Mauritius In The News

Mauritius Times — 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

Most readers will probably be familiar with the disgraceful article about Mauritius which appeared in the London monthly magazine ‘Clubman’ under the title ‘Is This The World’s Worst City?’ Thanks to a certain weekly the article has been reprinted in its entirety in Mauritius; the reason for the reprinting being, apparently, so that the editor could make a dirty crack about me.

The article originally appeared in ‘Clubman’ in November 1956; a year before it was reprinted in Mauritius. Of course, the article abounds in misstatements; but ‘Clubman’ only accepted it for publication after the agents of the author (Bill Wharton) had assured the editor that the article could be authenticated. Yet it contains the amazing statement that “the island wants a larger population” — which is manifestly untrue. The island wants a smaller population unless economic misery and distress in excess of that presently afflicting the workers is to be avoided.

Mahebourg the 1950s. Pic – vintagemauritius.org

Again, the article cites “a survey taken in 1955 by the World Health Organisation” in which, it is alleged, it is stated that the quantity of aphrodisiacs used in Mauritius in one month exceed the quantity used in Canada and USA together in two years. The same survey is said to reveal the existence of many irregular sexual unions between parents and children and brother and sister. On this, the World Health Organisation has this to say: “No survey of the nature… has been undertaken by WHO, as assistance to the Mauritius health service in 1955 was limited to fellowships in public health administration, nursing, health education and sanitation”. When I wrote to WHO about the article, they said, in addition, “We would be most interested to see the article supposedly quoting a WHO survey of Mauritius, as the facts contained in your letter seem to call for some action on our part”.

After the disgraceful article in question, it is pleasing to be able to record the publication in London recently of two articles by Dr Burton Benedict who with his wife spent two years in Mauritius as a sociological research officer doing anthropological field work. One of his articles has appeared in the ‘British Journal of Sociology’ for December 1957 (published by Routledge and Kegan Paul at 12s 6d). It deals with ‘Factionalism in Mauritian Villages’ and is one of a symposium of five articles dealing with factions among Indians in India and overseas (Uganda and Fiji are the other territories concerned where Indians abroad were studied). Dr Benedict’s observations are based on a study of two villages, one in the north and one in the south, which he does not name but calls by the fictitious appellations of La Vallée (in the south) and Beaumont (in the north).

Both villages are about the same size; their populations being 2,259 and 2,869 respectively. There is a handful of Chinese (46 and 52) in each village, and rather more Creoles: 226 in La Vallee and 125 in Beaumont. In Beaumont, Dr Benedict found only 292 Moslems, about 10 per cent of the population; and in that, the village is not typical of Mauritius, for Hindus outnumber Moslems by three to one for the island as a whole. In La Vallee, on the other hand, Dr Benedict found the Moslems in a majority over the Hindus — and indeed over all other races combined — since they formed over 50 per cent of the total population.

In view of these different demographic backgrounds, Dr Benedict found factionalism taking different aspects. Factionalism is, of course, the formation of factions; that is, of groups inside a larger unit working for the advancement of particular persons or policies. “Factions,” he says, “arise in a struggle for power particularly in competition for office or unofficial influence.”

In the particular context of Beaumont and La Vallee, Dr Benedict studied factionalism as it arose with regard to the Village Councils. In Beaumont he found that a Moslem (whose community numbered 10 per cent of the total) was elected to the VC in 1952 but was unsuccessful in 1955 on both occasions receiving Hindu as well as Moslem support. A Creole nominated to La Vallee VC in 1952 and again in 1955 has supported one Indian faction against another; but in 1952 the Creole candidate in the VC elections received the support only of his own community and was not elected.

In brief, Dr Benedict’s studies have led him to the conclusion that “In both La Vallee and Beaumont Islam is a basis of alignment, but In Beaumont Moslems take their place in the context of existing Hindu factions, and there is little question of Hindu-Moslem rivalry. In La Vallee, with its large Moslem population, Hindu-Moslem rivalry is a dominant feature of village politics.”

Whereas many factions have so far been ephemeral, shifting with the issues concerned, Dr Benedict finds that certain more permanent factions have begun to spring up. He cites at length a dispute between rival Moslem factions in La Vallee, one led by the local head teacher (also chairman of the VC) and the other led by a big planter who is also the local mutawali. “The two factions of La Vallee have become solidified to the extent that many disputes are structured in terms of them and that a great number of villagers of all ethnic, religious, and economic categories must align themselves in terms of them,” says Dr Benedict — in other words, politics are beginning to over-ride considerations of race or religion as the sole (or main) reason for supporting one or other local leader.

This is all to the good. Democracy will flourish when Mauritians of diverse races and colours and creeds learn that policies are more important than sectarianism at elections, and between elections. The establishment of the VC as a local political unit gives more opportunity for the local politicians to get training in a smaller council, and to make a mark there, before rising to the District Council, or Legislative Council even. Earlier, an aspiring would-be politician had to go to the towns; now he can make a start in the VC. Dr Benedict also finds the existence of regular elections insignificant. No longer does a village leader assume leadership on account of wealth or caste or education. He must now be able to command popular support. Once again, this is an aspect of dawning democracy; and the dawn of democracy also demands a higher standard of education — Western education. The traditional leader, represented by the sirdar and the baitka, represents one set of values; the Western-educated teacher or civil servant represents another. Though Dr Benedict does not say so, he gives the impression that the latter is slowly ousting the former.

The whole impression of Dr Benedict’s article, which ought to be widely studied, is that Mauritius is a community divided by many considerations, but aware of those divisions and aware too of the need to lessen their number if democracy is to make much headway. And the whole article, revealing the extent of possible racial and religious rivalries, is useful ammunition against any form of proportional representation or party lists one has only to read Dr Benedict and consider how P.R. would exacerbate the divisions he describes.

The second article by Dr Benedict is a short article in the January 1958 issue of ‘News of Population and Birth Control’, published by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, relating how he and his wife assisted in the formation of a Family Planning Association last October. It is very interesting to note the racial cooperation between Moslems and Hindus in the setting-up of this FPA; a happy augury indeed.


* Published in print edition on 31 December 2021

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