Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
The Strikes of 1938
By D. Napal
It is quite probable that many of those who are today playing a leading part in the dockers’ strike were directly or indirectly concerned in stirkes of the same nature occurring exactly eighteen years ago. The events which led to the deportation to Rodrigues of Anquetil, the father of the trade union movement in Mauritius, and the then Secretary of the Labour Party, must be still green in the memory of many people of our own day.
On the 1st of September 1938, nearly 2500 to 3000 dockers went on strike. They demanded an increase of wages and a reduction of working hours. Le Mauricien of the same day was describing the strike as being without precedent in our history. It informed its readers that there occurred a strike of dockers in the previous year but not on such a grand scale.
Next day newspaper headlines announced that a ship of the KPM had to put to sea without disembarking its cargo and that other ships were deeply affected by the strike. Another boat, the “Tegelberg” was forced to go to Reunion to disembark 150 tons of merchandise. Mr Oswell, Director of Labour and Mr Maurice Ramsancar, his assistant, and Messrs Gerard and Sandivi, President and secretary of the Docks, Wharves and Harbour Workers’ Association failed in their attempt to induce the workers to resume work. The workers were being paid Rs 33 for a band of 11 men who had to load 2,200 bags of sugar. They demanded that their task be reduced to the loading of 1,500 bags.
Twelve dockers were arresed. They were tried on the 5th September for having taken part in an illegal strike. The Procureur Général in person represented the Crown against the accused. He said that article 4 of Ord. No 7 of 1938 upheld the law of the colony, prohibiting the formation of associations and striking, but workers could go on strike only thirty days after they had submitted their demands to a Board of Conciliation and only if that Board failed to satisfy them. In the circumstances, he contended, the strike was illegal. The Procureur Général concluded his pleading in the following words: “A strike of docks’ labourers, therefore, is a matter of the utmost seriousness, not merely because it affects the interests of the dock company and its shareholders, not that, that is to be minimised — but because if strikes occur while the sugar is being loaded, it is bound to paralyse the whole industry of the island, during the time the strike continues; and it inflicts immense loss upon persons in no way connected with the dispute.”
Then the Magistrate Legras gave his verdict. As it was the first time that the accused had infringed the Ordinance No. 7 of 1938, he would not inflict any punishment on them but on condition that they would return to work. The workers said that they were prepared to do so but they formed part of a gang that might refuse to act as themselves and for whose action they could in no way be held responsible.
The magistrate then accompanied by Mr Ramsancar went outside the Court where he exhorted the dockers to resume work. Mr Ramsancar too spoke in the same strain but all in vain. The dockers only cried: “A nous allé. Quand nous gagne prix nous va travaille.”
The dockers’ strike fired the imagination of the labourers on the sugar plantations. It brought vividly before them a realization of their own sufferings.
The labourers of Britannia Sugar State in Savanne, of Beau Champ and Trois Bras and of Mon Loisir went on strike. But matters took a more serious turn at the Sugar Estate of Trianon where strikers were arrested for lawlessness and for having attacked the police. The strikers were brought on trial on the 13th September of the same year. Messrs Vaghjee (at present Hon. Vaghjee) and Stephen defended them. They asked the magistrate to postpone the case of their clients. The magistrate refused to do so upon the advice of the Procureur Général who pleaded the serious nature of the case.
Thereupon, the defendants of the accused retired from Court, the case was taken in spite of their departure. The Procureur Général, Mr Hooper, while establishing the case against the accused said inter alia: “Your Honour heard a story of intimidation of workers and a brutal assault on the police in the execution of their duties. From one point of view, I feel that the accused have been the victims of the underground propaganda and the insidious suggestions of certain person whose activities, conducted according to a systematic and well-organised plan, have misled and deceived them, rather than they are themselves persons normally inclined towards lawlessless. From this point of view I am sorry for them. Nevertheless, the propaganda of these persons has the only result which systematic and organised propaganda of this type can have upon ignorant and simple minded agricultural labourers, namely to create discontent where it did not already exist and to increase it where it existed already. We now see lawlessness as the undoubted result. From the point of view, the matter is one which calls for firmness.”
The nineteen strikes who were accused were sentenced to 9 months hard labour. Three of them were sentenced to an additional 12 months hard labour for having assaulted the police.
The details of the Anquetil case was reported lengthily in Le Mauricien of the 9th September 1938, in which we read among other things: “Nous avous dit hier que M. Jean Emmanuel Anquetil, secretaire du Parti Travailliste, avait été arrêté dans la nuit d’avant-hier avec son fils. C’est M. Anquetil seul qui fut arrêté. Son fils n’a que 15 ans et il ne pouvait être question de l’arrêter en de telles circonstances. Mais M. Anquetil ne voulut pas se séparer de son fils et le jeune garçon suivit son père. Le père et le fils furent détenus ensemble dans la salle de garde de la police.”
At about 1.30 p.m. on the same day it was officially announced that Anquetil would be deported to Rodrigues. He set sail for that island together with his son John, aged fifteen, on board of the Bontokoe.
Today history is repeating itself. The round of years has again brought about dockers’ strikes, which come to prove in an undeniable way that the relation between employers and employees is still faulty.
(Mauritius Times, Friday 21st September 1956)
* Published in print edition on 14 December 2018