Mauritius In Perspective

Mauritius Times – 60 years ago

By K. Singh

On Saturday last a small group of Mauritians spent over two hours at Holborn Hall listening to two non-Mauritians talking to them about their own island home. They were Fenner Brockway and Peter Ibbotson speaking on My General Impression of Mauritius and The Economy of Mauritius respectively at the inaugural meeting of the Mauritius League. There was to be a third non-Mauritian speaker, Michael Malim, but owing to illness he could not attend. By any standard the audience was not impressive but it was not in any way unimpressed by the wealth of accurate details with which the speakers marshalled their facts.

Washerwomen in the river at Tamarin

Introducing the speakers, Dr Cure, the chairman, quite fittingly observed that in spite of glittering Mauritian names like Brown Sequard, Robert Edward Hart and Malcolm de Chazal, Mauritius which has had relations with two great European powers like Britain and France, derives its reputation in these countries from a badly printed stamp, a sluggish extinct bird or an over-sentimental novel – Bernardin de St Pierre’s ‘Paul et Virginie’. It was the wish of the Mauritius League to help make Mauritius better known, he continued, and that was why Fenner Brockway and Peter Ibbotson who were well-versed in the affairs of Mauritius had been invited to join in the inaugural manifestation of the League.

Before giving his impressions of Mauritius itself, Fenner related the circumstances which led to his going to Mauritius. It was July 1955 when he left London for a tour of the then Gold Coast, Sudan, Kenya and Madagascar. Mauritius was not in his original programme but while he was in Madagascar, he received an invitation from the editor of the Mauritius Times, B. Ramlallah, which he, though fever-ridden, accepted. On reaching Mauritius he recovered within 24 hours. Perhaps, he added with a smile, owing to the freer atmosphere which contrasted strikingly with the quasi-police state of Madagascar.

His visit to Mauritius was a revelation to him. He was surprised to find, contrary to what he had been told or read, close, friendly relations between the various racial groups of the island. He recalled a lunch he had with the Ag. Governor and two Mauritians who gave him a depressing picture of Mauritius stating that any advance in the constitution would be disastrous to the colony. But after having met a cross-section of the population he was convinced that Mauritius could and should advance constitutionally. It was his view that had Mauritius had an Anglo-Mauritian minority with economic interests in the island it would have been very difficult for Mauritius to progress in the political sphere.

His visit to the Legislative Council confirmed his opinion that colonies tend to copy too closely the British system of parliamentary procedure; he would suggest that Mauritius, and for that matter all other colonies, while retaining the fundamental principles of British parliamentary procedure should evolve a pattern of their own which would be without the unnecessary and cumbersome paraphernalia of the British system.

Regarding the economic problems of Mauritius, Fenner thought they were staggering indeed. “One need not be misled by the present prosperity of the sugar industry which is so dependent on weather conditions,” he said. He went on to suggest that this dependence on a single industry made it imperative to develop other industries which might stand the Mauritians in good stead in case of a cyclone or a slump in sugar prices on the world market. There was also the population problem which must be tackled as soon as possible; he thought that Madagascar which has vast untapped natural resources could absorb a considerable number of Mauritians. He also believed that owing to the fiscal policy of the metropolis, colonies like Mauritius would be unable to solve their social problems even if they have responsible government and suggested that the political parties of Mauritius press for a commission of inquiry into the whole economic structure of the colony.

Finally, he stated that he would like to see Mauritius become a self-governing unit within the Commonwealth. He remembered the romantic island with its exotic beaches crowded with palm trees, its majestic and fascinating mountains and the wonderful coloured earths of Chamarel. If only he could end his career as the British consular resident in independent Mauritius!

During the ten-minute discussion which followed it was revealed by Mrs F. Bolton, Fenner’s secretary, that as a result of pressure by James Johnson, Fenner and others in the Commons, the British government started negotiations with the government of Madagascar about the possible emigration of Mauritians to Madagascar. The government of Madagascar took the view that the arrival of Mauritians to Madagascar would inflame racial problems!

Peter Ibbotson had to speak on a ticklish and rather indigestible subject: economy. Inevitably he had to quote figures. In 1955 the total exports of the colony was Rs 251.75 m and the sugar industry alone accounted for Rs 244.5m; in 1954 the total revenue was Rs 250m and income tax collected Rs 38m. That was more than enough to show to what extent Mauritius was dependent on the sugar industry. Moreover, as three-fourths (180 000 arpents) of the arable area was already under cultivation and as the population was rapidly growing there was little ground for expecting any rise in the living standards of Mauritians. There was of course the tea industry, fast growing but subject to the same dangers as the sugar industry; besides, the cost of production of tea in Mauritius was much higher than in other countries and consequently places Mauritius at a disadvantage in competing in the world market.

In the face of such a situation he believed that to stabilise the economy of the island (a) the cement project should be implemented, (b) sugar should be refined in Mauritius and if possible, Mauritius should produce sweets, chocolates or should try vegetable and fruit canning.

Ibbotson also gave a picture of the pitiable plight of Mauritius workers which grows worse while the production goes up. He also noted that the sugar estates intended to reduce their monthly paid labour force: in 1955 it dropped by 1000. Concluding, he said that the problems of Mauritius should be viewed as a whole; they are all connected with one another. He wondered whether it would not be possible to transfer Madagascar and Reunion to the Commonwealth thus enabling the federation of Madagascar-Reunion Mauritius.

 London 14 Sep 1957

4th Year No 163
Friday 20th September 1957

* Published in print edition on 4 May 2021

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