Facts about “Le Procès de Grand Port”

Mauritius Times – 60 Year

By D. Napal

Pierre de Sornay continues in the columns of Le Cernéen his historical rambles. To be fair to him, may I say he does some good in popularising Mauritian history — a subject so much neglected. But the amount of harm done outweighs his good intentions.

Perhaps, after all, he is not so much to blame for the authorities lo which he goes are biased. He accepts the conclusions of those authorities without weighing their evidence: he does little thinking for himself in drawing conclusions. He accepts too readily conclusions drawn by his conservative predecessors.

Pierre de Sornay’s latest achievement, published in the issue of Le Cernéen of Monday 4th August last, has for theme, Le Procès de Grand Port. He is frankly provocative. His assertion of facts is dogmatic, as if it were nothing but the truth.

The whole purpose of the article seems to be to belittle Sir John Jeremie, the bête noire of the coterie of the eighteen thirties.

What Le Cernéen does today is reminiscent of the incendiary articles it published against the then British government and particularly against Jeremie on whom the eyes of all Mauritians were focussed at the time.

Sir John Jeremie was sent to the island in 1833 not as Sornay says “chargé par l’Anti-Slavery Society de libérer les esclaves” but to safeguard the interests of the free coloured people, to ameliorate the conditions of the slaves. On the 22nd June, 1829 an order in Council was passed which abolished all laws passed in the French days “whereby any person of African or Indian birth or descent, being of free condition, were subject to disabilities to which those of European birth and descent were not subject.” In the same year was passed a proclamation for “improving the conditions of the slaves and appointing a Protector of slaves.” The Whites ill-brooked those enactments. They were to them nothing more than scraps of paper. Jeremie was sent by the British government to ensure the application of those laws. How could Jeremie be sent by the Anti-Slavery Society when he was a servant of the Crown called upon to assume the office of Procureur Général? How could he come in 1833 to Iiberate the slaves when the abolition of slavery took effect only on the 1st August 1834? The appointment of Jeremie as Procurer Général irritated the colons the more so as that post was occupied at that time by Prosper d’Epinay. And the  political scene at that time was dominated by the D’Epinay brothers; Adrien d’Epinay was an agitator of the firebrand type. It was he who led the revolt against British authority.

Pierre de Sornay speaks of an order in Council which he qualifies as “Ordre en Counseil d’emancipation sous indemnité” and that “M. John Jeremie fut chargé de l’application de cet ordre.” Where Pierre de Sornay has got this information from, I do not know. Logic, however, points to the fact that the question of “l’abolition immédiate de l’esclavage” could not arise in March 1832 as slavery was abolished more than two years later. The following were the Orders in Council passed to ameliorate the lot of the slaves:

(1) 2nd February, 1830 — ‘Improving the condition of the slave population in Mauritius and other colonies.’

(2) 23rd February 1831 — ‘Disallowing an Ordinance and for prohibiting the use of chains and irons in the punishment of slaves.’

(3) 2nd November 1831– ‘Revoking an order for improving the condition of the slaves in Mauritius and other colonies.’

The slave owners made such loud outcries against any improvement in the condition of the slaves that on the 27th June, 1832, the Order in Council of the 2nd November 1831 was suspended. The British government was driven to the necessity of finding a man of will and determination who could face the dogged obstinacy of the slave owners. It was in these circumstances that Jeremie came to the island. The only purpose of destituting Prosper d’Epinay from that post was that he was a coIonial white who was himself a master of slaves. He could not, as may be imagined, apply the laws governing the relations between master and slaves which of course meant going counter to his interests.

Pierre de Sornay writes : “Ne pouvant obtenir le réembarquement de l’envoyé du Ministre, Adrien d’Epinay conseilla le recours à la force d’inertie.” The fact is that the conspiracy of the slave owners against Jeremie had begun long before he set foot in the island. Reports about his work in the island of Ste Lucie in ameliorating the conditions of the slaves had already reached them. Jeremie had published ‘Four Essays on Slavery’ which some of colons had the opportunity to read. The ideas of Jeremie on the question of slavery were laid bare in these essays and the colons naturally were opposed to any change in their relations with the slaves. On the 29th March, 1832, more than two months before Jeremie’s landing in the colony, the Comité Colonial (a society which openly occupied itself with politics and of which Adrien d’Epinay was the president) passed a resolution to the effect that so long as Jeremie and the Protector of Slaves would be in the colony, the tribunals should not be recognised, the shops should be closed, all business suspended, taxes not paid, the volunteers armed and ready to face any revolt. The colons were obsessed by the fear that their slaves would revolt. Any amelioration in the horrid conditions of life of the slaves meant to them an encouragement to an insurrection.

The Comité Colonial had also appealed to the colons to act towards Jeremie and the Protector of Slaves as their fathers had acted towards Baco and Brunel (these were sent to Ile de France by the French National Assembly in 1796 to abolish slavery but the colons had forced them to reembark for France).

“Adrien d’Epinay demanda le renvoi immédiat de Jeremie, et cette demande fut votée par le Conseil,” writes Pierre de Sornay. These words leave the impression that Adrien d’Epinay was a very powerful man who could dictate the decisions of H. M. Government. He had, it is true, a deep influence on the colons. But it should not be forgotten that these colons formed a minority of the population. The majority of the inhabitants were the slaves, after whom in numerical importance came the free coloured people. These people had no influence at all in politics of the time. Nor could Adrien d’Epinay speak for them in any way. The historical fact, mentioned above, distorted to serve de Sornay’s purpose that Adrien d’Epinay made in the Council of Government on the 7th of July 1832 a motion “that Mr Jeremie should be invited to present himself to His Majesty in order to give the King an account of the State of affairs.”

Sir Charles Coleville, the then Governor of Mauritius, was in the pocket of the colons. He was weak and vacillating, his administration “lâche, incertaine” (using Remy Ollier’s words). He might have been a good governor in less agitated times. But he was not the man capable to weather the storm raised by H.M. Govt’s concern for the welfare of the down-trodden classes. Remy Ollier who was an eye witness of the events of those days wrote: “Qu’on se remette sous les yeux les articles incendiaires et calomnieux du Cernéen de 1832. Qu’on relise ces insolentes pétitions où l’on déclarait au gouverneur qu’on avait des armes pour sa défense; qu’on se remémore toutes ces diatribes si dégoutantes, et l’on aura une idée des talents politiques de l’infâme Côterie, et de la force d’âme de cet illustre Sir Charles Coleville qui souffrit qu’une poignée d’agitateurs le refermassent à l’Hôtel du Gouvernement, qu’ils assourdissent de leurs clameurs de démagogues, et qu’ils insultassent ses troupes, officiers et soldats.”

Sir Charles Coleville weakly abandoned Jeremie to the fury of the rebels of 1832. He could have well averted the troubles. He was not bound to act in accordance with the decisions of the Advisory Council which had voted that Jeremie should go back to England. The Council in those days was simply advisory. Sir Charles Coleville was severely criticized by the Secretary of State for the Colonies for his lack of tact and firmness in handling the difficult situation of the time.
The Secretary of State for the colonies wrote in his despatch of the 15th March 1833: “Had the Governor in obedience to His Majesty’s command referred to them (his Executive Council) and to them only the great question awaiting his decision, I am entitled to conclude that their unanimous advices would have been opposed to that under which he in fact acted and that he would have avoided the unfortunate decision which was induced by the Counsels of his irresponsible and unauthorized advisers to adopt.”

These were the opinions of Remy Ollier and the Secretary of State for the Colonies who it is obvious knew better than P de S and those Conservative historians who have done so much harm in their interpretation of Mauritian history. This much about Jeremie’s first stay in the island.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 2 December 2022

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