Glimpses of Mauritian History — Heroism of De Plevitz

Mauritius Times  60 Years Ago

2nd Year No 68 — Friday – 25th November 1955

• If we all said to people’s faces what we say behind each other’s back, society would be impossible. — Balzac


Quelle que soit la persévérance de l’homme, son intelligence faiblit, sa tête s’abat, lorsqu’il n’a pour
but que son propre intérêt, et qu’un froid égoïsme le dirige.  

— Remy Ollier

It is easy to find people fighting tooth and nail when their interests are at stake or when they have something out of the fight. What is rare is to meet with individuals who setting aside all consideration of their own well-being, submit to every indignity for the sake of an ideal which becomes the guiding star of their life — an ideal to see happy men and women around them. Yet it is such men who have made the history of the world. Rev Le Brun, Pere Laval, Remy Ollier, Mr Kerr rank among these men. To these we should add one more name: De Plevitz, the saviour of the Indian immigrants, the man who did for them what Remy Ollier did for the coloured population.

Adolphe de Plevitz was of German origin. He had come to Mauritius in 1859. He had married the daughter of a planter, Francois Rivet, whose estate of 200 acres at “La Retraite” in the district of Flacq he managed. In his capacity as estate manager, he had come to have a first-hand knowledge of the lot of the labourers, most of whom were Indian immigrants. He had witnessed vagrant hunts when batches of Indians were tied together and driven mercilessly to the nearest police station. His heart burst on seeing sights of woe when men could be so degraded as to treat his less happier fellow brothers as if they were worse than beasts of burden. His sympathetic nature attracted to him many Indians who found in him one who was always ready to lend an ear to their tales of sufferings. He began to take down notes which helped him to draft the petition and to publish the pamphlet which were to bring the Royal Commission of 1872.

De Plevitz’s activities roused the indignation of the planters. The colonial papers were loud in denouncing him as an instigator of troubles. Some of them demanded to the Governor his immediate expulsion or his imprisonment. Many whites were impatient of such measures. A Franco-Mauritian, Jules Lavoquer was bold enough to take the law into his own hands. Helped by some friends he assaulted him cowardly near the Municipal Theatre on the 19th of October 1871. Somebody also struck him from behind causing blood to flow.

The attitude of the police in this matter is interesting. It was not the assaulter who was arrested for criminal action but both he and the victim for disturbing the public peace. The hostility shown to De Plevitz did not end there: he was threatened in violent and abusive language by the mob which was headed by a certain Merven. This second disturbance had the effect of making the Governor sympathise with Plevitz. He wrote to the Procureur General that ‘it might be somewhat dangerous if such things were allowed to go on.”In his reply the Procureur General wrote that after the occurrence of the second disturbance he had already directed the police to withdraw the charge against de Plevitz for disturbance of the public peace and to bring a charge of misdemeanour against Lavoquer. The planters were scandalised by the attitude the Procureur General and the Governor. Dr Icery, president of the Chamber of Agiculture wrote that their actions were “contrary to the custom of the administration.”

On the 30th October, of the same year a petition signed by 900 persons among whom appeared respectable names in the island was sent to the Governor. The petitioners expressed their approval of the conduct of Lavoquer and disapproval of that of De Plevitz. They also prayed the Governor for the immediate expulsion of the alien De Plevitz from the island. It is to the credit of the Government that this petition was not granted. The Governor, through the Colonial Secretary, severely rebuked them.

Meanwhile Lavoquer was found guilty of assault and sentenced to a fine of £25. This fine was paid by means of a subscription. The subscribers paid a shilling each. They came to do so at three of the principal shops and at the office of Le Cernéen. Those who considered Plevitz as their natural enemy acclaimed Lavoquer as a sort of hero. They not only paid the fine which was imposed on him but also showed to him their appreciation of his action by formally presenting the stick with which he assaulted De Plevitz ”adorned with a complimentary inscription referring to the event”.

It was not for the first time in the history of Mauritius that such meanness was displayed by the unworthy sons of French colonists. De Plevitz was only passing through the same ordeal from which his illustrious predecessors, Remy Ollier, Laval and Le Brun had not escaped. Our history abounds in examples of humanitarians who have had to face decisions, indignity and even assault for the good cause which they have embraced.

The Mauritian planters looked upon De Plevitz as their enemy. The writers who have been their mouthpiece have referred to him as a foreign adventurer, a corrupted man and what not. For us he can be nothing less than the saviour of the Indian immigrants, especially at a time when they could count very few friends on our shores. Joseph Cooper, in his book The Lost Continent; or, Slavery and the slave trade in Africa, speaks of De Plevitz as a humanitarian urged on in his actions by pure motives of goodness and doing a great good in voicing the grievances of the Indian coolies.

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