Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago – 2nd YEAR NO. 24 – Friday 21st January 1955
Glimpses of Mauritian History
The first British expedition against Ile de France in July 1810 met with disaster. Four frigates failed in their attack upon the harbour of Grand Port and were either destroyed or captured. Mauritian historians have glorified this success of French arms, Mauritian poets have sung it and novelists have woven stories on this theme.
In no way discouraged, the British warships continued cruising round the island and by September of the same year after having won minor naval battles had established such a supremacy at sea as to enable them to make a safe landing at Grand Bay in the evening of 29h November. This event is recorded thus in an account of the conquest of Mauritius by an officer who served on the expedition.
“Before the evening closed, 10,000 men, with three days provisions, and their complement of guns, stores and ammunitions, had disembarked without accident or resistance.”
The British forces marched unopposed for the whole night and reached the Moulin à Poudre, in a state of utter exhaustion, in the evening of the 30th Nov. At about 2pm General Decaen, some officers and about 80 of his hussar guards appeared in sight. Pursued by the light companies of the 12th and 39th regiment, he was forced to beat a retreat. The British army again began its march on the town. It was opposed resolutely by the national guards under General Vandermaesen, who finding that the enemy were superior in numbers retreated towards the town.
What completely demoralised the French troops was the news that at the Petite Rivière had landed the division of the Cape comprising 2,000 men. (Almost half of the soldiers in this regiment were Indian Sepoys).
General Decaen thought it wise to make negotiations for peace. Commandant Duperré and General Vandermaesen were sent to discuss the terms of capitulation with Commodore Rowley and the Major General Abercromby.
On the third of December the terms of capitulation were agreed upon and signed. The French surrendered the island, together with their military and naval stores and ammunition. The French frigates as well as twenty-four merchant ships were ceded to the English. The French troops and seamen were not made prisoners of war. The British agreed to convey them to France with their arms and colours and their personal effects. The inhabitants were allowed to “preserve their customs, laws and religion.”
Since the beginning of the English period the Whites have referred to the Act of Capitulation accusing the English of breach of faith whenever the government has in any way treaded upon what they have considered as their rights. But we can say that certain clauses of the Act have become obsolete. For example, the word ‘Inhabitants’ can no longer have the same meaning. The word ‘Inhabitants’ implied the few thousand French who were in the Island in 1810. The slaves had no civil rights. After their liberation in 1834 the slaves got a status of their own and could no more be deemed mere ciphers in the political history of the island. Since then the Indians and Chinese have appeared in the picture. The religion, language and culture of these new settlers are different from those of the French.
There are some interesting opinions emitted by Evenor Hitié on the English conquest of the island. He maintains that the disaster might have been averted if General Decaen had not followed to the letter of the law the instructions given by Decrès to him, in his attitude towards the slaves and the “affranchis”.
“Si le General Decaen,” writes Hitiée, “avait enregimenté deux milles hommes de couleur, qu’ils avait à sa disposition, quinze cents mulâtres esclaves, sur deux ou trois mille que possédaient les habitants blancs de la colonie, et trois régiments Africains de quinze cents hommes, chaque régiment, il eut eu avec les marins et soldats qu’il avait à sa disposition plus de dix mille hommes effectifs, qui auraient déconcerté les chefs de l’expédition anglaise de 1810.”
It is an historically established fact that when a delegation of twenty-five coloured men went to Decaen to bid him farewell before his departure for France, the Captain General said to them: “Je vous ai connus trop tard, messieurs je m’en repens: si je vous avais connus plus tôt, nous n’éûssions pas été réduits à faire une capitulation comme celle que j’ai été dans l’obligation de signer. Je ferais connaître à l’Empereur votre belle conduite. ”
Colour segregation even in the thick of a national calamity made France lose an important part of its Empire.
* Published in print edition on 6 February 2015