MT 60 Years Ago – 2nd YEAR NO. 41 – 20th May 1955
Glimpses of Mauritian History
When Père Laval came to Mauritius the moral and religious instruction of the inhabitants were in a deplorable state. To the insufficiency of the number of priests and the indifference of the whites were added silly prejudices which had alienated the coloured population from the Catholic Church.
One such prejudice, the sting of which was felt most keenly, related to the burial of the dead. On the death of a white, the clergy went to the place of the deceased and had the corpse brought into the church but when a coloured man or a black died the corpse had to be brought and placed on a flat stone outside the church where it was left for one or two hours before the funeral service was performed. In the cemetery there were two sections – one for whites another for the coloured and the blacks. In the church the whites and the blacks were completely separated by a balustrade. This state of things had the inevitable result of flinging the coloured people into the arms of the Rev Lebrun, the Methodist.
The progress of Lebrun filled the catholic priests with fears for the future of their church. They wanted a man fitted by temperament to do for the Catholic church what Rev Lebrun was doing for the Protestants. Such a man was found in Père Laval.
Père Laval was above all the missionary of the blacks. As soon as he came into the island, he grasped the situation to the full. Since the beginning of the year 1842 he began his work. Finding that to make himself understood by the blacks, he had to learn their language – Creole. To make them feel at home in his company he adopted a poor way of living. It is said by an eye witness that “il couchait sur trois planches sans matelas, et seulement recouvertes d’une natte de Madagascar. Il n’y avait dans sa chambre outre une petite malle pour mettre ses quelques effets, un Christ, une petite table et une chaise.”
He was told from the outset that his task meant as if « jeter dans une mer sans fond de mépris d’ignominie, de contradictions, de difficultés que l’enfer suscitera ». As all great missionaries, to win over the blacks to his creed he had to make himself one with them. The master in whose life religion had occupied a poor place, seldom or never cared for the soul of his slave who was grossly illiterate and had no idea of moral values.
In a letter to Père Libermamn, Père Laval describes thus the moral situation of the island:- “Il y a une corruption et un débordement de mœurs incroyables; le démon de l’impureté fait des ra-vages épouvantables parmi ces pauvres abandonnés ; les Blancs en sont la cause, c’est affreux ! Les prêtres jusqu’ici, ne sont plus occupés de ces pauvres gens que si ce fussent des animaux et cependant il y a un grand bien à faire parmi eux. Si on avait fait pour les noirs ce que l’on a fait pour les Blancs, on aurait travaillé plus efficacement, mais ce ne sont pas les âmes que l’on vient chercher ici, c’est l’argent et quelque chose de pis encore… Toutes les jeunes Noires sont debauchées par leur maîtres et les jeunes…»
It was among this class abandoned by man and God that Père Laval had to work. One of the qualities necessary to make any headway in his work was the courage to oppose the tide of colour prejudice. Disregarding what the whites would think of him and his work, he freely met and talked to the blacks in the streets, visited them in their poor huts or where they worked. He was often seen walking arm in arm with some intimate blacks. All this was looked upon by the upper classes as a pure scandal; they protested that, “le Père s’avilissait, qu’il se rendait méprisable, que c’était de l’excès…”
Another class among whom Père Laval carried on his work of evangelization were the people who were found in the hospitals and the prison, where one is always sure to find the despaired and the unhappy.
The whites, especially the young men, who found in the missionary one who stood between them and the satisfaction of their passions, did not allow him to do his work peacefully. Whenever he passed in the streets clad in his simple dress, walking with bent head, the children, very often, urged on by their elders, insulted him and even went so far as to throw stones at him.
Père Laval was not in any way daunted by the persecution to which he was the victim. He was as ready to accept every humiliation as his enemies were bent on his vilifications. On Palm-Sunday, in the year 1842, as usual an impious crowd had invaded the Cathedral of Port Louis. Laval’s sense of religious dignity outraged at this, wanted to put an end to this scandal, but he had to match his lonely strength against the hooligans. He protested against the mischief-makers with the only result of rousing them to fury. At once cries of Père Laval enrage, Père Laval enragé were heard from all sides.
On one occasion Père Laval was even assaulted by someone who had been thwarted in his debauchery by him. F. Delaplace, thus describes the incident: “Un jour trouvant le Père Laval à la sacristie, et le croyant seul il se jette sur lui, lui crache au visage, lui meurtrit les joues de soufflets, le renverse par terre et l’accable de coups ». Others less bold to attack him revenged themselves in their own ways. They composed a ‘sega’ in his honour, the refrain of which ran thus “Je m’accuse, Père Laval! P. Laval je m’accuse! ho! ho! ho! des sept péchés!” But there was nothing on earth to stop him from his work to which he had dedicated himself. He was a man born with a mission and to make the mission a success he was prepared to face every humiliation.
(M.Times – 20th May 1955)
* Published in print edition on 3 July 2015