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UK Mauritians’ Gazette December 2017
Mauritian reminiscences (A page from the history of Mauritius)
The Depot Photographers
150 years ago, Depot photographers were appointed by Ordinance No 31 of 1867 to service Indian Indentured Labourers
Editor’s Note: Depot was a place at Immigration Square in Port Louis where Indian indentured labourers on landing on the island were taken to, before being allocated to Camps on various sugar estates
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  The 'depot photographers', officials assigned to the Immigration depot in Port-Louis to photo- graph Indian immigrants in accordance with the provisions of Ordinance No. 31 of 1867, have been instrumental in perpetuating the col- lective memory in the way artists of the French Navy (such as Nicolas-Marie Lozanne, Bigot de la Mothe, Barthelemy Dequeveauvillier) whose drawings and sketches have immortalized scenes of life in various colonies, particularly in the port area.
The position of 'Depot Photographer' was cre- ated in the 1860s when there was a need to differ- entiate a 'new immigrant' (under contract) from a 'former or old immigrant' (a non-contractual who had completed his or her years of service under contract).
As a result, Indian immigrants who came under contract from the official beginning of the impor- tation of contract or indentured labour in 1834 to the second half of the 1860s were not pho- tographed.
It follows that the archives department at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute does not have any pho- tos of all the ancestors of the Indo-Mauritian fam- ilies who came before the entry into service of
time or disengage. In the event of disengagement, he acquired a new status, that of 'old immi- grant', got a 'ticket' which al- lowed him to identify himself and to be identified.
However, the lack of a photo accompanying the entry written on the ticket posed problem and gave rise to abuses: "many ticket holders were attacked and had their tickets stolen." (Christian le Comte, ‘Portraits from the immi- gration archives in Mauritius’)
Christian le Comte then enu- merates the measures taken by the colonial administration to ad- dress the problem. “In 1864 it had been suggested that a portrait should be added to the old immi- grant's ticket as many ticket holders were attacked and had their tickets stolen. On 30 September 1864 the proposal that 'all immigrants who did not re-engage themselves on the ex- piration of their contracts' shall receive a new ticket with a pho- tographic portrait, was approved and sanctioned by Government Order No 4278. It was also sug- gested that the immigrants didn't object paying 4 S. for the por- trait.” (Ibid)
Focus on the art photos of
Abraham Sinapa Christian le Comte introduces in his
book “Portraits from the immigration archives in Mauritius” a series of photos of Indian immigrants shot by Abraham Sinapa. The author underlines the qual- ities that he discovered in the photo- graphic work of the latter, and explains what led him to appreciate Abraham Sinapa’s photos:
“Comparing these photographs with modern passport pictures, these old por- traits are full of information, expression and aesthetic value. The images selected in this book not only identify these im- migrants, but also tell us about their background and the diversity of their stories.
Sinapa captured the subjects of his photographs in poses that allow us to as- sume an intentional artistic effect. He then intervened on the images, mainly through sharpening and softening the features of the sitter, to create expressive and beautiful portraits.
It was the retouching of the portraits, the enhancing of an image that, contrar- ily, needed to be realistic, that prompted the author's research about the photog- rapher's identity.
way, to facilitate his detention.”(Ibid)
Confusion
To avoid confusion about the photo- graphic collection at MGI Christian le Comte suggests a new approach to photo archives con- cerning Indian immi- grants who came to Mauritius and cur- rently under the cus- tody of the Indian Immigration Mu- seum of the Ma- hatma Gandhi Institute.
The most common confusion concerning photos is that assimi- lating the subjects of the photos to inden- tured labourers. In fact, the photos are those of 'disengaged' (agricultural workers whose contract of em- ployment had come to an end and were no longer under inden- ture).
these photographers, especially of those who had passed away in the meantime. However, those who had chosen to elect residence in Mauritius after their contract and were alive at the time of entry into photographic service could fully prevail of this service.
The legal framework covering the
service of the Depot photographer At the end of his five-year contract of employ- ment, the Indian labourer could either renew his contract for a new period of
“The Indian labourers are required to present themselves at the photographic branch of the im- migration office, in order that photographic por- traits of them may be taken. One of these is then attached to the descriptive ticket given to the labourer of whom it refers, to serve him as a proof of his identity, and of his having acquired some sort of status in the island; and another copy is pasted into one of the registers, at present unin- dexed, to which I have just referred, with the object of rendering it easier for the Protector of Immi- grants to trace his career, and, if he offends in any
jects were taken in photos, the latter were forcibly 'old immigrants' who had completed their inden- ture (but who could also, after the exercise of tak- ing photos, renew their service on a contractual basis). The photographs could also be those of- people who had never been under contract or in- denture, "such as in the case of children and those looking after them.”(Ibid)
Photographers assigned to the im-
migration office in action
The first photographer with the task of pro-
ducing duplicate portraits of Indian immi- grants was Lecorgne. The latter won the contract for a period of five years. "The terms were: 'To provide for five years two pho- tographs of each immigrant, one to be affixed to the ticket, and the other to be preserved in the Immigration Office ...'. (ditto) The photo supplier is also responsible for "providing the small tin-box, which is to be slung round their neck, and containing their papers". (Ibid)
After the five years ending in October 1869 , Lecorgne had provided 116,333 photos. At the end of Lecorgne's contract, the colonial ad- ministration decided to set up the photography ser- vice for Indian immigrants at the immigration office and created a photographic branch for this purpose.
This section, properly equipped, was under the responsibility of an official, one Mr. Carbonel. "The colonial government then decided that Mr Carbonel should be employed, with a fixed salary, to take the photographs and be provided with ap- paratus and chemicals." (Ibid)
With the support of the photographic service by the colonial administration, the costs of photos were reduced by half. "For the immigrants, the cost of the portrait was reduced to 2 S. (as a reference, the cost of a third class train ticket from Mahe- bourg to Port Louis was 3 S. and the average salary of an old immigrant was 16 S. per month). "(Ibid)
The 'depot photographers' who came after Car- bonel were George Britter, replaced after his death in 1879 by Abraham Sinapa who officiated from 1879 to 1893, after which "on 27 July 1893, his as- sistant Daniel Sénèque was appointed depot pho- tographer.
The term used in the Mauritius Blue Book to designate the post held by Daniel Sénèque is 'Head Photographer, Immigration Department'. He had two assistants - P. Narsoo and J.P. Pierre. Abraham Sinapa (sometimes spelled 'Sinnapa'), named 'Head Photographer' on March 29, 1879, received a monthly salary of Rs1,260 against Rs 860 and Rs 600 respectively to his two assistants, L. Sénèque and P. Narsoo.
DODO
 Confirmation of the service of the Depot Pho- tographers Ordinance 31 of 1867 will confirm the practice of photographing Indian immigrants at the end of their 'industrial residence': “According to Ordinance 31 of 1867, any immigrant having com- pleted the 'industrial residence' (a residence of five years in the colony) with an official discharge, re- demption (with a payment of £1.12 per annum of service due), release or exemption had to be regis- tered as an 'old immigrant'. As a proof of his status, the old immigrant would receive a ticket with his portrait.”(Ibid)
If the farm worker did not renew his contract, the combination 'ticket-portrait' would still be useful to him. It would facilitate obtaining from the po- lice a pass allowing him to move freely across the island.
“If the immigrant was free of contract, this ticket would allow him to obtain a pass, by registering at the police station of his place of residence.”(Ibid) The procedures in the above case were as follows:
"There is a general misconception about the photographs in the archives that are kept in the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius, which are believed to be the portraits of indentured laborers. This is not so. "(Ibid) These photos, he recalls, are duplicates of those accompanying his carrier's
'ticket' of disengagement.
"The photographs in the collection of the records
of Indian immigrants in Mauritius are duplicates of the pictures that were attached to a ticket that was given to immigrants, a sort of passport." (Ibid)
The author of the book states that immigrants who served as agricultural labourers before the start of the photographic service at the immigra- tion depot will be photographed "several years (even decades) after completing their first inden- ture" (Ibid) and that it was only in the early 1880s that "some immigrants start to be photographed ap- proximately 5 years after their arrival (on the com- pletion of their indenture)." (Ibid)
However, whatever the moment when the sub-
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