La Bourdonnais – Founder of Ile de France

By D. Napal, BA (Hons) —

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

 3rd Year No 79 – Friday 10th February 1956

* Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally – Abraham Lincoln

 Special article in honour of his anniversary

La Bourdonnais lui, place à quatre cent mille lieues de la France, isolé dans son génie, comme parmi une population hostile et quasi sauvage, que pouvait-il faire? Rien ou tout. Il a tout fait. Il a tout tiré de lui-même, de son cerveau et de son coeur. – Leoville l’Homme

Most authors who have written on La Bourdonnais – among whom there are such illustrious names as Voltaire, Bernardin de St Pierre, Xavier Marmier, James Mill and Macaulay, only to mention a few — have paid tribute to his greatness. Many are those who have spoken of him as the founder of Ile de France. The greatness of La Bourdonnais lies in the fact that with scanty or no resources at his disposal he worked marvels.

When he landed in the island in 1735, there were only 835 inhabitants including the slaves who surely must have outnumbered their masters. The French settlement itself was barely ten years old. The state of affairs had reduced the few inhabitants to such a mood of despondency that there was even question of their abandoning the island altogether as the Dutch had done some time earlier. As soon as he landed he put his shoulder to the wheel. The inhabitants shook off their indolence, for they had at last found in La Bourdonnais a born leader of men and above all a born colonist. Judging his work by results we find that after only four years’ stay in the island the population had increased by more than threefold, the number being 2991.

Historians contend that Ile de France can justly pride herself on having had two governors who were really great — La Bourdonnais and Decaen. The one has been compared to the dawn and the other to the setting sun. To this apt comment we should add that the first was greater in so far as he was more humanitarian and free from colour prejudice. With utter disregard of prejudices he had recourse to Indian artisans from Pondicherry to help him in his manifold tasks necessary for the fortifications of Port Louis and other works. Besides, La Bourdonnais had the flair of the man of genius to recruit talent from whatever quarter provided it served his purpose.

La Bourdonnais was born on the 11th of February 1699 at St Malo, noted in French history as the birthplace of illustrious sailors. Before assuming the duties of Governor of lle de France and Bourbon in 1735, he had for a considerable number of years known the hardships and glories of sea life.

We shall not here enter in all the details of his activities as Governor of Ile de France and Bourbon. Let us content ourselves in reproducing the verdict of one of his successors, the Chevalier Desroches who writes: “On ne peut opérer ici le bien qu’en suivant les routes tracées par M. La Bourdonnais. Cet homme extraordinaire distinguait mieux les objets à travers l’épaisseur des forêts que d’autres ne le distinguent depuis que le pays est découvert. » All was not smooth sailing with the Governor. A weak ruler is usually appreciated by the coterie who can have a free hand to their deeds but La Bourdonnais was by no means weak. He was, therefore, not slow in creating enemies who continually wrote to the directors against him. He refuted as best he could the evil machinations of the cabal against him. But he did not take account of the distance which separated him from those to whom he had to give an account of his conduct.

It was in 1740, when after the death of his wife and child, he went to France that he realised the gravity of the accusations against him. He succeeded in dispersing the clouds which had bedimmed his deeds and came back to Ile de France. But the greatest blow was soon to come. On the 1st September 1744, war was declared between England and France. It is during this war that La Bourdonnais distinguished himself by the capture of Madras. We shall again not enter into the details of this capture and the difficulties which La Bourdonnais had to surmount in equipping the fleet necessary for the purpose. He succeeded in capturing Madras, a feat of arms which has won the admiration of great French historians but this capture and the admiration of posterity cost La Bourdonnais dear. Contrary to the desire of his rival Dupleix he gave back Madras to the English for a ransom. Then he set sail for Ile de France where he found his post occupied by M. David from whom he received the king’s order to lead an expedition of six vessels to America. He had to comply with this order and on his way he was taken prisoner and brought to London.

It is to the credit of the English that they treated their illustrious prisoner with all the marks of honour due to him. He was prisoner but in name. He could go freely in the streets of London. The Prince of Wales presented him to his wife, saying “Madame, je vous amène celui qui nous a fait tant de mal…”

“Ah! Monseigneur,” exclaimed La Bourdonnais, “ne m’annoncez pas ainsi, vous allez me faire regarder avec horreur.”

« Ne craignez rien, » replied the Prince, « On ne peut qu’estimer un sujet qui sert bien son roi, est fait comme vous la guerre en ennemi généreux autant que brave et habile. »

While in England having heard that calumnies were spread against him in France, he asked for permission to go there to make a stand against his foes. On the 22nd February 1748 he came to Versailles where he had the sad intelligence that his enemies had had the upper hand on him. Only a few days later he was thrown into the Bastille where he languished for more than two years. He had no means of communication with anybody, not even his wife and children. There was no way to clear himself of the base accusations against him. But his ingenuous mind contrived the means of writing. He wrote an account of the conquest of Madras and a refutation of the accusation brought forward by his enemies. These were brought by his legal adviser to his judges who were convinced of his innocence and he was liberated. The hardships of prison life told on his health and he died some time later, a broken man.

It would be interesting to note here, on the authority of Voltaire, that an Indian named Numa who was La Bourdonnais’s cashier was thrown into prison for not having agreed to depone against his master.

While closing this article on La Bourdonnais on the occasion of his birthday anniversary, we should do well to remind the readers of Bernardin de St Pierre’s ‘Paul et Virginie’, of that reputed author’s character sketch of the illustrious governor whose claims to greatness were many but of which, not the least was his humanity. St Elme le Duc, on his part, pays tribute to his success as administrator by recording that during his eleven years’ stay in our island there was only one lawsuit, so successful was he in setting at peace all litigants by his tactful arbitration.

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