The Strike That Changed Our History

MT 60 Yrs – 2nd Year No 53 – Friday 12 August 1955

“I do not believe that anybody who has not seen it with his own eyes, can begin to imagine the poverty in which so many of our fellow citizens of the Commonwealth are condemned to live.”

— Rt Hon. James Griffiths M. P.

Tomorrow 13th of August, is the most memorable date in the history of the labour movement in our island. On that date, eighteen years ago, strikes which occurred in different parts of the island reached its climax marking the class consciousness and awakening of the masses – mostly Indian labourers. Workers asked for bread and were greeted with bullets. Never before in Mauritius, History were relations between Labour and Capital more strained.

It was a grave unrest which “accompanied by loss of life had for the first time in the history of the Colony, disturbed the even tenor of life in the sugar industry…”

Since; July 1937 strikes were taking place in different parts of the island. In some places employers and their supporters or sometimes even the police had recourse to the use of force to intimidate the strikers.

At Etoile Estate five hundred men had gathered. Their motive was to ask the manager for an increase in wages. They were told to disperse but refused to do so until a demonstration of bayonets cooled down their determination and they marched to Deep River. There, the police accompanied by the magistrate of the district tried to appease them. As they continued showing signs of violence the magistrate ordered the use of force. The police then made the use of their rifle butts with the result that many persons were injured.

In other places though matters had not reached such a pitch as to lead to riots; there were strikers who went about intimidating and preventing labourers from working in the fields.

But the scene of the tragedy at its worst was laid at the Union Flacq Sugar Estate, where four persons were killed and six wounded. It was for the first time in Mauritian history that such a tragic event had occurred. The details of the case are well known for us to enter into any description. Suffice it to say that the labourers had come to learn that often one has to sacrifice one’s life for some cause. It was better for them to face bullets than to lie prostrate at the tyrant’s feet and die the slow and cruel death of starvation.

What was it that led to that unrest so deep and so widespread? The causes are not far to seek. The small planter was dissatisfied at the cut of 15 per cent on the Uba cane. The day labourers complained of the exactions of the sirdars and recruiters of labour, and the low wages which amounted during the planting season to about only 40 or 50 cents a day and 60 cents daily during the crop season. The complaints of the estate labourers were: insufficiency of wages, inferior quality of rations, poor hospital treatment, cut in rations and wages on account of absence and low rate of pay for overtime work. The labourers joined together determined to find a redress for their grievances by any means. Many of them organised processions, comprised of as much as a thousand men and marched to the office of the Protector of Immigrants before whom they wanted to lay their case. It is evident that another cause of the unrest was political discontent.

What Nehru says of the French Revolution in his ‘Glimpses of World History’, holds true of the 1937 strikes. He compares the French Revolution to a volcano. We might say in his words that the strikes burst in Mauritius as a volcano. There were forces at work under the surface of our society, which eventually led to them.

It has been said that the Labour Party founded only a year ago, on the 23rd February 1936, was responsible for the tragic events of 1937. We do not agree with this opinion. It is true that Dr Cure, Pundit Sahadeo and Mr Anquetil delivered speeches to the labourers in different parts of the island during the period. However, we do not concur with the opinion of the strikes being the fruit of their incendiary speeches. The prominent members of the Labour Party were the product of the time. They only marched with the times and did no more. They were agitators, it was said. We shall quote Nehru to bring out clearly the meaning of the word agitators as applied to their case. “Agitators are people who are discontented with existing conditions and desire a change and work for it. Every revolutionary period has its full supply of them, they are themselves the outcome of the ferment and dissatisfaction that exists.”

One direct result of the strikes was the appointment of a Commission of Enquiry. The Commissioners who made a study of the events under the chairmanship of the Procureur General C. A. Hooper were Dr Edgar Laurent, Philippe Raffray, Lionel Collet and R. M. C. Monk.

The principal recommendations of the Commissioners were the establishment of Trade Unions and the introduction of legislation in the Council of Government to that effect; the adoption of the principle of the minimum wage, and the application of a sliding scale of wages above the minimum fixed; the appointment of wage fixing committees, including representatives of employers and employed, presided over by a person having a knowledge of labour questions in relation to the sugar industry; setting up of Conciliation Boards composed of employers and employed; the establishment of a Department of Labour and Social Welfare to deal with all questions of labour and such matters as Old Age Pensions; sickness, insurance and supervision of the welfare of widows and orphans.

They refrained from making any recommendations on the political aspect of the unrest being aware “that the question of adjusting political representation in Mauritius is already engaging the attention of H. M. Government in England.”

Some of the strikers met their death; others suffered untold humiliations and tribulations in the thick of the flight. Many of them may not have lived to see their actions bearing fruits, which the workers today are enjoying. These, only to name a few, are: the legislation of strikes and Trade Unions, the institution of the Industrial Courts, the creation of the Labour Department and the fixing of the ‘Eight-Hour’s working day.

Tomorrow is a solemn day, when every worker, whether the white collared or the humblest manual worker, and the politician should lift up their hands in prayer for those who died that they might live a happier life.

* Published in print edition on 11 December 2015

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