Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By D. Napal
A few days more and we shall have, at the head of our public affairs, ministers vested with powers entailing in their own responsibilities. One by one other British colonies are achieving self-government; we ourselves are on the threshold of responsible government. In fact, the ministerial system is avowedly an experimentation towards that ultimate end.
Our constitutional achievement today is not attained by sudden flight. It is the culmination of a historical process dating as far back as more than a century. As early as the eighteen thirties Adrien d’Epinay, in the name of the white colonists, was clamouring for a say in the management of the affairs of the colony. Adrien d’Epinay was a reactionary in more than one respect but with regard to the constitution he had ideas far in advance of his time.
But at that time Great Britain had no desire to lose her hold on the colonies. Lord Goderich, Secretary of State for the colonies refused a colonial assembly on the ground that the majority of the population of Mauritius were slaves who relied protection on the British government which in the light of events since the conquest had misgivings about the sense of equity and justice of the white colonists. All that he consented to was to allow some of the “most enlightened and prominent inhabitants” of the colony to sit in the council of government. The powers of these members were restricted indeed. They were not allowed to make any motion. All that they could do was to give their opinions on the governor’s motions. Soon after the institution of this council of officials and government nominees, Adrien d’Epinay found that he was cheated of his purpose to have a say in the government of the colony. He resigned and continued to agitate for a more representative council.
Meantime the coloured men were not represented at all. Their misfortune was that they had no leader. Soon Remy Ollier came. He began to champion the causes of the coloured people and emancipated slaves with the passionate devotion common to his nature. He condemned the council as a mock institution where the officials could do whatever they liked. Remy Ollier brought it home to the governing class that the coloured people had no representatives and that it was the greatest injustice to keep them off from the Council table. But what is more relevant to the matter in hand is that Remy Ollier, prophet as he was, foresaw the day when England would grant autonomy to the colony.
After Adrien d’Epinay and Remy Ollier, we had William Newton, Lois Raoul and the other reformers of the early eighteen eighties. This time the reformers had a powerful ally, of no less importance than the governor himself. Governor Sir Johnson Pope Hennessy gave his wholehearted sympathy to the Reformers. It was he who first fired the imagination of the people of Mauritius by coining the famous phrase, “Mauritius for the Mauritians” which has so often been quoted since. It was represented to him by the Reformers that Mauritius was governed by half a dozen government officials, a few Englishmen who resided in the colony and some whites. The governor pronounced himself against this system for he wrote to the Secretary of State, Lord Derby that “a Council entirely nominated by the governor or by the Secretary of State was unsuited to so enlightened a population as that of Mauritius.”
But the reactionaries were there to oppose progress as ever before and after. Sir celicourt Antelme, who had been a nominated member of the Council for almost forty years led the opposition. His plea was that the Asiatics would usurp the power which had hitherto belonged to the Mauritians. By Mauritians he meant of course the whites and the conservatives among the coloured. However, in spite of all opposition, the Council of government was reformed and the representative element was introduced. This was the first step towards autonomy.
The constitution of 1885 did not satisfy the aspirations of the people who continued to make demands for more power. The Action Libérale, a strong party which came into being in 1907 and for more than a decade was the terror of the conservatives, agitated for responsible government. The spokesmen of that party made it clear before the Royal Commission of 1909 that Mauritius needed responsible government for a happy solution of many of her problems. We can say, en passant, that Mauritius has since produced few leaders of the calibre of Eugene Laurent, Rene Merandon and Edouard Nairac, who were the lifeblood of the Action Libérale.
In 1914, A. de Boucherville refuted the arguments of the reactionaries to the effect that the Indians would swamp the so-called minorities. De Boucherville struck a note of warning when he wrote: « Si nous traitons les Indiens de chez nous en concitoyens, en compatriotes et si nous nous montrons des frères aînés soucieux de leurs besoins et de leurs vœux, ils feront l’autonomie avec nous et pour tous… »
As was natural, agitation for the reform of the constitution could not continue during World War I. But the movement started again in 1922, under the name of the Revision movement. The Indians kept aloof from the movement as deliberate efforts were made to ignore them. Nothing concrete was done in the matter of reform till 1936 when Dr Cure founded the Labour Party.
On the 1st of May 1938, about 30,000 men met at the Champ de Mars and voted important resolutions which were sent to the Secretary of State. Among these resolutions were the demands for doing away with the nominees lately appointed to represent the labourers.
The Commission of Inquiry into unrest on sugar estates in 1937 also condemned the Council of Government as it then existed as the electoral system resulted in the return of representatives of one section of the community only.
In 1943 the question of the revision of the constitution came forward again. In the years 1945 to 1947 a consultative committee sat before which various opinions with regard to changes in the constitution were brought forward. On the 21st April 1947 Governor Kennedy recommended to the Secretary of State the constitutional changes he envisaged. The governor’s recommendations met with the approval of the Secretary of state. Elections in 1948 were held under the new constitution. It is after the elections of 1948 that the Labour Party began to gather strength. On the eve of the elections of 1953 it was backed by the majority of the population of the island. The Labour candidates fought the elections with the battle cry of Universal Adult Suffrage and Responsible Government.
After the election in the same year, Hon Rozemont made his famous motion asking for a delegation to the Secretary of State with a view to ring about changes in the constitution. The delegation went to London in 1955 and Adult Universal Suffrage, which was unfortunately saddled to Proportional Representation was proposed. The Secretary of State also recommended the appointment of Ministers. There were loud outcries all over the country. The Press and the People strongly attacked P.R. As a sign of protest against the system of P.R. the Labour Members made their historic walkout from the Legislative Council. Another delegation went to London. What is brought, it is needless to comment upon. The fact is that the assumption of the office of ministers is a step forward in the future constitution of Mauritius.
The ministers are taking over power upon the important departments, most probably on the 18th instant. The country expects much of them. High and low are aglow with hopes. How far our ministers will answer to the expectations of the people, time alone can tell.
4th Year No 149 – Friday 14th June 1957
* Published in print edition on 6 October 2020