The British policy of governing the empire followed strictly what they considered to be the ordering of their own society at home.
As David Cannadine reminds us, race as much as class self-consciously informed imperial governance. Whether in Asia or in Africa and even in the European colonies, British Governors dealt with the elite of whatever race they found for negotiating power, doing business and for administration. They not only worked with present collaborators but also sought to infuse a sense of Britishness in their collaborators – both present and future.
It is in this perspective that we may view the creation of the Royal College and its significance in the shaping of Mauritius. One of the instruments used by the first British Governor Robert Farquhar to shape the elite and attach it to British rule was the Royal College. On the whole, in spite of intermittent crises which often punctuated British administration of the island, one can venture to say that the Royal College admirably fulfilled its function in instilling British values of constitutionalism, equality before the law, pluralism and a strong dose of pragmatism which eschews all kinds of dogmatism. At the individual level, students who went through the Royal College were inducted into an English public and grammar school education which opened the gates to the best of English education in the Metropolis, thus building a symbiotic relationship with the periphery during colonial times and after.
The transformation of the Lycée Colonial into the Royal College initially followed the spirit of the Capitulation Treaty of 1810; there was no great change in the Royal College curriculum or even in the staffing of the College except that a limited number of government students were assured of a seat at the College. But the important change was the institution of the English Scholarship which enabled the best students to pursue higher studies abroad and preferably in British universities. It was only much later – in the 1840s – that English professors were brought in to teach at the Royal College and the curriculum slowly altered to adhere strictly to the curriculum of the British public schools with English as the medium of instruction.
The Rectors, English staff, the curriculum together with English as a compulsory language were to shape the ever expanding intellectual elite of the country over the years. The civil service recruited mostly students from the Royal College and many of the students who won the English Scholarship very often went to study at Oxford and Cambridge, and the British universities have remained the preferred option for the majority of our students up to now. First, it was the Franco-Mauritian elite, then the Coloured followed later by Indians who constituted the ever widening and open elite of Mauritius educated at the Royal College with British values.
In spite of persistent segregation in the College yard, the liberal education imparted to students was sufficiently suffused with certain core values to facilitate collaboration with the British and among themselves to build a stable Mauritian society. After the 1860s, the influence of the Royal College curriculum took deeper roots in the Mauritian soil as many private schools were turned into associated schools of the Royal College on which they modelled their curriculum, and their students sat for the Matriculation examinations of the University of London. In fact the first BA External Examination of the University of London outside UK was held at the Royal College in 1865.The painting which showed students sitting for the examination which used to be in school library had disappeared during the renovation of the college in 2003. However the influence of the Royal College education did not disappear with time and has since remained pervasive with its informal curriculum of prefects, uniforms, prize giving, assemblies, sports and games.
A few of the great names which come to our mind in the late 20th century are Dr Maurice Cure, the founder of the Mauritius Labour Party, Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the first Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Gaetan Duval, Sir Andre Nairac, Sir Raman Osman, Sir Andre Raffray and Malcolm De Chazal. There are numerous others who had served Mauritius with dedication and competence or who had gone abroad and made valuable contributions in their respective fields.
Regarding Gaetan Duval, one version from K. Banymandhub described him during his college days as an anonymous student who spent all his time in the school library reading all the novels of Sir Walter Scott while developing a fascination for horses and races. Another version which came from one of the Chief caretakers of the Royal College, published in a local newspaper some years back, painted him as the greatest troublemaker which the College had known, together with Madan Gujadhur. These two versions can be easily reconciled given the many qualities of Gaetan Duval and the different perspectives of the observers. However the Rector who wrote the Leaving Certificate of Gaetan Duval found in him an outstanding student and accurately predicted that he was destined for a brilliant career.
Another student who won the admiration of his tutor at Oxford was Andre Nairac. He won the English Scholarship, read classics and philosophy at Oxford and completed his law degree in six months. When Sir Charles Morris, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds visited Mauritius for the establishment of a university in Mauritius, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo recalled that Sir Charles Morris was looking for Nairac whom he described as the most brilliant student he had taught at Oxford.
There is no doubt that students not only benefited from the best curriculum in the island but also had some outstanding rectors and teachers. Many of the teachers had graduated from Oxford and Cambridge and many students in turn, after completing their studies in prestigious British universities, returned to teach at the Royal College, thus perpetuating the Royal College education over several generations.
Charles Bruce, Professor of Sanskrit at King’s College, was at one time Rector of the Royal College before becoming Colonial Secretary. Students in the 1960s and 1970s recall with admiration such outstanding teachers as George Espitalier Noel, Daniel Koenig, Robert d’Unienville and others who inevitably had left a profound impression on then. Many of the professionals in both government and the private sector look back with pride and admiration at their teachers and everyone of them can trace a particular success in their professional life to one or other of their teachers. Many of the laureates had the inclination to pursue a career in law. This would greatly strengthen our judiciary and its independence as well as the Mauritian Bar, for our lawyers not only set a high standard for themselves but also followed the code of professional etiquette of the High Court in England.
It was in the realm of politics and economic development that the Old Royals would play a decisive role in the development of Mauritius. Whatever be the arrogance of the White oligarchy and its racial and class prejudices, or other prejudices on the part of Coloured people and Indians, Royal College education provided adequate commonalities among its students so that they could in later life collaborate and deal creatively with the complex issues of Mauritian political, economic and social development. Amidst the debates and discussions, the concessions, albeit grudgingly made to find solutions to facilitate the development of the country rest one of the most important contributions of the old Royals.
Like so often in history, the British created an institution for their own ends to rule an alien society, but the institution was eventually subverted by the local people for their own national interests. This is what seems to have happened to the Royal College of Mauritius throughout its brilliant history.
* Published in print edition on 16 January 2014