Constitutional Changes of 1885

Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago

Glimpses of Mauritian History

Mes compatriotes seront-ils assez serviles pour supporter longtemps encore la honte d’une situation aussi abjecte que celle des sujets dans une colonie de la Couronne.
 — William Newton

A newspaper is a powerful means of moulding public opinion. William Newton, the prime mover of the reform of 1885, knew this. He took stock of the position. The Cernéen could not be expected to support him and his party, for the oldest paper of the island had completely lost sight of the ideals of its founder Adrien d’Epinay who had so energetically agitated for reform, especially for the introduction of elected members in the Legislative Council. The papers which the advocates of reform could consider as their allies were Remy Ollier’s Sentinelle, edited by Charles Leal, and the Progrès Colonial, founded and edited by Evenor Hitié, the oldest journalist of the time and noted as the champion of the coloured people. But then these papers were independent; they were not bound to support the reformers. To what extent they could rely on them was the question.

An organ of their own was the thing needed. A series of events happened to help the father of reform in the realisation of this idea. His brother Charles Newton returned from England at this time after having studied law and been conversant for a long time with the liberal institutions of England and France. The barrister newly arrived in the colony was unfortunately no orator. But in wielding the pen he had few equals. As soon as he set foot in his native country, he began to contribute articles to the Argus, which had been founded and was edited by an Englishman, G. H. Griffiths. It had first appeared on Wednesday 1st September 1880 and consisted of two parts – one English and the other French. One of the main aims of the paper was to smooth the misunderstanding existing between the Englishmen in the colony and the Parti Francais.

What is interesting for us is that in the prospectus of this paper it was implicitly implied that Mauritius needed reforms in her Constitution. We read in it:

« Ne dépend-il pas de vous d’obtenir, non point le self-government complet, ce qui a l’heure présente ne serait peut-être point opportun, mais une Constitution qui nous donnait au moins une voix touchant nos propres affaires? Si, alors que nous n’avons qu’à tendre la main pour nous faire accorder cet avantage, nous restons pourtant indifférents, et cela à un moment où  le monde entier a soif de liberté, nous ne ferions que proclamer nous-mêmes que nous ne sommes dignes que d’être des ilotes, et que le peuple anglais finira par se détourner de vous en vous couvrant d’un mépris mérité. »

Unfortunately this paper was, by its very nature, doomed to fail. It dealt lengthily with reforms of the Supreme Court which though it might have appealed to men of law did not appeal to the general public. As it was badly edited and failing to meet the desired response from the public, it ceased to appear on the 7th April 1881.

The first Argus, as it was to be known in history, ceased to appear but the printing materials were still there. All that was needed to revive the Argus was an editor of talent. The man of the hour was found in Charles Newton. The Argus began to appear again on the 4th July 1881. The prospectus of the New Argus was drafted by William Newton and Myles Brown, bar-at-law, took it upon him to supply the articles for the English part.

What appears strange is that no mention is made of reform in the prospectus of the resuscitated Argus. The reason for this may be that the editors did not want to frighten away the sympathizers by bringing forward ideas of reform which by many at that time were considered to be revolutionary. But there is no doubt that our reformers were waiting for the psychological moment to start their campaign, through public meetings and through newspaper articles. The opportunity came sooner than they expected. Francis Napier Broome, backed in the Old Council by Celicourt Antelme and Virgil Naz, tabled his government measure dealing with crown lands.

The measure was considered by the proprietors as well as the general public as arbitrary. William Newton and the reformers took up the lead in protesting against this measure. On the 23rd September took place a monster public meeting where the orators spoke against the Ordinance, and resolutions were passed condemning the Old Council as having outlived its importance and the need of constitutional reforms to prevent arbitrary ordinances from being passed. The main orators in this meeting were W. Newton, G. Guibert and Eugene Bazire. Since that day, the Argus began to show its true colour. One of its editorials bore the title: “A bas le Conseil législatif actuel.”

What happened afterwards, we all know. After four years’ struggle, during which the main thorn in the side of the reformers was the die-hard Conservative, Celicourt Antelme, our Legislative Council became semi-elective.


* Published in print edition on 16 February 2018

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