MT 60 Yrs – 2nd Year No 59 – Friday – 23rd September 1955
Glimpses of Mauritian History
27th September 1942
By D. Napal BA (Hons)
“The picture is, therefore, that of a poorly paid, undernourished, sickly population, capable of only such a limited output of work that an increase of wages offers little promise of improved performance. Such a position must obviously be equally disastrous for the employer and the worker.”
— Major Orde Brown’s Report on Labour 1943
History repeats itself. The same causes at work, at different times, have been known to bring the same results. The creed of employers all over the world, in all ages, has been: maximum profits with the minimum of expenditure. And the workers, driven to despair, have time and again, resorted to strikes, illegal or legal, to have their grievances redressed. That is what happened in the crop season of 1937. The strike was finally brought to an end but the spirit of discontent was not killed. The embers which lay hidden under the ashes were soon to burst into flames.
On the 27th September 1943 the tragedy of Union Flacq was again enacted at Belle Vue Harel Sugar Estate. This time it was the police which opened fire on the labourers who had gone on strike with the hope of bettering their conditions. In a baitka, a meeting place in the camp of Belle Vue Harel, about 50 to 60 labourers had gathered. A police constable of the Criminal Investigation Branch came there to look for a man from whom he wanted to have some information.
The labourers were on strike. Matters had reached a critical stage. The factory of the Belle Vue Harel Estate was guarded by the Acting Assistant Superintendent Ithier, to whom the constable mentioned above was sent to fetch gas grenades. The labourers assembled at the baitka, had misgivings that the constable was no more than a spy who had come to pry upon their doings. They asked him to go away. He did so but was assaulted with sticks while he was leaving the camp.
As soon as the report of this incident reached police headquarters, Mr A. M. Bell Deputy Commissioner of Police was dispatched to Belle Vue Harel with a party of 25 policemen. Another party of 75 policemen under Assistant Superintendent De Fondaumiere came to the place. When these parties reached the camp, they found about 300 men assembled there. Most of them were armed with sticks. Among them was recognized the assaulter of the police constable. The police attempted to arrest the culprit. The strikers answered with a volley of sticks and stones which forced the police to break its ranks and retreat. Though it had succeeded in effecting the arrest, it was powerless to bring the mob under control.
At this crisis, Mr Bell gave the order: “Let three men fire.”
Unfortunately many more than three men made use of their firearms and they continued firing even when the order to cease fire had been given. In the split of a second, the bullets had made their victims. Three persons, one man, a pregnant woman and a twelve-year-old lad were lying dead. Another boy of 16, Ramsamy died a few days later of wounds received on the scene of martyrdom for the cause of labour.
Instead of action being taken against Mr Bell who was responsible for the Mauritian Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, he was later transferred with a promotion. The immediate result of the disturbances was that Commissioners were appointed, on the first of October, to make “a diligent and full enquiry into the recent disturbances.” The Commissioners were Hon S. Moody, Hon Dr E. Laurent, Hon A. M. Osman, Mr the Justice G. Espitalier-Noel and His Honour Mr Rampersad Neerunjun.
Who were responsible for the calamity at Belle Vue Harel? Were the police justified in making use of firearms? It is a matter of doubt whether the superior Police Officers were right in making the arrest mentioned above, with sight of a crowd, especially of a crowd which was in an excited state and among which mischief was brewing.
The Commissioners condemned the police. They wrote: “We are however, by no means satisfied that the few men who, we have been told formed the Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Branch, and were affected to intelligence work from time to time, actually consisted an effective intelligence body. The Commission feel bound to say that on several critical occasions, the superior officers required to take action were ignorant of the situation, which they would be called upon to face, and consequently they were not in a position to take adequate precautions to meet those situations. We are not satisfied that there was proper liaison between the Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Branch and the District Police. We are satisfied that the superior Police Officers in the districts ought to have had a better knowledge of the general political and economic situations than in fact they showed.”
We know that the Labour Department was created as a direct result of the unrest of 1937. However, that Department had failed to avert the tragedy of 1943. It had failed to remedy the grievances of the labourers by enforcing upon the employers the decision of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board. In fact such a board was never called before the occurrence of the disturbances though the Director of Labour was entitled to call for a Minimum Wage Advisory Board.
In this matter the Report of the Commission of Enquiry condemns the Labour Department, writing as it does: “We are convinced that the Director of Labour, who was responsible for the administration of the Labour Department up to the 8th July 1943, and afterwards the Acting Director of Labour who assumed responsibility as from the 9th July, were right in their decision to refrain from making use of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board… They were relying upon the effective working of the industrial associations functioning as such. We however are satisfied that these associations were not effective and therefore the argument based on principle as submitted by these officers is weakened to that extent. We are unanimous in our opinion that the machinery of industrial bargaining in the sugar industry must for some time to come be supplemented by direct action whenever government is of opinion that there exists a real economic grievance, which cannot be removed by the methods of conciliation.”
The disturbances in the North occurred at a time when World War II was raging. The food situation was such as to aggravate the dissatisfaction caused by war condition. But it cannot be alleged that it was the change in the quality of their food which was the primary cause of the disturbances. It was low wages which was the main cause for it prevented the labourer to supplement to his poor rations. The economic grievance was at the root of the events of 1943.
A report which was presented to government in March 1944 showed that the prices had risen from 1939 to 1943 by 100% as regards foodstuffs and by 300% as regards articles of clothing. The legal minimum wage of the unskilled labourers was Rs 20 with a war bonus of 20%. If a monthly paid labourer worked for at least five days a week, then only he was allowed to have his war bonus. If he worked for less than five days he not only lost the wages for his days of absence but also the war bonus for the days on which he worked. Whereas a daily paid labourer on an estate could earn from Rs 25.35 to Rs 39.00, a monthly paid labourer on the same estate for the same number of days of work could earn a maximum of only Rs 24.00. It was this economic grievance which weighed heavily upon the labourer. The incident with the police constable acted only as the match which set the haystack on fire. So long as the grievances were unremedied, trouble was bound to come on the surface, sooner or later.
In less than a decade two strikes had occurred, bringing in their train heavy casualties. One grim truth emerged out of them – the faulty adjustment of Labour and Capital in our island. The wheel of history rolls on. Whither are we going? Can we say confidently that today labourers are well paid and satisfied? What the future has in store for us, we do not know. What we know is that, so long as employers will look upon their labourers merely as working machines, there is the danger that in our generation blood may be shed again. The labourers are human beings, who can feel keenly their miserable conditions side by side with the luxury of their employers. This in itself is a cause of grave discontent.
* Published in print edition on 15 April 2016