MT 60 Years Ago
3rd Year No 76 – Friday 20th January 1956
• I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire
Glimpses of Mauritian History
By D. Napal BA (Hons)
We require to have a body of trained Mauritian citizens, trained to a knowledge of public life, trained to a knowledge of politics. How are Mauritian citizens to be so trained, if they do not know the history of Mauritius?
— Governor Pope Hennessy
The life of the Indian Immigrants on sugar estates was anything but bright. Underfed, overworked and living in miserable conditions, they were a prey to diseases more often than the family living in easy circumstances. They therefore were in perpetual need of medical aid which is always a matter of life and death and in their case more so. It remains to be seen what was done to satisfy this need and what were the legal provisions for their welfare in times of sickness.
In the early days of immigration, there were no hospitals on the sugar estates, some of which a medical man periodically visited, whilst on others the planters paid to the sick labourer to provide for his medical treatment.
An ordinance of 1842 stipulated that a planter employing more than 40 labourers on his estate should have a hospital under penalty of a fine of £100. The law was there but it was no more than a dead letter. We do not hear of any planter being fined £100. As a matter of fact we learn from a draft Ordinance of 1844 that “the state of hospitals existing on several estates are susceptible of great amelioration and that others are unprovided with any place set apart for the reception and treatment of sick labourers residing and employed on such estates.”
The planters’ plea was that they were ready to provide proper hospitals and the law would not allow them to compel the sick labourers to stay there. It would be proper to note here that many hospitals always remained closed while others were hospitals only in name. They were used as prisons. In 1860, Mr Beyts, Protector of Immigrants referred to the apathy and mental prostration of Indians in ill-health and their antipathy to treatment in hospitals. To what can be contributed this attitude of Indians towards hospitals? The planters put the whole blame on their nature. Were they justified in doing so?
Though the Chamber of Agriculture, then the bulwark of planters, observed on the 6th of September that “the planters had always at heart to give to their men the best medical care which could be obtained in their respective districts and the best sick attendants whom they could procure”, the Royal Commissioners of 1872 remark that they were convinced that the planters might have been well disposed but as a matter of fact “they were never hardly able to get even good sick attendants or men who had any right to be called sick attendants at all.”
A few years earlier Dr Desjardins, a medical inspector had put forward the same opinion concerning the sick attendants. He wrote: “La plus grande partie des infirmiers ne méritent être ainsi appelés en aucune façon.” It is natural that such hospital attendants were the direct cause of deaths as that of Ramphul, an estate labourer of St Antoine, who was given a solution of potassium instead of a dose of the purgative Le Roy. To what extent some planters were indifferent to the health of their labourers is shown by the case of the planter, who on being asked by Dr Desjardins whether he had a store of quinine, replied, while putting his hand on the label of a bottle containing a pound of magnesia, “Yes, I have a pound of quinine.”
Many of the buildings intended for the sick were anything but hospitals. They served as a factory for Vacoas bags, a guano store, tool house or stable, “with sick Indians at one end and mules at the other”. Dr Desjardins mentioned a hospital which he visited on one of his tours as medical inspector, and found thirty or forty goats rushing out of it and another where on his visit he found tied to the door a monkey which leapt at him and bit the tip of his nose.
On the 14th April, Renouf, magistrate of Pamplemousses, reported that the hospital of Belle Vue Harel was in filthy state, with beds wanting planks, mattresses torn up and flooring dug up in different places.
When the state of the hospitals were such, there is no wonder that they remained most of the time shut. The sick labourer finding himself in the depths of despair suicided himself or died in his hut after a period of sickness during which nothing was done to mitigate his suffering. Cases are on record when patients suicided themselves in hospitals or their premises during the absence of hospital attendants, or when though suffering they were refused admittance and died on their way to their place.
In the face of such evidence we cannot but be convinced of the criminal attitude of some planters towards their labourers. It is sad to contemplate that less than a hundred years ago, there lived in this island people who were so callous as to see their fellow men suffering, suiciding themselves or dying as curs without their lifting a finger to put an end to such evils.