-edited a special issue on ‘Law and Its Accidents’ in the Griffith Law Review.
Marc received La Trobe Law School’s teaching award in 2015 and lectures across a range of subjects, including Death, Dying and the Law, Advanced Legal Writing, Intellectual Property Law and Legal Institutions and Methods. He is currently completing a doctoral thesis at the Melbourne Law School on ‘Voices of the Dead: Law, Office and the Coroner’.