By Chit Dukhira
Labour Day was celebrated for the first time in the world in 1890, and in Mauritius in 1938. However, in Mauritius, it is an annual official holiday only as from 1 May 1950. On 1 May 1938, two years after the foundation at the Champ de Mars, Port-Louis (23 February 1936), of the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP), its trio, Dr Maurice Curé (founder-chairman), Pandit Sahadeo Rama (his lieutenant) and Emmanuel Anquetil (secretary-general), organised a rally at the same place. Dr Edgard Millien, Dr Abdool Gaffoor Jeetoo, Dhunputh Lallah, Samuel Barbe, B. Ohsan, H. Assenjee, Marcel Geneviève, Fritz Moutia, Gabriel Felix, Marcel Abel and René Monty were also present on the rostrum. About 20,000 people attended this public meeting. It was on 5 May 1946 that Anquetil, now MLP Chairman, publicly and forcefully asked at a meeting in the yard of the Rose Hill District Court for 1 May to be proclaimed national holiday. Anquetil, the Father of Mauritian Trade Unionism, had joined the MLP in February 1937 after returning home a year earlier from overseas where he had spent 39 years. After initially serving as MLP Secretary-General, Anquetil chaired it from 1941 till his death on 29 December 1946 when Guy Rozemont succeeded him. It was in 1940 that Rozemont had begun collaborating with Anquetil in his journalistic activities, working as compositor, proofreader and distributor for the MLP’s organ, Le Peuple Mauricien. When the paper stopped appearing, he continued his collaboration with Anquetil, now involved in trade union matters.
On 29 April 1949 Guy Rozemont, MLP Chairman, who was now first Member for Port-Louis and by now an established trade union leader, tabled a motion in the Legislative Council for 1 May to be “a public holiday to allow the workers of this Colony to have a day’s rest to celebrate Labour ideals.” He told the Council: “it is an old fact that, during eight to ten years, it has been in mass public meetings the expression of opinion of the population that there is an overwhelming desire that they should be given the 1st of May as a public holiday for associating themselves with their other comrades throughout the whole world in order to celebrate the ideals of workers.”
Raymond Rault, a pro-MLP successful candidate in Plaines Wilhems in the 1948 general elections, having joined the party formally, seconded Rozemont’s motion. Soon after, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, an independent elected first in the South, and Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (later Sir), who had topped the list in the North and had adhered to the MLP, successively spoke in its favour. For Bissoondoyal, “it will be something like symbolising co-operation between workers and capitalists.” May Day, for Dr Ramgoolam, “was looked upon by workers throughout the world as a sign of solidarity, as a sign of the struggle through which they have been and the sign and shape of things to come.”
Two nominees, Dr Arthur de Chazal and André Nairac, spoke against the motion. Renganaden Seeneevassen, a pro-MLP successful candidate in Port-Louis coming out just after Rozemont, and now in the party, brought an amendment so that 1 May be also “a bank, office and estate holiday,” thus benefiting all the country’s workers, including those on sugar estates. Jaynarain Roy, elected in the South as a pro-MLP candidate and now its declared member, seconded the amendment. Other supporters of the amended motion, all elected members, were Dr Edgard Millien and Guy Forget, both new MLP members, and Jules Koenig, first Member of Plaines Wilhems.
Rozemont’s motion, as amended by Seeneevassen, was carried. It was thus thanks to the presence in the legislature of members sympathetic to workers returned in the 1948 polls that 1 May became a public holiday in 1950.
In an article entitled “La fête du Travail: Reveries et Réalités” published in Mauritius Times of 30 April 1965, Dr Maurice Curé wrote about the vital importance of work which, he said, should be accessible to everybody. After reminiscing about the first Labour Day celebrated in the world in 1890 and in Mauritius in 1938, he exhorted workers to unite behind those who had proved their indisputable willingness to serve their cause. Dr Curé concluded that many major changes had been already introduced to workers’ advantage, despite the resistance from the conservatives.
* Published in print edition on 7 May 2011