Abolition of Slavery and the Abolitionists

Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago – 2nd YEAR NO. 35 – 7th April 1955

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Glimpses of Mauritian History

“If on the ground of injustice it ought to be abolished at last, why ought it not now?… What have we done for Africa – save robbing her of fifty thousand people every year.”

– William Pitt

The French Revolution, the most momentous event in French history, relegated to the background the movement in favour of slaves. The English, who, at first, considered it as the herald of a new era, were soon shuddering at the atrocities of the Jacobins. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and other prominent Members of Parliament were busy with the coalitions formed to fight the revolutionary armies and later Napoleon. But the cause of the slaves was too sacred to Wilberforce for him to give it up. He was devoting most of his time to the “slave business.” Somewhere in his diary he writes: “Slave business all the evening, with only biscuit and wine and water – nervous at night and dreamt about slavery”.

Thomas Clarkson, on his part had made the study of the slave problem the supreme task of his life. Registering the grim horrors of the trade had been for years his sole occupation. Consequently his health was undermined. “The nervous system was almost shattered to pieces. Both my memory and hearing failed,” he writes. So long as such men were interested in the sufferings of the slaves there was no doubt that the abolition of slavery was but a question of time.

The bill was brought in again in Parliament in the early months of 1797. Wilberforce was hopeful about its passage but it was defeated by a narrow margin. In 1798 and in 1799 the motion came again before Parliament and in spite of the eloquent speeches of William Pitt and Charles James Fox and the new convert to abolition, George Canning (later to become Prime Minister), each time it was defeated. However, the debates on abolition were not without their use. They convinced Englishmen of the cruel realities of the slave trade.

Meanwhile, the war was raging on the continent and Napoleon was thinking of his plans for the conquest of England. Wilberforce had therefore to wait for years for the realization of the one aim of his life. The peace of Amiens gave a respite from the war and diverted attention on the question of slavery. In 1804 the Abolition Committee was strengthened by new adherents among whom were Thomas Macaulay and Henry Broughman.

In 1804, the House of Commons voted the abolition but the House of Lords defeated it. It was only in 1807 that the Abolition Bill finally became law. After England, came Holland which gave up the cruel trade in 1814. Les Amis des Noirs, a French Society inspired by the Abolitionists succeeded to abolish the trade in French colonies in 1815. By this time, of all European peoples, only Portugal and Spain continued the trade. England made treaties with both countries and magnanimously agreed to pay Portugal £300,000 and Spain £400,000 for the abolition of the slave trade in their colonies.

The abolition of the slave trade was only the first act in the drama of liberation. In 1833 a Bill was introduced for the liberation of all slaves in English colonies. This time the champion of the Negroes was Edward Smith-Stanley, the Colonial Secretary of that time. He was noted for his imperious vigour, his contempt of obstacles and his sweeping eloquence. It was finally voted by the House of Commons that all existing slaves were to be liberated in a year’s time, and refusal by freed slaves to work was to be dealt with not by the masters but by specially appointed magistrates. A year later at midnight on July 31, 1834, 800,000 slaves were freed.


Conceit at its Pinnacle


In presence of the Colonial Secretary’s appeal in Council on the 27th March asking “responsible citizens to do their utmost to refrain from words or actions which might have the effect of exacerbating a situation which is already discreditable to Mauritius,”(italics are ours) the Mauritius Times desisted from any comment on the Chemin Grenier affair.

The situation has since been changed. In his “Opinion du Jour” of the 4th April last, NMU has been thinking aloud on the Chemin Grenier incident, apportioning blame and making important statements. It is in strange contrast with the blendness and absence of anti-Hindu outbursts which characterized the “opinions” for the past few weeks. (Another paper, it appears, had been entrusted with the job and has been doing it exceedingly well). To every conscientious person, the events of Sunday constitute a tragedy. To NMU, it a triumphant fulfillment of his prophecy; he has some more prophecies to make of revolution. What has taken place is but a “préfiguration relativement bénigne des événements prédits” : NMU is visualizing civil war: he shows concern about it. He however points out the silver lining in the cloud – seditious propaganda if stopped will cause the dark prospect of revolution to fade away into light. NMU must be congratulated for this finding which will certainly help anyone who wants to probe into the why and wherefore of the Chemin Grenier happenings.

It is a painful irony that NMU refers to seditious propaganda as being made by others, whereas he has been indulging in sedition for many years though it has been camouflaged by crocodile’s tears now and then over a spirit of strife which he has not ceased to foster.

Is it not clear that the anti Hindu venom regularly discharged from his indefatigable pen has poisoned the Mauritian atmosphere, which is full to overflow with “vapeurs explosives qu’y ont libérés des suggestions insensées”?

Surely he will deny his own responsibility for this, but he forgets how he has been plainly advocating an alliance of Blancs chrétiens, Population de couleur, Musulmans, Chinois against the Hindus. Today he writes in a detached manner about “une ligue acerbe des minoritiés contre la majorité trop avide”. Is he not the author and watchdog of the league?

Can he say of what the majority is “avide”?

The whole anti Hindu campaign which NMU has now resumed in the press is to divide the labour front and so keep the grip of the conservative element more firmly on the affairs of his country. NMU is deliberately erring when he says that the riots were not caused by “des rivalités politiques ou des rivalités d’intérêts…”

It is precisely political rivalry that has made use of the bogey of religion to attain its ends.

NMU is right when he says : “Quand on apprend aux habitants d’un même pays à se haïr… on va fatalement à la guerre civile. ”

Many people entertained the hope that after the blood letting in the South, the good old man would change and try to use his able pen to serve the inhabitants of this country by preaching reconciliation against which he had labored for so long.

(M.Times — 7 April 1955)


Editorially Speaking

Parliamentary Privilege – Its Legal Aspect

Last week Dr Millien drew the attention of the President of our Council to an “Opinion du Jour” published in Le Cerneen dealing with Parliamentary Privilege. The President’s final decision is yet unknown.

In his article N.M.U. has questioned the right of our MLC’s (Members of Legislative Council) to attack with impunity anybody they fancy and hide behind parliamentary immunity.

Le Mauricien too has voiced its feelings on this matter. In one of its manchettes, it has in its characteristic way, stood up for the Freedom of the Press.

It would indeed be a sad reflection on democracy, if democracy were to breed privileges allowing their beneficiaries absolute right to attack anybody and allowing the State to muzzle the Press.

It is to curb the unbridled urges and passions of M.L.C’s that the Mauritius (Legislative Council) Orders in Council, 1947 to 1952, enact the following:

“23 A. It shall be lawful, by laws enacted under this Order, to determine and regulate the privileges, immunities and powers of the Legislative Council and its Members, but no such privileges, immunities and powers shall exceed those of the Commons House of Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or of the Members thereof.”

That excerpt is part of the preamble of the Legislative Council (Privileges, Immunities and Powers) Ordinance, 1953.

It is clear from the above that parliamentary privileges have their limits. Freedom of the Press seems to be threatened by Subsection (n) of Section 6 of the Ordinance, which defines “Contempt of the Council”.

Subsection (n) of Section 6 defines Contempt of the Council as:

“Publishing any defamatory statement or writing upon the Council or any Committee, or upon any Member, touching, or relating to his character or conduct as a member and with regard to actions performed or words uttered by him in the Council.”

Fortunately for the Freedom of the Press, Subsection (n) does not stop there. It goes on: “Provided that no statement shall be held to be defamatory statement within the meaning of this paragraph unless it is punishable under Section 288 of the Penal Code Ordinance.”

In short, the Ordinance of 1953 gives our M.L.C’s some privileges to be exercised within prescribed limits and safeguards the Freedom of the Press.

One need not shudder at the thought of getting a parliamentary punch at some improper place. Just as the journalist, the parliamentarian is not allowed to hit below the belt.

(M.Times – 25 March 1955)

* Published in print edition on 8 May  2015

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