Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By Peter Ibbotson
In the pamphlet ‘Economic Aid’, number two in the Labour Party’s series, on its colonial policy, there is a brief reference to Mauritius. Criticising the dreadful conditions that existed in the colonies before the recent war, the pamphlet says: “The first effective challenge to such conditions came in 1937-38 when riots convulsed the colonies. Mauritius, the West Indies and the Gold Coast were aflame and the Labour Party in Britain pressed for action. One of the results was the appointment of a Royal Commission to enquire into conditions in the West Indies.” (Let me say, before I go any further, that a Royal Commission to enquire into social and economic conditions in Mauritius would be extremely useful. It is certainly necessary).
What were the riots in Mauritius? Many older Mauritians can remember the events of August 1937; but the younger generation cannot. During the early 1930s the sugar industry went through a bad spell, and wages were reduced. When in 1935, 1936 and 1937 the industry began to pick up and recover a measure of prosperity, the sugar barons did not raise wages. The workers asked for more wages and were refused. Say Barnwell and Toussaint: “They had no obvious, peaceful way of forcing the Government and the planters to listen to their complaints, and in August 1937… trouble broke out violently. There were riots at Flacq, and then in other parts of the island. Several labourers were killed…”
From 1934 to 1936 there been one elected M.L.C., the member for Plaines Wilhems, who had consistently supported the demands of the workers for higher wages: Dr Maurice Cure. He had founded the Mauritius Labour Party; he agitated for many things including a Minimum Wages ordinance and Trade Union legislation.
After the general strike of 1937 – it began in August and went on for 45 days – in which there were 5 deaths, dozens of arrests, and hundreds of arpents burned, a Commission of Enquiry was appointed. It found that the workers were underpaid and underfed and recommended an immediate increase of 10 per cent in labourers’ wages. The Labour Department was set up. The Agricultural Bank was empowered to lend money to the small planters. The Legislative Council was enlarged by the addition of two members to represent the small planters.
Dr Cure’s championing of the cause of the underpriviledged, underpaid and underfed plantation labourers was triumphantly vindicated by the Commission of Enquiry. But what happened to Dr Cure himself, when he had been proved right? He was, in fact, subjected to degradation, slow and deliberate, by the Franco-Mauritian community. He was boycotted by the whites, by the wealthy, and by the aristocrats. His name became taboo. People who visited Dr Cure’s surgery, or who called Dr Cure to their house to attend to a case of illness or accident (even an urgent case) risked losing their jobs, if they were employed by white employers. People not employed by whites still were afraid to call Dr Cure when they were ill, for fear of becoming marked men. Imperialism had been defeated, but a sacrifice to the great god Mammon none the less had to be made; and Dr Cure was the sacrificial victim.
Bit by bit he lost his practice. Bit by bit he fell into debt. He mortgaged his house. He sold his car. By these means he was able to clear his debts. Hounded by the imperialists, he left the Labour Party (which he had founded) and went into the political wilderness. Imperialist had triumphed over justice; might had triumphed over right.
Fifty years ago the American socialist, Jack London, wrote his monumental work ‘The Iron Heel’, in which he described how reactionaries ‘framed’ a liberal-minded university professor, forcing him out of his job, out of his home, out-almost-of life itself. The treatment of Dr Cure by the reactionaries in Mauritius twenty years ago is an almost exact parallel of Jack London’s story. (For those who want to read about what imperialism really can be like, The Iron Heel’ is compulsory reading).
Today Dr Cure lives, venerable and near-legendary, an almost forgotten figure, in retirement in Mauritius. His son is in practice as a doctor in London. But only last month an enquirer at Mauritius House asked for the address of Dr Cure in London and was told that no such person was in practice in the UK. What the reactionaries regarded as the sins of the father are still, evidently, being visited on the son! Although the sugar barons and their hangers-on have for long decried Dr Cure and his work, his pioneering of the Mauritius Labour Party, and his valiantly successful efforts on behalf of the workers twenty years and more ago, can never be allowed to be forgotten. This month sees Dr Cure’s birthday; I hope that the workers of Mauritius will on the day itself pay tribute to Dr Cure; for he is a man who deserves well of the workers.
For them, he sacrificed well-nigh his all. He sacrificed his living, his position, his career. He saw his early agitation for better wages and conditions bear fruit. He has seen his foundling Labour Party grow from its infant beginnings to the largest political force in the island, commanding a majority of elected seats in the Legislative Council.
For the welfare of the many, one man – Dr Cure – gave up much. Let the People now show their appreciation of Dr Cure by paying to him on his birthday the homage that is his rightful due. In recent years his pioneer work has been forgotten, neglected; let amends be honourably made on the occasion of the birthday of the Grand Old Man of Mauritius Labour.
* * *
Perhaps Dr Cure may yet see the complete emergence of Mauritius to Dominion status. The third in the Labour Party’s series of pamphlets on colonial affairs – ‘Smaller Territories’ – has just been published. Says the Party: “It is the declared policy of the Labour Party that the people in every territory, great or small, shall ultimately have the right of self-determination… The only way of giving full reality to the right of self-determination is through a sovereign parliament. In the case of the small territories the difficulty is to find an area big enough to maintain full sovereignty. The two best ways of getting over this difficulty are by federation or by integration… some of the small territories may desire integration with another Commonwealth country.”
Other small territories, unwilling or because of isolation not able to federate with another Commonwealth country, should become Dominions: “The grant of Dominion status to the small territories cannot of course make them, in fact, into nations capable of looking after their own foreign policy and defence; by definition they are too small for that. What Dominion status means is that they and they alone would decide how and with whom arrangements would be made for the conduct of their external affairs… Territories such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Ocean islands may become Dominions or some of them may integrate with other Commonwealth countries.”
If ministerial responsibility is successful in Mauritius, this policy of the Labour Party may well bring Dominion status to Mauritius within a few years. If it does, then Dr Cure’s sacrifices will not have been in vain. Nor will the sacrifices of other people.
But first we must have what Dr Cure founded — a united Labour Party.
4th Year No 149 – Friday 14th June 1957
* Published in print edition on 13 October 2020