Mauritius Times: 60 Years Ago
What is history if not a record of the experiences of a nation or rather the world itself coming down to us as the wisdom of the ages? The value of experience cannot be too strongly stressed upon; and what is true of the individual in this sense is no less true of people. Mortals cannot trace the course of events in the future unless they are prophets and seers and it is not given to everybody to be such. But the past belongs to anybody if only he cares to delve into its mysteries.
To us, the study of the past has been a delight, a passion. We have brought to it all the enthusiasm at our command due to the deep-rooted conviction that a knowledge of history is a prerequisite to the understanding of present problems.
The birth of the Mauritius Times
Exactly two years ago the Mauritius Times came into being. Together with it came the great opportunity of our life. We have, since then, been able to put to practical use our historical studies. Before that time, our acquaintance with local history was only amateurish. Our commitment with the Mauritius Times made it incumbent upon us to make searches. Reading the rare books already published on this subject, and as far as possible going to original documents and to newspapers and reviews of the different periods became part of the usual routine of our life. Some, those who have no taste for anything that is past, will call this a dull, dry-as-dust job. We understand this, especially as Mauritians have never been given the opportunity of cultivating a taste for history. Everything published in this island costs so dear that few can afford to pay for it. Anybody who at some time or other has felt the desire of reading some historical book has found to his utter dismay that he cannot find it. When he has gone to our public libraries he has been bluntly told: “Books on local matters are not for public circulation, they can only be used for reference.” These words have had but the inevitable effect of damping down the passing enthusiasm of our history enthusiasts.
It is when we take these facts into consideration that we find what amount of good work the Mauritius Times has done in this field. We, who have gone through many local newspapers, can say with some assurance that for the first time in the history of our island a local paper has fortnightly published some aspects of local history.
The Conservative Bias
Our studies of local affairs in the past convince us of one thing: almost everything published in this island and claiming to deal with history bears a conservative bias. It is unfortunate that even our great historians whose works have stood the test of time for the amount of scholarship involved in their production have not been able to extricate themselves quite from the conservative grip on their opinion. The contribution of the working classes in the making of our history has been utterly neglected, apart from some rare publications dealing imperfectly with some aspects of their struggle. For materials dealing with these we have to go to original sources, to reports of Royal Commissions and to newspapers such as the Balance, the epoch-making Sentinelle, the Progres Colonial, Le Petit Journal and a few others.
Time and tide wait for no man. Already the Mauritius Times has lived for two years, though it is but a short period in the life of a newspaper. We remember the day when we went to the Editor with our article on ‘Slavery in Ile de France’. We felt elated when reports came from readers that the article had created sensation. Let us honestly admit that it was not the article as such which roused enthusiasm, but the readers found in it some sort of novelty, so rare and inaccessible are historical publications in this island. When we wrote on ‘Manhunts in Ile de France’, N.M.U. could no longer contain himself. He wanted to give us the “coup de grace” and kill with his classical stroke the budding writer in us. But it was brought home to him that he had to deal not with vague writings, but something which was backed by authority. Some time later Hon. Sauzier belittled our writings in the Legislative Council. We replied to him too, both in Le Mauricien and the Mauritius Times. He too preferred to keep silent.
What has been our contribution in the field of history in the past two years? We have perhaps supplied a long felt need. We have popularised local history.
We have every fortnight supplied our reading public with some aspects of the past of this country. We have lived in the past and tried our best to make our readers explore with us many places and events which in the historian’s mind, are considered exciting. During these past two years some personalities have indelibly stamped themselves on our mind — Labourdonnais, who converted the island from a hopeless jungle into one of the most precious jewels in the French Crown, Adrien d’Epinay, who obtained our first Constitution, and Wilberforce who interested himself in the cause of slaves. These are only a few names.
Our writings did not fail, in certain circles, as was inevitable, to stigmatize us for the violence of our opinions. Let us take the opportunity to tell these people that we were struck by the amount of truth kept in the dark in our field of work. We could not do otherwise then bring before the public some of these truths. As for our opinions they have been but the natural outcome of our searches. We have, it is true, condemned the callous whites for having abused of power, for their greed and selfishness isolated as they had been in their ivory towers and forgetful of those toiling for their comfort and well-being. But side by side with these, we have extolled those noble minded whites, who at the expense of their own well-being, indentified themselves with the cause of the oppressed. Were not Pere Laval, Rev. Jean Lebrun, Kerr and de Plevitz whites? And what was their fate? At what price did they stand for the rights of human beings? Ridicule was poured on them; they were publicly insulted and even assaulted by white hooligans. Still they did not waver in their self-imposed task of bringing some cheerfulness in the homes of those whose life was but a long, dreary march from the cradle to the grave.
We have written a series of articles on the contribution of Indians in the making of the island. We have spoken of Indians because when the liberated slaves refused to go to the fields, which reminded them of the worst days of their sufferings, Indians came to the rescue. In Ile de France they had helped Labourdonnais in his stupendous work. In 1810 they took part in the conquest of the island.
The Indian and the Coloured population
We showed in different articles how the coloured people had to put up a tough struggle for their rights and how their efforts were first crowned with success in 1829 when an Order in Council put them on the same footing as the whites. But the reactionaries who held the monopoly of power considered this Order as a dead letter. Then one fine morning, a young man had stepped in the political arena. He had in him every quality of the fighter; he was a born leader of man. Remy Ollier, we cannot think of him but with pride, mingled with sorrow because he died so young. In his Sentinelle, in two years only he had given a new orientation to the Coloured men. Remy Ollier was one of the first of a long line of Coloured leaders who have at different times presided upon the destinies of the Coloured people of this island.
When we came across the Royal Commission of 1872, we found through what ordeals the Indians had to pass. What struck us most was that many facts found in the Royal Commission were unknown to the public. Many materials as the Belloquet letters, on which we wrote an article, were not hitherto used in any publication.
Recently we made a short survey of the constitution of our island from 1810-1948. By the way, we should say that this is an aspect of our history which deeply interests us. We contributed articles on the work of Adrien d’Epinay, Remy Ollier, William Newton and Governor Pope Hennessy in the making of our Constitution.
* Published in print edition on 13 September 2018