Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
Glimpses of Mauritian History
Des trente gouverneurs environ qui se sont succèdes à Maurice depuis 1810, aucun n’a autant aimé notre petit pays et n’a autant désiré son bonheur que Sir John Pope Hennessy. — Alphonse Gaud
The destiny of a Crown colony lies in the hands of the Secretary of State for the colonies who reserves to him the final decision in any important matter. The pity of it is that the man whose action counts for so much in our political life is not conversant with local affairs at first hand. His opinions are based on the despatches of the Governors, who unfortunately have often throughout our history been at the beck and call of a coterie who have the taste of long years of unlimited power and who are not prepared to lose an inch of ground from under their feet. Whatever progress we have achieved in the political as well as in the educational field is due to governors of broad vision who have not allowed themselves to come under the evil influence of the plutocrats. One such governor, at a grave turning point of our history, was Sir John Pope Hennessy. It is to him that we owe the Constitution of 1885. Without his open and warm hearted support of the Reformers our political evolution would have been retarded. Though he is remembered particularly for his having given us a Council where elected members could sit, yet he intervened in other fields for the welfare of the people.
He was well-disposed towards the Asiatics, in whose favour he had always a good word to say, in and out of the Council. He knew that there were severe laws passed by the Old Council of 1831, which weighed down heavily on them.
He had gone carefully through the recommendations of the Royal Commissioners of 1872 and was shocked that so many years had elapsed yet nothing was done to carry out these recommendations. He bettered the lot of the hawkers who were constantly the butt of police oppression. Here is what the Governor himself has to say on this matter: “It was then pointed out that those hawkers were mainly all Indians and the police supervision of their licences led to abuses in some cases to oppression by the police of an industrious and quiet class and the abolition of the licences was recommended. On my proposal in 1883 the majority of government abolished those licences, merely on the ground that it was desirable to relieve the Indian hawkers from the irksome and even corrupt police supervision involved in compelling them to carry those trade permits.”
Again he interested himself in easing the burden of the Indians in the ruthless way in which the laws governing Crown lands were enforced against them. For having broken a twig from some tree in some forest of the government they were liable to as much as Rs 50 — fine and 10 days imprisonment. The governor found that this was sheer oppression. He did his best to relieve the poor Indians from the ruthlessness of such laws.
He found that colour prejudice was rife in the island. He was too enlightened to allow his conduct to be influenced by those who were in favour of colour barriers. He was shocked to see that in the Despatch Branch only Englishmen were employed. He was dead against such a system for he knew that there were men of ability among Mauritians. He made radical changes in this branch. Thanks to him for the first time clerks in the despatch branch began to be recruited from among Mauritians, even from among those who were of African and Indian origin.
The reactionaries, especially those who had stood tooth and nail against reform, could not forgive Pope Hennessy for the energetic way in which he had supported the Reformers. There were other pills which they found more bitter to swallow. How could they be on the side of Hennessy who openly sympathised with the Indians and tried his best to better their lot? Celicourt Antelme the arch-Conservative publicly accused the governor for his supreme weakness which he qualifed as “Asiatic fanaticism”. Soon others grouped themselves round C. Antelme. They set on foot a cabal against the governor and sent a petition against him to the Seretary of State for the Colonies. Fortunately for him the mass of people were at the governor’s back who came out of the ordeal, his glory undimmed.
* Published in print edition on 11 May 2018
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