Mauritius Times 60 Years —
Mauritius Times 3rd year No 81 – Friday 24th February 1956
* A degenerate nobleman, or one that is proud of his birth, is like a turnip; there is nothing good of him but that which is underground. – S. Butler
Glimpses of Mauritian History
Letters that revealed the injustices perpetrated by Estate Owners
By D. Napal BA (Hons)
Letters written not to serve as historical documents but to answer some immediate purpose have always been of immense help to historians. For example the Paston writers on English mediaeval social history and the letters of Madame de Sevigne have done more than whole libraries fat text books.
The same is true of the treatment of Indian Immigrants by their employers. The vehement protests of planters as to their irreproachable conduct towards their labourers fall to the ground when we take into account the letters of De Belloquet, proprietor of Belle Ombre, Shoenfeld, Belle Vue and Rivière Dragon estates. The sincere tone of the writing and the important place held by the author in the haunting community add to the value of the letters.
About the practice of some planters of taking the law who their own hands and cutting the wages of their labourers for some petty offence, we read the following: “Veuillez mettre ces malabars à l’ordre des gens gâtes par M. Michel. Ah il faut les payer pour qu’ils ne fassent rien; coupez leur la journée pour désobéissance”. He again writes upon this question of payment of wages: “Les prix que vous offrez me paraissent plus que suffisant. Je n’ai jamais payé autant.”
He showed his skill in reducing his wages at the expense of his workers. At a time the Indian Immigrants refused to get a certain bad quality of rice. When M. Charron, manager of Belle Ombre estate reported to him this matter, De Belloquet wrote to him : “Melez 1/3 Mangalore contre 2/3 Ballam, puisque vos Indiens sont si difficiles, mais ne quitter plus cette proportion.” Later finding that even this mixture did not satisfy him from the economic point he gave further instructions: “Le mélange par une troisième que je vous avais recommande, n’est plus suffisant de votre diminution de Ballam. Il faut mélanger par moitié comme je fais à Belle Vue.”
He wanted to economize even when it concerned the burial of his men who had fallen a prey to the epidemy. He writes: “Ici j’ai une bière qui sert à tous mes décédés; elle est peinte en noir avec du coal-tar et on jette par dessus un drap blanc ad decorum. Faites de même à Belle Ombre; vous aurez moins de planches à scier et moins de main d’oeuvre à l’atelier.”
Mr De Belloquet did not consider it necessary to provide medical aid to his sick labourers. He felt convinced that he himself could minister to their needs and that the medicines that he prescribed would do as well if not have a better effect in curing them. Here is the remedy which he recommended when there was an outbreak of epidemy on one of his estates: “Je ne sais si vous êtes atteint de épidemie. Ici j’ai beaucoup de maladies, sais je ne perds pas un. Voici comment sous les traitons.1. De grand matin un vomitif, vous trouverez des la liane ipecca rouge dans vos bois, c’est ce que j’ai employé. 2. A dix heures le même jour 2 onces de sel. 3. Vers le soir une décoction de champac à Choisy chez Eduard d’Emmerrez…” He goes on writing in this strain giving details of other remedies for other diseases concluding his remarks thus: “Pas moyen de songer au quinine on vend l’once à 20 dollars.”
These extracts from De Belloquet’s letters throw much light on the relations of planters with their employees. It is true that the letters do not give any indication of the use of physical ill-treatment though there is other evidence to show that brute force was often used. This does not mean that the planters did not ill-treat their labourers. The letters bear ample testimony to the cutting of wages without legal authority, mixing different kinds of rice together and inadequate delivery of oil with the purpose of economising. As to the question of hospitals we have seen how De Belloquet utterly disregarded the law on this matter. Instead of the regular treatment of the sick by the doctor, he made use of the usual Creole remedies. We also have evidence of the falsification of evidence in order to escape the arm of the law.
Some members of the Chamber of Agriculture who went to depone before the Royal Commission of Enquiry in 1872 have contended that the letters of De Belloquet cannot be taken as serous evidence to condemn the whole planting community. But we should not forget that a man who possessed not one but four estates in the island was a man of no small importance. Other planters must have acted as he did. The only difference is that he penned his thoughts whilst many of them acted more atrociously though we have no written evidence of their guilt apart from the findings of the Royal Commission of 1872.