We find that the recklessness of the Police in making arrests was only to be equalled by that of the magistrates in condemning them.
— Report Royal Commission 1872
The maroon hunts, which were looked upon as an exciting sport in Ile de France, came to an end with the abolition of slavery. Only a short time after the coming of the Indian immigrants, we hear of vagrant hunts organised by the police. In these hunts the game were the Indians who were hounded usually because they were not in possession of their pass or sometimes because of absence from work for some time. Cases are on record when a cook on his road to the bazaar or a messenger in search of a doctor was arrested. Many were arrested but few were convicted, which goes far to show that arrests were often made unjustly, putting the poor immigrant into unnecessary troubles. The convictions were few when compared with the arrests, yet many were those who were condemned to as much as six months imprisonment with hard labour without any just cause.
Now and then special days were appointed for the purpose of looking for “every Indian whether at work or in his house or passing about his avocations on the highway and whose papers were not en règle, or which might be imagined not to be en règle by some policemen who could not read, or whose papers might have been in a moment of unsuspecting security left behind in his hut.” It was a common occurrence to find a poor immigrant whose papers were en règle to fall into the lands of an illiterate constable.
The letters written by the superior police officers dealing with orders concerning vagrant hunts afford interesting reading as is shown by the letter printed below which can serve as an excellent specimen
“19th July, 1870
“To Inspector Timperley
“Vagrant hunt on Saturday next, 23rd instant. All available men in your district will start from Pamplemousses at 4 am and scour all along as far as Pieter Both, where they will meet the Port Louis party at about 10 am. Of course you will arrange that your men have something to eat and drink while out, for which send in your will to Paymaster.
“You will lead the party from your district in the hunt yourself.
(Signed) F. T. Blunt, Capt. Adjutant”
Other letters written by superior police officers throw much light on the way in which vagrant hunts were organised and the purpose behind them. To our modern ways of thinking, some of these letters appear to be no less than shocking. Take, for example, the following extract from a memorandum signed by Superintendent Spencer – “a regular vagrant hunt will take place on Friday next, at 5 am; officers to use their best endeavours in having as many vagrants (boys especially) as possible arrested.”
There was a greater desire to procure as many as possible of boy vagrants. Were the boys really a greater nuisance to society? This cannot have been the truth. The reason for the arrest of boys is explained from the following extract of a letter signed by the Inspector General – “more boys should be sent in, as there is plenty of room at the Reformatory.” How scandalous it appears to us that boys were arrested not because they were criminals but because there was much room for them at the Reformatory.
When orders such as these were given there is no wonder that each party of vagrant hunters strived hard to bring the greater number of captives.
On the 5th of June 1869 after a long and wearisome walk the hunting party of Pamplemousses and that of Moka met at a shop at Nouvelle Decouverte where after having taken drinks they started quarrelling. It is asserted by De Plevitz that they quarrelled about the disposal of the prisoners as each party wanted to bring the greater number of captives in order to please its chief. From this statement it appears that the vagrant hunts in more ways than one resembled the seasonal stag hunts of our time – unfortunately a poor substitute for the more exciting man hunts.
All those who were arrested as vagrants were not in fact such. Many of them became the victims of the contempt and arbitrary treatment of the police merely because of their having mislaid their papers through neglect or ignorance. As for those who deserted we ask ourselves whether absenting oneself from work from some time constituted so grave an offence as to merit imprisonment with hard labour often for as long a period as 6 months. Besides, the absentees were treated with all the rigours meted out to the most hardened criminals.
Many were arrested while on their way on some errand, as in the case of Kistnapen (one among many such victims) when his employer Madame Courtois had to come and say to the magistrate that he was no vagrant but in her service.
Only some eighty years ago the life of the Indian in Mauritius was a grim ordeal. He could not venture himself on the road, he could not even for his master go on an errand without being tormented by the fear that at any moment after having covered the slightest distance he might meet a constable to whom he would have to show his papers and satisfy him as to his status. If he met an unlearned constable as he often did, then so much the worse for him. No arguments could save him from being brought to the nearest police station. The Police could enter his dwelling at any moment without warrant and he could be arrested for a mere informality in his pass. The case of Ramluckhun, a gardener of Nouvelle Decouverte, is pathetic. Let Ramluckhun himself speak as he does in the De Plevitz petition:
“About a year ago, having prepared everything for my marriage, and spent for that purpose a sum of Rs 50, I was on the very day that it was to take place hindered from doing so, for the following reasons:
“A sergeant of police and two constables came at my house and knocked at my door which I opened when the sergeant entered, in spite of my remonstrances, and looking all round, with the help of his lantern, it being then early in the morning, bade me come out, without allowing me time to dress, asked for my papers in spite of which I was taken by him to the high road where I found many others who had also been arrested. I was then tied up and marched to Moka where I was locked up for two days.
“I had to leave my poor aged parents, of whom I am the sole support, as I explained to the sergeant; and was taken before the magistrate the third day, to whom I explained my case, and was to return on the following Friday, which I did, and had to do, by order of the magistrate for three consecutive Fridays. At last I was released : no reason whatsoever having been given me for such proceedings which cause me a very serious loss in fact, up to the present time, I have not been able to recover from it.”
* Published in print edition on 20 May 2016