Attempt to abolish slavery foiled in Ile de France

Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago — 1st YEAR No. 22 — Saturday 8th January 1955

Glimpses of Mauritian History

Les hommes naissent libres et égaux en droits.” Faithful to this fundamental principle of the Revolution of 1789, embodied in the Declaration of Rights, the Convention abolished slavery in all French colonies on the 4th February 1794. The slaves were to be acknowledged as French ‘citoyens’ and were to enjoy equal rights as their ex-masters.

Accustomed to a life of ease and plenty, and often of depravity, the Colons had left all manual works into the hands of the slaves who, roughly speaking, consisted of five-sixth of the population of the island.

As soon as the decree was passed, the Deputies of Ile de France intervened to have its enforcement postponed. As a result slavery was not abolished in 1794-1795. During the Revolutionary period power changed hands in France in quick succession. The Convention had abolished slavery, the Directory on the 25th January 1796 had a law passed which enacted that eleven agents should be sent to the different French colonies to look after the application of the decree of the Convention.

Two agents – Baco, ex-mayor of Nantes, and Brunel, one-time journalist in Ile de France were appointed for the task. They came with a division of 1200 under general Magallon La Morlière.

The planters of Ile de France could not easily concede to the abolition of slavery on which their prosperity so much depended. Baco and Brunel presented themselves to the Colonial Assembly to disclose their mission before the deputies who had already roused public opinion against them. The delegates were mobbed and forced to embark on the MOINEAU whose Captain was instructed to leave them at the Philippines. But Baco and Brunel prevailed upon the captain to bring them back to France. Thus ended rather sadly for the delegates as well as the slaves, the mission in favour of the abolition of slavery. The goodwill of the Revolutionary humanists had wrecked itself against the bitter opposition of the planters of Ile de France.

When Napoleon came to power, he abrogated all the laws passed in the interest of the slaves during the Revolutionary period. Decaen who was sent to assume the power of governor in Ile de France, was strongly advised not to ruffle the sentiments of the inhabitants with regard to slavery. In a letter written by Decrès, Ministre de la Marin, Decaen was recommended to:

“Maintenir avec soin la distance des couleurs sur laquelle repose l’existence coloniale; de respecter et faire respecter les usages enduis àce sujet; enfin, d’éviter scrupuleusement le plus léger motif d’inspirer aux habitants, sur cette matière délicate, les moindres alarmes.”

Decaen set about the task of following to the letter of the law the instructions given to him.

H. Prentout thus sums up his attitude towards slavery. “Les moyens energiques dont Decaen disposait et qu’il savait employer, pouvaient réprimer certains abus, mais son administration fut naturellement impuissante à pallier des maux qui tennient à l’essence même du régime esclavagiste. L’esclave resta soumis aux caprices de ses maîtres et à ceux plus terribles de la nature qui le privent de tous moyens d’existence.”

Even after the conquest, when the English took into their hands the reins of power, the slaves had still to bear for a quarter of a century the weight of their chains, with all the horrors attending it.

***

Has the B. Guiana Case influenced British colonial policy?

The people of British Honduras have been given a larger share in the management of their affairs. In the first elections which were held under the new Constitution, the People’s United Party won eight out of the nine elective seats – thus enabling it to send four of its leading members in the Executive Council. Three elected members of the P.U.P have taken the following portfolios: Natural Resources, Social Services and Public Utilities.

Writing in FACT of December 54, Mr Hilary Marquand, M.P. says: “… There was a danger that the events in British Guiana where the Constitution was suspended after six months of rule of Ministers from the PPP (People Progressive Party), might cause the United Kingdom government to refuse to allow the PUP to take power in B.G. Mr Lyttelton, however, made the wisest decision of his whole period of office as Colonial Secretary; the Constitution continued, and PUP leaders took the place to which they were entitled.”

Therefore it is quite clear that the events in B. Guiana have nothing to do with the constitutional progress of other British colonies. In his Opinion du Jour of 5.1.55, NMU writes: “La leçon de la Guyane Britannique est trop récente pour avoir été déjà oubliée par le Gouvernement de Sa Majesté…”

Since the British Honduras has been given a Constitution with Ministerial Powers, does this mean that Her Majesty’s Government has forgotten the “leçon de la Guyane Britannique” The officials of the Colonial Office know their job. Whether NMU or the reactionaries want it or not the British Government is determined to give the Colonial people a larger share in the management of their affairs.

* * *

Why A Fiscal Committee?

H.E. the Governor has appointed a Fiscal Committee for the purpose of reviewing all forms of taxation both direct and indirect. The terms of reference are:

– The Fiscal Committee will make recommendations for such adjustments as appear necessary to secure the equitable distribution of the burden of taxation generally, having particularly in mind the extent to which the value of money has fallen during the past decade, with a view to ensuring that the present level of Government revenues as a proportion of national income may be maintained with the least discouragement to the agriculture, commerce, industry and trade of the Colony upon which the national income depends.

– The Fiscal Committee will also bear in mind the need to protect the interests of all sections of the Community, especially those of which services are provided from general revenue, and which would be detrimentally affected by a decline in the national income.

Is there a necessity to revise our taxation? We think there is an urgent need for it. Since the War the Mauritian rupee has undergone an extremely low devaluation. Taxes on certain commodities which had not been revised since a decade represent hardly a third of the original value. In the light of the present worth of the rupee, taxes should be increased on certain commodities; for example tax on motor vehicles has not been increased since the War.

The terms of reference appears too wordy and too suggestive. The phrase “the least discouragement to the agriculture, commerce, industry and trade of the Colony upon which the national income depends” seems to suggest that the agricultural and commercial concerns should not be taxed any more. In paragraph 3: “The Fiscal Committee will… protect… those for which services are provided from general revenue” seems to suggest that the Committee should take special care to protect the interest of the Civil Service. How? In what connection? We think that the Fiscal Committee which is the equivalent of an Economic Commission and on whose recommendations our future taxing policy will rest, ought to have been conducted by an expert in taxation from the Colonial Office.

The progressive minded public expect that the Fiscal Committee will investigate into the possibility of raising more money. We need some more millions for our Social and Development Services – Education, Health, Housing, Road, Irrigation, etc. They are more concerned with the equal distribution of the wealth of the country and the equalization of incomes rather than equal distribution of the burden of taxation. The modern conception of taxation is based on the theory that the man who is fortunate enough in earning more should provide for his less fortunate countrymen.

 

* Published in print edition on 16 January  2015

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