A Bio-social History of Uba: Sugar Science, Gender, and Labor in Colonial Mauritius

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:50 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago)
Robert Rouphail, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In July of 1937 the sugar cane fields of Mauritius were aflame. After decades of chronic immiseration, Indo-Mauritian small-scale sugar planters and field labourers stopped their work and confronted Franco-Mauritian owners of the large estates. To be a small planter/laborer in early twentieth century Mauritius was to live in a state of economic and political marginality. Malnutrition, indebtedness, and low wages were the norm. This paper aims to understand how these striking and rioting labourers constructed ways to survive at the margins of the sugar plantation economy. It argues that two spaces are critical in understanding how these small planters navigated everyday life: the gendered construction of the family and the strategic planting of Uba sugar cane. Indeed, Uba was at the center of these riots: what had finally sparked the action was 15% reduction in the price paid for the Uba cane provided to millers by small planters.

Drawing on imperial sources and interviews collected after the riots, this essay sees the family and Uba as constituent parts of broader political economy of Indo-Mauritian risk mitigation; as two areas of collective self-protection. The family could both spread the burden of wage earning and absorb the day-to-day risks of cutting sugar. Similarly, Uba cane was an ideal choice for small planters because it was cheap to plant and maintain. It was also resilient to disease and the winds of cyclones, common in Mauritius. This essay thus sees the production of the Indo-Mauritian family in relation to the ecological spaces of sugar cultivation on the island colony, and in so doing, situates Mauritius within scholarly conversations on race, the environment, and Asian communities throughout the Indian Ocean World.