A Prelude to the Royal Commission of 1872
“The planters have been most the cause of vagrancy. Many of them in the erroneous belief that new immigrants labour is cheapest have imported from time to time bands of new and discharged the old hands whereas had they held out sufficient inducements in the shape of higher wages to old immigrants, they would have retained them on their estates.”
– Mr Bell’s Report
Down the ages the upper classes have been unyielding in their hold upon those who have toiled and sweated for them. They have passed laws which appear inhuman to us but which were enforced with rigours no less cruel. It was in this spirit of grabbing selfishness that the Ordinance 31 of 1867, better known as the Labour Law of 1867 was passed. It oppressed most heavily the Old Immigrants who, their period of contract over, had not reengaged themselves. The law officially aimed at those who having no means of subsistence took to the high roads or otherwise had become a cause of nuisance to the public. Many of the Old Immigrants, however, were turning a honest penny by cultivating some plot of land which they had acquired by dint of their hard work or which they had rented and they hawked the proceeds of their gardening. They preferred hard liberty to the yoke of servile toil.
When the law came in the Legislative Council for its second reading on the 8th of November, all the members, mostly planters who were anxious above all of their own interests enthusiastically voted for it. But opposition arose from an unexpected quarter – one of the official members, Hon Mr Kerr, the Treasurer. As a preliminary to his attack on the new law, he spoke of the general feeling of hostility against the Indian who was robbed and oppressed by everybody from the Protector of Immigrants down to the meanest “battiaras, persons of whose status he knew nothing, but who were to be seen, at all times prowling about the courts seeking for victims, and who fastened themselves on to bands of Indians coming to receive payment at the Treasury”.
He denounced the inconsistency of a law forbidding arrest on Sunday which “allowed the educated rogue to pass on” (we should add the privileged rogue too) while the Indian who owed his master three days’ labour was mercilessly thrust into prison. He gave the example of the arrest of one of his own servants while on his way to visit a friend. He mentioned cases when Indians on their way to complain to the magistrates about their masters were arrested as vagrants and thrown into prison. He spoke of masters who by their influence upon the magistrates interfered with the impartial administration of justice. At this point, it will not be out of place to consider the following letter written by a planter to a magistrate.
My Dear Sir,
Two men will appear before you for illegal absence; one China Govinden Tuesday and Mardemootoo Monday, as they are both what you call de bandes.
I shall wish to have them punished. My sirdar is aware of their being absent,
I remain etc
(signed) F. W. Barlow
Let us return to Mr Kerr. “If the Indian,” said he, “went to the Internal Revenue Office to purchase a five-penny stamp, he would probably have to pay double the amount for it. It he went to the Immigrant Depot to see the Protector, he would have to pay the “doorkeeper six pence before he had access to him. Such things, we know, have happened – even at The Treasury he is not safe.”
He deplored the fact that the Indian Immigrants were bought and sold as if they were mules and carts. He warned the planters that if they did not change their attitude towards their workers and treat them more humanely, there was the danger that immigration might be put an end to.
The speech of the Hon. Treasurer in the Council came as a bolt from the blue. It shook the complacence of the planters. The then governor, Sir Henry Barkly tried to minimize the gravity of the allegations by comparing Mr Kerr to the Old Juryman, who always disagreed with his fellow jurymen. But the facts were there. The Colonial Press took up the gauntlet thrown by the Hon Treasurer. Le Cernéen, the bastion of the privileged class, was particularly merciless against the man who had pitted his lonely strength against vested interests. That paper, true to the principles for which it has stood since its foundation, went so far as to turn into ridicule Mr Kerr who was made the hero of a satire.
L’autre jour ce Monsieur Kerre
Au Conseil législatif
S’emporta comme du vif
Argent, et surtout en colère
En faveur des vagabonds
Il est sorti de ses gonds.
La morale de la chose
C’est que ce bon Monsieur Kerre
A souvent la Berlu, car
Il voit le noir tout en rose.
Qu’il s’en aille avec Panca
The Chamber of Agriculture protested to the Governor against the imputations of Mr Kerr and declared that if “his Excellency the Governor is not convinced of the inaccuracy and exaggeration of what was then advanced, the planters of this colony are prepared to submit to any enquiry his Excellency may consider advisable to institute.”
The Governor replied that the imputations of Mr Kerr were unmerited and “considered that to open a special commission to inquire into these matters throughout the colony, would be as useless as it would be mischievous.”
Had it not been for the Report of the Royal Commissioners of 1872, Mr Kerr would have gone into History as an eccentric who unjustly blamed Mauritian planters. Fortunately for his memory De Plevitz drafted a petition for the Indian Immigrants which necessitated a Royal Commission which brought to light many bitter truths. The Royal Commissioners condemned the attitude of Governor Sir H. Barkly and asserted that their enquiry “tended to corroborate the statements of Mr Kerr.”
The Hon Treasurer, prompted by pure motives of humanity and justice had raised his voice against the selfishness of the planters. His lonely voice unfortunately was lost in the wilderness. He was one of those who are able not only to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and untruth but who also have the courage to denounce evil regardless of the fatal consequences to their own well-being. His imputations were set at nought and the Labour Law was passed, opening up for the immigrants a new era of martyrdom.
* Published in print edition on 8 July 2016