Changes in the Land, Changes in the Body: Labor, Nature, and Belonging in Mauritius, 1940s–50s

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 2:10 PM
Executive Room (Omni Shoreham)
Robert Rouphail, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In the early 1940s, the British colony of Mauritius found itself in a precarious position. The 1942 Japanese occupation of Burma and a powerful cyclone in Bengal the same year had shattered the rice economy of the Indian Ocean. This dramatic collapse of the oceanic rice market pushed colonial officials to initiate a profound reorientation in the comestible regimes of the island. Anxious about the potential political crises sparked by a hungry population and by growing concerns over chronic malnutrition, the colonial state attempted to reshape the domestic nutrition systems of its agricultural poor. This was done to safeguard the political sustainability of the island and, importantly, to ensure a labor pool for the island’s booming sugar estates. Blood samples and spleen studies of rural Mauritians became the raw medical data around which these policies were to be built. These efforts to produce new nutritionally minded households also folded into contemporaneous plans by the colonial state to “improve” the natural spaces of Mauritius with the aim of eradicating malaria.

This study examines the social aftershocks of these colonial efforts to intervene in the biological and natural worlds that Mauritians inhabited. Debates over food and disease proved to be fertile territory for emerging discourses of political community, constitutional change, and diasporic belonging. Drawing on the colonial archive, the papers of Indo-Mauritian cultural organizations, newspapers, and the writings of Hindu intellectuals, this paper suggests that the emergence of political community and civilizational thought at mid-century drew from ideas regarding Mauritian nutritional habits and how debates over the ways in which Mauritian subjects encountered the natural world. It affirms the historical significance of Indian Ocean networks of knowledge and culture in Mauritius while also attending to the locally specific ways in which those networks became meaningful for Mauritians.