Remy Ollier – Prophet of Coloured Mauritians

MT 60 Years Ago — 2nd YEAR NO. 45 – 17 June 1955 —

Glimpses of Mauritian History

Nous attaquons les principes, nous respectons les hommes, notre journal n’est pas l’écho de nos passions, mais de nos recherches, de notre vigilance, de l’intérêt public.

— R. Ollier

In 1829 England put on the same footing as the whites the coloured population who had not so far enjoyed political and civil rights. Four years later A. d’Epinay obtained for the colony the freedom of the press which before this time could not publish anything without the permission of the Colonial Secretary. The whites took advantage of this freedom to found the Cernéen which R. Ollier was to describe as “organe d’une aristocratie décrépite et qui s’en va.”

The coloured population founded the Balance, whose editor was Berquin, who only after a year had to pay severely for the courage to raise his voice against a class tenacious in the preservation of its privileges. In the word of Fokeer, he was unlawfully imprisoned, muleted into heavy fines and finally banished from the country.

The Balance appeared for the last time on the 31st October 1835. With it died for the moment the hope of the oppressed classes, who having no organ till 1843, were the victims of the Cernéen, which as the proverbial cock on the dunghill crowed its loudest.

Remy Ollier came as a godsend to the coloured population. He was aged 26 when he founded the Sentinelle, a weekly paper on the 8th April 1843. He was fitted for his self-imposed task not by deep learning, university training or experience, but he had in him something more than all these – a burning passion, akin to genius, for furthering the interests of the coloured population. At an early age he had been apprentice to a harness maker. He could be seen often with a book in one hand and an awl in another. We may find an echo of the feelings of his early life in the words, “à quelque rang social que l’homme soit placé, l’instruction lui confère une supériorité”.

Shocked at the inequality and injustice around him, he was determined to go against the current. He knew that though England had recognized their rights since 1829, the coloured population was debarred from many privileges. They could not send their children to the Royal College; they were not represented in the Legislative Council and were socially the inferiors of the whites. In his virile language he depicted the situation:

« Peuple, tu n’as plus rien. Tes droits, vain songe. Ta propriété, demain on viendra te l’arracher, et comme le neveu d’Abraham il te faudra fuir, sans regarder derrière cette pluie de souffre qui va dévorer ton berceau. Ton caractère, tu n’as plus. Courbe le front esclave, tu n’as plus. Courbe le front esclave, le murmure même est un crime aujourd’hui. »

A crying injustice was that the coloured population were not represented in the Legislative Council. In different articles Remy Ollier brought out the fact that 70,000 inhabitants, coloured people and blacks, were not represented in the Council. He denounced this as an injustice for the interests of the Englishman in the colony and the white was safeguarded whereas that of the lower and middle classes were neglected. He warned the local government that “il mécontente et consterne les loyaux et fidèles sujets britanniques et pourrait aliéner au gouvernement les cœurs de ceux qui sont toujours restés invariablement attachés. »

He drafted a petition to Queen Victoria which the coloured population claimed, ‘la justice et l’impartialité des institutions et des lois britanniques, en mettant leurs espérances et celles de leurs enfants aux pieds de votre Majesté, la suppliant d’autoriser le gouvernement de Maurice à appeler un ou plusieurs hommes de couleur dans son Conseil. »

« L’égalité règne » he wrote with indignation « d’où vient qu’il y ait des Pensions de demoiselles blanches, dans lesquels ne peuvent jamais être admises les demoiselles de couleur. »

He deplored the fact that the coloured population did not have the same advantage as the whites in their education. When he wrote of this disability, he must have been thinking of his own youth passed in no flattering circumstances.

Remy Ollier was aware of the fact that among other things the coloured people felt most humiliated in not being the social equals of the whites. Governor Sir Lionel Smith failed to invite the members of the coloured population to a ball.

On the 3rd June 1843, R. Ollier wrote on this matter. ‘Nous sommes très fiers, avons nous dit, pour solliciter l’entrée des sociétés particulières. Ce n’est pas ici une société particulière… c’est la fête de la nation, fête de la nation, fête où doivent se trouver tous les gens honnêtes et bien élèves du pays soit quelque épiderme que le sort les a fait naître. »

« Nous ne voulons pas nous blanchir » he reminded the whites, « nous sommes les égaux des blancs par nos droits. »

A steady opposition dogged his heels from the day that he founded the Sentinelle. He roused against him not only the whites but also government officials against whom he had pronounced bitter truths. He was brought before the court more than ten times but always came out unscathed as right was always on his side. It has been said by his biographer (J. O. Bijoux) that when he died there were still 28 legal suits pending against him.

But as he himself said, “Personne ne saurait faire plier notre front brun que la liberté a peint des couleurs de son soleil. » What is unfortunate about R. Ollier is that he died when his work was unfinished. Hardly had he in his writings denounced injustice and inequality for two years when death snatched him away. In R. Ollier the coloured population lost one whom they could never replace. History only says that he died of intestinal troubles at the age of 28. We should say that his death remains a historical mystery – he might well have been poisoned living as he did in an atmosphere surrounded by enemies who wielded power.

  • Published in print edition on 21 August 2015

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