Development of the Sugar Industry

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

A few months ago, out-of-work labourers demonstrated at Government House and were audible to the Council in session. Earlier, a man had interrupted the proceedings of the Legislative Council from the public gallery — his interruption was a gesture to draw attention to the deplorable state of his family — which, like so many other Mauritian families during the intercrop, was starving.

Soon the harvest and crushing season will be finished. Already it is practically finished in the north. When it is finished, what will be the fate of those thousands who have been employed for the crop season only? Their miserable wages leave them no margin for saving; there is no unemployment benefit for them. The Public Assistance Department is not always sympathetic, even sometimes to deserving cases. The gravest problems of unemployment, poverty and hunger (starvation, almost) face the country.

The sugar barons, as always, will not be hurt. Their pockets will, as usual, be well-lined, despite a fall in tonnage compared with last year. The guaranteed price is held firm, and this year’s export quota is higher than last year. The barons will reap the benefit of the workers’ toil and sweat — and tears.

Let us look at some figures which show the development of the sugar Industry.

The number of factories, which was 106 in 1820, went up to 259 in 1856 and has steadily fallen: 100 in 1896, 53 in 1920 and 26 in 1955. This concentration of factories and the development of big estates has led to increased mechanisation and modernisation which in their turn have led only to a reduction in the labour force required as more and more fertiliser and herbicides and insecticides and fungicides are introduced. The area under cultivation has increased by half since 1896 but the total production went up 3½ times between 1896 and 1955; and despite the increase in population, the average production per head is more than doubled.

Who has benefited from this rapid striking increase in sugar production? Is it the workers? A century ago Indian indentured labourers worked on the plantations for Rs 5.00 per month and their rations; with deductions for their fares back to India, and stoppages for infringements of labour discipline. Later, the compulsory deductions for the return fare stopped: but Rs 5.00 was the standard monthly wages for a long time. Now, the highest paid plantation labourer can earn Rs 100 a month (with luck, if he is employed all the year round) but of course he has to pay for his own food. And since it has been more than once clearly demonstrated that the average Mauritian family cannot live on Rs 100 a month (if it is to have a decent living), we can say without fear of contradiction that the labourer today is no better off than the indentured labourer a century ago. He is, indeed, little better off than the slaves were.

In the early nineteenth century the slave owners ristocracy ruled the roost in Mauritius. They wielded economic power; and they wielded political power. “Planters looked upon it as the invariable law of nature that animals and slaves should labour, live and die for them,” say Barnwell and Toussaint: and they quote Burnel. “Le Créole fait fouetter son nègre comme il remonte sa pendule, avec sang froid et dans la persuasion que cela est indispensable et naturel.” The slave-owners were all powerful; they opposed the humanitarianism of Jeremie and they sent d’Epinay to Britain to get what he could from the British government for themselves. Thanks to d’Epinay’s efforts, the slave-owners benefited (when slavery was abolished) to the tune of £2 million pounds. Two million pounds! Over 26 million rupees — for the fact of no longer being able to own human beings. This sum in compensation further strengthened the economic power of the slave owners –; and consolidated and extended their political influence as well.

What happened to the freed slaves? Again, I quote Barnwell and Toussaint, “Neither the government nor the richer inhabitants did very much for them; and during many years the freed slaves were neglected, allowed to waste their freedom as they pleased.” Lebrun and Pere Laval did what they could; but the slave owners were indifferent to the fate of the freed slaves.

Just as the slave owners a century ago wielded economic and political power over the colony, today they still wield economic power. A handful of 10,000 persons control the whole economic destiny of Mauritius.

The 580,000 people of Mauritius depend directly or indirectly on the proceeds of the sugar crop which brings in 98% of Mauritius’ income from exports. Dependent on sugar, the people are prisoners of the one-crop economy (monoculture). Prisoners of monoculture is a state of affairs little distinguishable from a state of slavery. Indeed, the labourers who live in estates are little removed from a state of slavery. They are tied to their job on the estate if they wish to live in the estate house; if they wish to go for a better-paid job they must leave their house.

In the UK this system of tying the worker to his job through his house is bitterly resented and opposed by the trade unions. Is it opposed by the trade unions in Mauritius? It is a detraction from one’s human dignity to be compelled to live where one’s employer dictates; and to be dependent on the whim of one’s employer as to whether one keeps a roof over one’s head.

Wages today are miserably low; unemployment is rife. They sugar barons are waxing fat. The sugar industry is booming. Unfortunately, the workers are not the ones who are benefitting from the boom. Today’s wages are no better than the Rs 5.00 plus rations of a century ago. Production has increased, but wages have not kept pace with the increase in production. Between the wars the sugar barons were quick enough to reduce wages in the bad years; their slowness in raising wages when the good years returned led to the 1937 riots after which an enquiry reported that most labourers were indeed underpaid and underfed. But it took rioting and five labourers’ lives to get this enquiry. Six years later the Moody Report also condemned the estate owners and the conditions of life in the community which were generated by the prevailing economic setup: concentration of economic power in the hands of a privileged minority and a denial of rights (social, economic and political) to the majority.

Next year, more demonstrations by unemployed and starving labourers are inevitable, unless the Government can act quickly to help the poor and unfortunate who, alas, form so large a mass of the population. Meanwhile the reactionaries condemn those unfortunates who are compelled to beg to get a living, albeit a poor living. They profess faith, but they have no charity in their hearts. To them we may address the words of Saint James, which will be found in chapter 2 of the Epistle of Saint James: “Si un frère ou une soeur sont nus, s’ils manquent du pain quotidien, et qu’un de vous leur dise: allez en paix, rechauffez-vous, rassassiez-vous, sans leur donner ce dont le corps a besoin, à quoi cela sert-il? Ainsi en va-t-il de la foi: si elle n’a pas les oeuvres, elle est bel et bien morte.”

I commend these words of the apostle to the aristocracy who hold in their hands the power of economic life or death for Mauritius. They may protest their feeling and sympathy for the people, but unless they show that feeling and that sympathy in some political way, the people will not believe those protestations. They want social justice and they mean to have it.

The Labour Party is well aware of the people’s needs; and the Labour Party must be prepared to act in the people’s interests if those interests are not met willingly and without coercion.

Mauritius Times – Friday 22 November 1957
4thyear – No 172

* Published in print edition on 21 September 2021

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