Another French newspaper on Mauritius

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

It seems almost impossible nowadays to pick up a French newspaper without reading in it an article about Mauritius. The latest I have come across was in the Paris Figaro of December 2; the journalist responsible was Pierre Dupont. L’Ile Maurice colonie anglaise, de langue et de culture françaises was the main headline to Dupont’s article which was subheaded Les Mauriciens n’oublient pas que leur terre s’appela l’île de France.

There must be some reason behind this recent spate of articles in the French press about Mauritius. Are we to see a recrudescence of the retrocessionist movement of 1919-21? (for details, see Adolphe Duclos’ L’évolution nationale mauricienne). Few people, however, comparing the French and British records as regards their colonial possessions, would say that the future of Mauritius would be brighter as a French colony than as a British. After the referendum,Madagascar(which gave de Gaulle a oui) opted — through the Provincial Assembly — to become an autonomous member-state of the French Community. The French press hailed this decision as the arrival of Malgache independence. But how independent is Madagascar ? France retains control of foreign affairs, finance, defence, strategic materials, communications, the judiciary, higher education, and economic affairs — not leaving much for the local administration to look after! Contrast this with Britain’s grant of independence to India, Burma and Pakistan. Despite the high-sounding phrases Madagascar remains a colony; despite the high-sounding phrases Mauritius would never evolve as a high after retrocession (if this became an accomplished fact) as it will as a British Commonwealth state, especially if the British Labour Party wins the next general election.

Dupont’s article in Le Figaro, whatever the motives underlying its publication, contains the usual platitudes which we have come to expect from French journalists reflecting nostalgically on the “British colony with French culture and the French language.” It contains, too, the usual admissions which so frankly reveal the raison d’être of French colonialism.Let us look at some of Dupont’s statements.

The French, hesays, colonised Mauritius after 1712 and made the islandrich : ils lui apportèrent également de jeunes nobles qui venaient faire fortune aux îles, et puis des hommes noirs, venus d’Afrique, pour la main-d’œuvre. In other words, the young French nobles came to make their fortunes but they imported blacks from Africa to do the work. It doesn’t sound as though it was the French who made the island prosperous — that honour surely belongs to the people (the blacks from Africa) who did the work! Dupont tells us that the French Revolution abolished slavery in 1789 but the colons in l’île Maurice refused to obey the directives of the legal government of France. In detail he says that the islanders sent the Government’s envoys back to Paris and, to underline their determination not to obey, threatened their ship with cannons. Thus we see that the oligarchs have a long history of lawlessness. Over 150 years ago they refused to obey the lawful decisions of their lawful government. Thirty years ago the reactionary oligarchs’ candidates for the Legislative Council threatened physical violence against their radical opponents. Last October a prominent Labour supporter had to quit Mauritius because of threats against his person made by reactionaries strong-arm agents. Yet only a few years ago the Parti Mauricien press was talking of the Parti Mauricien as the party of law and order! Yet whose supporters and whose agents go about the island breaking up its opponents’ meetings? Not the Labour Party’s agents and supporters…

The callous profit-seeking motive of the French is underlined by Dupont’s reference to the importation of identured labour from India. He says the erstwhile slaves, once freed, refused to work any longer for the white estate-owners; so that Les Indes se trouvèrent être le pays le plus proche d’où l’on pouvait faire venir la main-d’œuvre qui coûterait le moins cher. The nearest source of the cheapest labour-that is Dupont’s admission. As long as the labour was cheap, it didn’t matter where it came — cheapness above all was the motto. Why cheap? To make sure that profits remained as high as possible; to make sure that whoever else suffered, it wasn’t the estatebarons !

Dupont pays tribute to the thrift of the Indians, however; he does so by pointing out that Aujourd’hui les Indiens sont propriétaires d’un peu plus d’un tiers des terres cultivables; they have achieved this, despite their admitted très faibles salaires, à acheter de petits lots de terrain. Dupont doesn’t, however, give in figures the total Indian population; nor does he give the total white population when says that les Blancs… sont pratiquement tous descendants de Français and that, of the sugar estates,les deux tiers appartiennent aux Blancs. So, one-third of the cultivable land belongs to the Indians, that is to one-half of the total population; but two- thirds of the sugar estates (which in the monoculture economy of Mauritius virtually means two-thirds of the cultivable land) belongs to the Whites, that is to about one-thirtieth of the total population. In other words, 15 thirtieths of the people own one-third of the land, while one thirtieth of thepeople owns two-thirds of the land; sothat every Franco-Mauritian (don’t forget Dupont’s admission that Blanc means, virtually, descendant de Français) owns on average 30 times as much land as every Indo-Mauritian. And of course, what Dupont doesn’t say, but it is very germane to any worthwhile consideration of Mauritius and its economy and demography, is that the Franco-Mauritians have the best land.The Indians have to put up with the bad and the marginal lands. Crop yields show this. We find yields of 31 tons per acre on the land belonging to an estate with factory; only 21 tons per acre for the small planters’ land; and as low as 16 tons per acre for the metayers. And two thirds of the area under cane cultivation actually comprises only 0.6 per cent of the total number of individual plantations…

Dupont also admits the economically influential position of the Franco-Mauritians when he says that they proliferate in the direction et administration des propriétés sucrières…aussi dans les banques, le commerce maritime et les professions libérales.

The hoary old bogey is of course raised: le risque d’écrasement des diverses communautés ethniques par la seule communauté indienne. There is also the language controversy : Sabotage de l’étude du français is the subhead to the section dealing with this. Dupont is petulant that the Commissioner for India and the British Council have très substantiels crédits for their work whereas the French consul manque de locaux et surtout de moyens financiers.

6th Year – No 231
Friday 16th January, 1959

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