While we usually celebrate the independence of Mauritius, we usually fail to commemorate the 1937 labour unrest when a few hundreds of labourers organised the march on Union Flacq and fell under the bullets of the planters and millers. That decisive action of those workers posed the greatest challenge to the Colonial State and the plantocracy in 20th century Mauritius
“It was that decisive action of labourers coming from contiguous localities of Bon Accueil, St Julien, Camp Thorel and Lallmatie where localism and Indian ethnicity played its role which prompted other workers to come out in open protest in various parts of the island. At some point in time, the Colonial State was thinking of calling British troops to restore order. What that event tells us is that the Colonial State with all the might of the British Empire, its propaganda machine, its police and its troops could not overcome a group of determined labourers, with the result that the Colonial State was found tottering in the month of August 1937…”
I have always argued that the two most important events of 20th century Mauritius are the labour unrest of 1937 and the independence of Mauritius. While we usually celebrate the independence of Mauritius, we usually fail to commemorate the 1937 labour unrest when a few hundreds of labourers organised the march on Union Flacq and fell under the bullets of the planters and millers. That decisive action of those workers posed the greatest challenge to the Colonial State and the plantocracy in 20th century Mauritius. It was the response of the State to that challenge which ushered in a new era in Mauritius which culminated with independence in 1968.
It was the action of those labourers which marked a turning point in the history of 20th Mauritius. From that time onwards, the Colonial State embarked on a programme of reforms which were slowly implemented for the rest of the colonial period – trade unions, agricultural bank, minimum wage, educational, health and constitutional reforms. All these reforms were intended to save capitalism and recreate the conditions for capital accumulation – since, left to themselves, a primitive capitalist class had little to offer except repression which would have been fatal to the State and the colonial order.
If it is true that many of these reforms had been asked by the petty bourgeois and middle class intellectuals in the Labour Party, this does not mean that they would have been implemented. Middle class protest, petitioning and peaceful marches and the mendicant mentality which characterized them were looked down with contempt by British governors and ignored by the authorities and the planters. It needed the action of some labourers to jolt the Colonial State into action, and the labour unrest of 1937 not only threatened the capitalist class but also the Colonial State. The latter, with its long history of containing labour unrest in Britain, responded to the local unrest by saving itself first before saving the capitalist order.
There were two strands in the agrarian unrest. There were a small planters’ protest which was peaceful and focused on the low price of Uba canes and a workers’ protest regarding wages. The two overlapped because very often small planters also worked as labourers but it was the labourers’ protest — the march on the Union Factory which was the decisive event for not only it crystallized local grievances in the district of Flacq but it also unleashed an island-wide unrest which threatened to engulf the whole of the whole island into turmoil. An idea of the upheaval may be gauged from the fact that whereas the February 1999 riots lasted about a week, the labour unrest lasted about a month.
What happened in 1937 had been variously interpreted by historians, some seeing in the unrest the result of the activities of the Labour Party and its meetings, the aftermath of the Centenary Celebration of the arrival of the Indian immigrants. While these events created a new awareness among the population, there is as yet no evidence of any direct link between either the Labour Party or the Centenary Celebration with the unrest of 1937. Labour leaders or Indian intellectuals came from the middle class and were too law-abiding to risk confrontation with planters and the Colonial State. What they wanted at most was a niche in the Colonial State either as civil servants or members in the Council to represent themselves or the workers.
There is evidence, however, that a few agents of the Labour Party on their own initiative and without any directives from the Labour Party were encouraging workers on some estates to go on strike but nothing more. Even Pandit Ramnarain in an interview admitted that he was working on the idea of organising a strike after learning about the occurrence of strikes in other colonies, but the unrest had already erupted before he could organize something of the sort. One can always argue that the Labour leaders stirred the workers while keeping away from them and covering up the traces of any connection, but there is no evidence to back up this view and this assumption must be discarded until new evidence is brought to light.
In the absence of any direct link between the Labour Party and the workers’ unrest, other historians have concluded that the unrest of 1937 were spontaneous. Since the petty bourgeoisie and middle class had no direct role in the strike, some historians do not want to credit workers with the capability to organise and to respond to injustice and exploitation. This is in fact what a few hundreds of labourers did in the month of August 1937. When they learnt that the proprietors of Union Estate had not acceded to their request for an increase in wages, they decided to march and protest directly to the planters. It was not spontaneous. There was planning, organisation and an objective. On 12th March, the police were aware that they would march the next day and had informed the proprietors of Union Factory to take necessary precautions to protect themselves. As a result, the proprietors and the employees armed themselves. A detachment of the police was stationed at St Pierre.
On the eve, labourers had overturned trucks loaded with canes at Bel Etang, uprooted tramway lines and cut telephone lines and burned 100 acres of sugarcane fields and cut wires. On the day of the march, Sergeant Marie was despatched to a village at 5 am to report anything unusual happening there, but the solidarity of the villagers and the strategy they deployed ensured that the police discovered little. On 14th August, the Chief Overseer received information that the workers had assembled at L’Unité, and police inspection found absolutely nothing of the sort. That was a ploy to divert the attention of the police. While the police were at L’Unité, the workers took the direction of Union armed with sticks and canes and were joined by 300 to 400 more labourers.
The police tried to stop them; they remained defiant and continued their march. At a distance of about thirty feet from the factory yard, the labourers picked some boulders and timbers and blocked the road to stop lorries coming across. At Union, the police stopped them; they stopped for some time and refused to parley with employees of the estate. Thereafter, they resumed their march to the cry of “Jai Hind” and “Mar Sala”. Indian nationalism and Gandhi’s mass movement had its echoes in Mauritius amongst the labourers. As they approached the factory, the owners and employees were seized with panic and shot at the workers.
Three labourers got killed and a number were wounded. The victims of the capitalists and their employees were Sookdeo Gobin, Dawood Lallmahomed and Anadoh Gowree who died of shock and hemorrhage due to bullet wounds at the sacrum and legs. The wounded were Mamode Aniff Ramjan who bore a bullet through his right shoulder with perforation of lung. Arjoon Narain, Abdool Azize Jeanath, Brizlall Beeharry bore some injuries with sticks and stones. Sookdeo Koonjbeeharry bore two wounds at the left leg. Pyandee Veerin bore two lacerated wounds at left calf and ankle, Lutchmun Sungkur on his right shoulder. Others were wounded with minor injuries.
The capitalist order
In spite of the social structure which was marked by vertical solidarities and the network of clientelism and ethnicity that characterized rural society, what we had there was a class war between workers and planters if we go by E.P. Thomson definition of class in his famous book ‘The Making of the English Working Class’: “Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves and as against other men whose interests are different (and usually opposed to theirs).”
That was what was taking place in 1937 when labourers coming from contiguous localities of Bon Accueil, St Julien, Camp Thorel and Lallmatie where localism and Indian ethnicity played its role, decided to act against their class enemies. It was that decisive action which prompted other workers to come out in open protest in various parts of the island. At some point in time, the Colonial State was thinking of calling British troops to restore order. What that event tells us is that the Colonial State with all the might of the British Empire, its propaganda machine, its police and its troops could not overcome a group of determined labourers, with the result that the Colonial State was found tottering in the month of August 1937.
The Hooper Commission was set up and made recommendations which ushered a new era in the history of Mauritius, a period of reforms which no doubt consolidated the capitalist order and the Colonial State. New institutions were set up to co-opt the middle class and the petty bourgeoisie and shackle the labourers through that capitalist institution called the trade union. Even these few concessions would not have been granted to successive generations of the middle class had it not been for the strike of 1937. The labourers died in their conscious efforts to fight injustice not realizing perhaps that they were making history but we are in a better position to grasp the significance of their action for the sake of later generations. Just as in Europe, the 1848 was the year of revolutions which marked the end of the Ancient Regime, 1937 formed part of the decade of protests and unrest which swept across the European empires and forced the latter empires to start the process of decolonisation.
* Published in print edition on 31 August 2018