Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago
By D. Napal
Dr Cheddi Jagan’s overwhelming victory at the polls on the 12th of August 1957 should serve as an object lesson to our leaders. It has demonstrated that a cool-headed, sincere and bold leadership can defeat the ends of imperialists and reactionaries. The Tories branded him as a communist in 1953 because the sugar magnates in British Guiana were frightened by the reforms envisaged by his party when it came to power.
Dr Cheddi Jagan taking the oath of office on October 9, 1992. Pic – guyanachronicle.com
The constitution was suspended and Dr Cheddi Jagan and his party went into the background for four years. But the devotion of the people to him has proved stronger than all the gold of the reactionaries used to dope the people and snatch them from the People’s Progressive Party (PPP).
Here is a lesson for Mauritians, especially as there are so many points in common between Mauritius and British Guiana. Both are multi-racial, with a predominating majority of Indians, the descendants of those indentured labourers who came from India to save the sugar kings from ruin when the affranchised slaves showed a marked disgust for work in the cane fields. Dr Cheddi Jagan himself, for example, as some of the leaders of the PPP are the descendants of Indian immigrants. And the policy of the sugar magnates there as here has been throughout history to have on the labour market more labour power than can be absorbed by the sugar industry, with the result that immense wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists to whom British Guiana is the “Magnificient Province” as Mauritius is the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”.
Whenever the Mauritian labourers have asked for an increase in their wages, have they not been told that sugar does not pay though they have made huge profits? Here is what Dr Jagan writes about the situation in British Guiana:
“The sugar planters are making huge profits. They forever tell us that sugar does not pay, but their balance sheets prove the opposite. Between 1948 and 1950 Booker’s net profits after tax rose from £ 207,455 to £ 385,453. In 1951 the combined net profit was £ 660,677. With amounts deducted for tax, minority interests and reserves, the total in 1951 was £ 2237904. And this figure is arrived at after deducting the high salaries paid to directors and high officials.”
How were such profits realised? A large surplus of labour power was maintained around the sugar estates. Though the sugar magnates did not cultivate 50% of the land holdings they possessed, the surplus lands were not distributed to the farmers who were land hungry. And these lands were Crown lands for which the sugar magnates paid only a nominal rent to government. The same thing is happening here where 9036 acres of Crown lands are rented to big land owners at an average rate on Rs 17.60 per annum per acre.
When in 1951 Dr Jagan introduced in Parliament a motion to withdraw the leases, his motion was defeated. This reminds us of Mr Roy’s motion on land legislation, in 1950, which passed by a majority still waits to become law. The sugar magnates in British Guiana as in Mauritius prefer lands to remain fallow rather than to distribute them among farmers for cultivation for fear that the workers might become economically self-sufficient and independent. The British Guiana sugar magnates in the period 1943-1947 snatched 3000 acres of land from the resident workers. In 1944 the King Report wrote in this connection:
“The reason why available work is not fully taken up is because resident workers find it more profitable to work on their own rice fields and farms and some non-residents have left working on the fields on the estates for more profitable occupation.”
This state of things naturally makes of British Guiana a land of poverty and squalor, disease and illiteracy. Paul Blanchard forcefully describes this poverty as quoted by Dr Jagan in his ‘Forbidden Freedom’:
“The labouring population of almost the whole area lives at a level below human decency. The outward signs of Caribbean poverty, ragged clothing, bare feet, children with bloated bellies, shacks made of flattened cars, unemployed workers waiting at closed gates.”
This quotation compares favourably with what Major Orde Browne writes about Mauritius:
“The picture is, therefore that of a poorly-paid undernourished, sickly population…”
What about the housing conditions? The dwellings of the labourers are dilapidated, barrack type ranges built during the days of slavery. The VENN Commission wrote about these:
“In numerous instances temporary sheets of awnings have been fixed over the beds to keep off the rain. They had mud floors and, consequently with the rain dripping from the roofs, these were made slippery and dangerous, in many cases we found bags laid over the floor to prevent slipping.”
It is natural that poverty and slum areas breed diseases faster than elsewhere, as is testified by the following figures: In 1947 there occurred in British Guiana 215 cases of TB. In 1949 the figure had risen to 532. It has kept on increasing since. And what are the provisions made in hospitals for those seeking admissions? The picture is lurid and revolting.
The education of the children of the workers is sadly neglected. The Report on Education for 1951-1952 showed that the schools were understaffed, had no proper equipment and were overcrowded. There were classes of 80 to 90 pupils. Even then more than 10,000 children could not find space in the schools. This picture of education in British Guiana appears to be a picture of the situation in our own island.
We may stretch the comparison of the situation in British Guiana with that in Mauritius a little further. Everybody knows that a Boundary Commission is at work in the island. What the Commissioners will advocate, they alone know. The Boundary Commissioners in British Guiana made a demarcation to weaken Jagan’s party. Fortunately for Jagan, the purpose of the Commissioners proved abortive before the will of the people of British Guiana. Money lavishly spent to bribe the people and manoeuvres conducted to wean away the masses from the PPP proved abortive.
The story of Jagan who is branded a communist has been often repeated. Here too, our progressive leaders have been more than once dubbed as communists, communalists, khoonists and what not. Has not money been lavishly thrown away by opponents of Labour to weaken our Labour movement? But the mass of people among us, as in British Guiana, have in the midst of their insecurity and poverty known where to look for comfort. They have been able to discern their true friends.
Dr Jagan in British Guiana, as Dr Nkrumah in Ghana, have had in their political and economic struggle to cope with many more difficulties than our own leaders. But courage, sincerity to their cause and singleness of purpose have never failed them. They have by their exertions taken out their own countries from the grip of imperialists and capitalists, and by their examples they may yet save other colonies which are still struggling.
Many our leaders study their tactics, the worth of which has been proved in the fire of experience. May they look up to them for inspiration which will surely serve in the battles which they themselves have to fight.
4th Year – No. 162
Friday 13th September 1957
* Published in print edition on 27 April 2021
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