OUR DEBT TO LABOURDONNAIS

Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago – 1st YEAR No. 9 – SATURDAY – 9th October 1954  

A GLIMPSE OF LOCAL HISTORY

By D. NAPAL B.A (HONS)

 “Je crois que Dieu a répandu sa malédiction sur ce coin de terre, ce n’est que désobéissance, brutalité, nul honneur, nulle religion, nulle charité ; la moitié des hommes y sont de vrais loups qui cherchent à se déchirer, à se détruite.’’

Such were the people whom Labourdonnais had been called upon to govern in 1735. This description of the people of Isle de France occur in a letter of Governor Maupin, to the Director of the Company on the 4th July 1730.

Such were then the inhabitants of the island according to an irrefutable authority – its governor. What about the island itself on Labourdonnais’ arrival? It was a vast expanse of luxuriant vegetation, sparsed at distances of five or six miles by settlements consisting of roughly built huts.

There were no government house, no fortifications, no quays; the ‘Conseil Municipal’ according to Pierre Crépin – Labourdonnais’ biographer, sat in a “case couverte de feuilles de palmiers, dans laquelle il n’y avait pas même une armoire pour ranger les archives.”

There were neither roads in the modern sense of the word, nor even the most primitive vehicles; the men either walked or travelled on horseback, the ladies were carried about in palanquins, borne by slaves. These were the beasts of burden, who did the work of our modern heavy traffic.

Famine, the cause of which could be attributed to the native indolence of the inhabitants of Ile de France, was a matter of daily occurrence. Labourdonnais to find a remedy to it, encouraged the cultivation of rice and wheat. He felt, however, the need of some cheap and easily available food for the consumption of the slaves. He introduced the manioc from Brazil. Unfortunately, some Negroes having been poisoned by its consumption, condemned the roots as poisonous and poured hot water on the plantations. Labourdonnais, after much pain succeeded in convincing the inhabitants of its uses, it is to him that we owe the ‘manioc gallette” which was first served to his guests at Mon Plaisir.

It is as an engineer and an architect that Labourdonnais showed himself at his best. There was such a total absence of skilled workmen, that fishermen had to rely for the repair of their boats, on the chance carpenters on board the ships which visited the island. Instead of the five or six engineers which he expected on his arrival in the island, he found only a “métis Indien” superintending the construction of a windmill. Most of our Mauritian historians for reasons better known to themselves have used the world ‘mulâtre” for the word “métis Indien” which occurs in Labourdonnais’ Mémoirs. He moulded artisans out of Negroes and got recourse to Indians for Pondichéry who were mostly artisans who helped the great builder in his fortifications of the town of Port Louis, of which he might be justly called the founder. It was he who transferred the main harbour of the island from Mahebourg to Port-Louis. Baron Grant speaks favourably of these first Indian immigrants. Among other things he says that they were mild and gentle, were jealous of their national costume and “had the features of Europeans”.

Referring to his architectural works Labourdonnais writes:

“Ainsi en quatre ou cinq années on était parvenu à faire six cent toises de maçonnerie. J’en fis faire en moins de temps plus de onze mille… Pour leur execution, je formai des ouvriers de toute sorte en rassemblant la plus grande quantité de nègres que je pus en les mettant en apprentissage sous les maîtres ouvriers que j’avais en fort petit nombre…” (these were probably the “Pondichériens” we have mentioned above).

To Labourdonnais also goes the credit of having built the first hospital of the island. He says that every day he made it a duty to visit the sick; and complains that “malgré mes soins assidus je n’ai jamais pu éviter les inconvénients de l’insouciance, de l’incapacité et de la friponnerie.”

The cultivation of the indigo, the installation of the first sugar mill at Ville Bague, the building of Mon Plaisir, the conception of the idea of the Botanical Gardens of Pamplemousses, are only a few of the achievements of Labourdonnais.

It is Macaulay who in his essay on Clive refers to Labourdonnais as a “man of eminent talents and virtues”. We can safely add that had it not been for his genius the French might as well have abandoned the island as the Dutch had done a few decades ago. His statue at Place d’Armes seems to welcome proudly every stranger to the island which owes its importance to-day to him more than anybody else.

What is unfortunate however, is that the then inhabitants of the island instead of helping him in his arduous task often set obstacles on his way. In this connection, Eugène Piston writes:

“Quand on songe au mélange bizarre de cette population, où l’homme titré se coudoyait avec l’écume des fugitives de Madagascar ou d’une soldatesque de recrue; quand on songe à cette découverte fréquente faite dans les bois, de cadavres d’habitants dont on ignorait les auteurs de la mort violente; quand on songe à ces crimes de la brutalité, de la dépravation qui firent le scandale des premiers annals judiciaries; quand on songe à cette profane et indécente plaisanterie d’un des premiers magistrates primitifs de faire deposer nuitamment dans le presbytère du Pasteur chrétien quatre filles de la cargaison de “NEPTUNE”, quand on scrute l’épisode du massacre consommé à la Grande Rivière sur toute une famille, par les marrons assistés des serviteurs même de la maison; enfin quand au lieu d’une population douce, frugale et laborieuse, on rencontre un peuple farouche, impatient de tout frein et livré à la dissipation et au vagabondage, on comprend que la tâche de M. Labourdonnais était encore plus grande que l’imagination peut se la présenter d’abord.”

 * * *

 EDUCATION AT CROSSROADS

CAUTIOUS MOVE NEEDED

Primary education in Mauritius has reached a crucial point. According to the Annual Report of the Education Dept for 1953 the Governor has accepted the advice of the Director of Education and that of the Education Committee to reduce the primary school course to a period of six years only. The children entering at the age of 5 will have to leave at 11+ (i.e. before 12). They will be automatically promoted from class to class whether they pass the consecutive examinations or not. The pupils of each class will be grouped into two or three grades: Bright, medium and dullard. Has one ever heard of such things in education? Is it possible for one teacher to teach efficiently two or three groups of pupils in one class and at the same time?

There are about twenty to thirty thousand children of school going age who cannot find admission and to make room for these children Government will have resort to mass production.

The Annual Report of the Education Department for 1953 gives the impression that Government cannot afford any more funds on education. The loud talks which were going on since some years that there was a dearth of trained teachers and suitable school buildings to introduce compulsory education were, it seems, mere eye wash. Why the public was not informed of the true situation?

When the general tendency in advanced countries is to raise the school going age, when compulsory education is their ultimate target, when even secondary education is to become compulsory, when the pedagogues want, besides the teaching of the three R’s to impart more training in citizenship and self-reliance, Mauritius tends to recede.

Should the proposed plan be adopted, we fear the law of the City – the survival of the wealthiest – will prevail. Unless the parent can pay private tuition, is there any guarantee that the backward child will get a sound education at school? Provided that the teaching authorities have devised some revolutionary methods in education, is it possible to teach in six years what is being more or less methodically and efficiently imparted in seven and eight years? What will be the fate of the mass of children leaving school every year at the age of eleven or twelve, half baked neither good for the pen nor for the hoe or the hammer? Because of his low age he will not be accepted as an apprentice – the law forbids it. The only alternative left to him is to go on loitering. An open mind is the devil’s workshop. Moulded in the devil’s workshop down he is thrown into the gutter and with him the country. Who will then be held responsible for it?

At present a child is admitted at the age of 5, he goes through seven classes and leaves at the age of fourteen or fifteen, he is not promoted unless he passes the yearly examination. Even the existing system is thought incomplete and is a subject of criticism by pedagogues because of its lack of preparation for life. We are aware of the limited financial resources of the colony. But have all the sources of revenue been explored? We think that at this critical juncture no hasty step should be taken.

Mauritius is supposed to be nearing self-Government. In advanced countries enlightened public opinion is consulted on such vital issues. The public has not yet been informed about the proposed change. To ease public conscience we hope the Education Department will make a press declaration. (…)

  * Published in print edition on 10 October 2014

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