Aspects of Overpopulation

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

The biggest question mark over the future of Mauritius is the population problem. By 1982 a population of over one million is forecast: but where are these million people to live? and what are they going to live on? what work are they going to do? if there is no work, where will they get any money to buy food? Who is going to build the houses and schools and hospitals that will be needed for this huge population? We cannot look forward to a great increase in productivity of the sugar estates; at least, not to an increase commensurate with the expected increase in population. So, what happens?

Somehow, the expected increase in population must be circumvented. But how? That is the problem.

One suggestion of the Population Committee was mass emigration. Certain territories were considered to be more suitable for Mauritian emigration; and the committee thought that among the countries which might consider favourably the reception of Mauritian immigrants would be South Africa, East and Central Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Australia and Madagascar. Of these, the governments of South Africa, Central Africa, Kenya and Australia are known to have “White” policies, and the immigration of Coloured, Indian and Chinese from Mauritius would not be received at all well. And it is these sections of the population which are most rapidly increasing. Tanganyika and Uganda have not “White” policies, but each is developing as an African state, and neither would be keen on receiving Mauritians in numbers sufficient to make an appreciable effect on the population problem in Mauritius.

As far as emigration is concerned, then, that leaves only Canada and Madagascar. Now that Mauritius is internally self-governing, it is up to the Mauritius government to institute discussions with the Government of Canada; and these discussions ought to be started without delay. Meanwhile discussions with large-scale employers in the UK could surely be started too; I have already suggested London Transport and the British Hotels and Restaurants Association as potential employers interested in recruiting Mauritian labour.

What, however, of Madagascar? Last year I asked Sir Hilary Blood about the prospects of Mauritian emigration there. He said that while he was Governor, he often cast envious glances at the empty acres in Madagascar. It is true that Mauritius has the men and Madagascar has the space. The French Island is under-populated; and needs many more people before its many natural resources can be developed and utilised to the full. Much of the Malagasy discontent with French colonialism stems from French neglect of the island’s resources and the underdeveloped economy. Mauritian immigration into Madagascar could supply the much-needed labour force.

Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, another Labour MP vitally interested in colonial affairs (he is treasurer of the Movement for Colonial Freedom of which Mr Fenner Brockway is Chairman), asked the Foreign Office in July about the possibility of a Foreign Office approach to the French Government about “immigration into Madagascar of the excess population in Mauritius”. Mr Benn has now received a further letter from the Foreign Office on the subject; and I have permission to reproduce the letter, which has not previously been published anywhere. It reads:

“I understand that the excess population in Mauritius consists chiefly of unskilled Hindu agricultural labourers with their families, and of a certain number of Creoles. Under the reform recently introduced in Madagascar by the Loi Cadre, immigration matters remain under the control of the French Government, acting through their High Commissioner. In a matter of this type, he would no doubt consult the elected Conseil de Gouvernement for the island, which exercises autonomy over a wide range of affairs of local concern.

We have reason to believe that the proposal would not commend itself either to French Administration or to the Malagasy themselves. The great majority of the potential immigrants are Hindus, and the presence of an Indian minority in the island already presents a problem.

In the circumstances I think it is clear that a solution of the problem of over-population in Mauritius cannot be found by immigration into Madagascar and that no useful propose would be served by a formal approach to the French Government. I will, of course, let you know it anything should lead us to change our view.”

The letter is signed by Mr Ian Harvey, the Parliamentary Under Secretary to the Foreign Office.

It seems that immigration into any of the countries listed by the Population Committee can be ruled out, except for Canada, Argentina and Brazil where the Government of Mauritius will have to institute talks on the proposal. I repeat, it is high time these talks were undertaken.

The alternative to immigration is, recommends the Population Committee, “proper organisations capable of assisting the population by advice on and practical aid in family planning methods”. (Committee members, Dr Millien and M. Raymond Lamusse, dissented from this recommendation). Unless, however, Mauritius is to be overwhelmed with inhabitants, to an extent beyond the natural resources of the island to support, family planning and limitation of births must come.

Even in the UK, family planning was recommended by a Royal Commission on Population as recently as 1949:

“Public policy should assume and seek to encourage the spread of voluntary parenthood… In our view there is no practicable alternative to contraception as a means of controlling the rate of growth of the population… It is in the long run interests of the family that voluntary parenthood should become universal and that women should have the maximum freedom in the ordering of their lives. Control by men and women over the numbers of their children is one of the first conditions of their own and the community’s welfare.”

If that is applicable to the UK, then how much more is it applicable to Mauritius? Unless steps are taken to check the enormous growth in the population, misery and want will become even more widespread than they are today. There will be even more beggars for the police to chase off the streets! (In passing, I am appalled at the heartless references to the unfortunates who are compelled to beg and “make rounds” which I have read in Le Cernéen and Action.)

Family planning, which means birth control, is supported by enlightened opinion all the world over. It is already public policy in several Commonwealth territories, notably Barbados, the West Indian “twin” of Mauritius in so many respects. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam — all three religions uphold the principles underlying birth control — as I showed in a series of articles on this subject in the Mauritius Times on August 12,19 and 26, 1955. Some branches of the Christian religion, e.g., the Church of Scotland, are in favour of birth control. Only the Roman Catholic Church of the world’s major religions is opposed.

Much as I understand and respect the Catholic position and arguments on this subject, I cannot accept them when the alternative to birth control is — as in Mauritius — the perpetuation of more and more poverty and want: with a progressively lower standard of life for those living in the island. We have had several reminders from financial experts of the falling national income per head, due to the rapid population growth; and failing the adoption of a family planning policy as a matter of public interest, the financial experts will have even more gloomy pictures to paint by 1960.

Already two courageous groups, one in the North of the Island and a group of Muslim professionals headed by a young doctor, have taken the initiative. More private groups should follow suit. If the Government is too timid to take the lead in this vital question of family planning, it must be forced to act by public prodding from all over the island. For only a bold policy of family planning, introduced now, can save Mauritius from a future of poverty and the utmost misery among all sections of the population except the whites.


* Published in print edition on 7 September 2021

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