Commemorating Labour Day
By Satyendra Peerthum
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first ever celebration of Labour Day in Mauritius; it also coincides with the emergence of the Mauritian labour movement and the Labour Party in the late 1930s. This process took place under the leadership of such important Labour Party leaders as Dr Jules Maurice Curé, Emmanuel Anquetil, and Guy Rozemont. However, it was Dr Curé who played a central role in the creation and emergence of the early Mauritian Labour Party or a workers’ party between 1936 and 1941.
The Birth of a Workers’ Party
In January 1936, Dr Curé lost his seat in the elections for the Legislative Council in the Plaines Wilhems district to Pierre Hugnin, a well-known conservative. Shortly after his defeat, he launched a crusade which would forever alter the course of Mauritian history. On 23 February 1936, Curé was joined by many important personalities such as Willy Moutou, Dr H. Jeetoo, Barthélemy Ohsan, S. Barbé, G. Moutia, H. Assenjee, V. Labour, Pandit Sahadeo, etc., in creating a new party which was dedicated to the fight for the rights of Mauritian workers. In addition, the founding of the Labour Party officially marked a new phase in the long and arduous struggle of the labour movement in the island.
On the 2 May 1936 Dr Maurice Curé, as the new party president, along with his close associates, organized a mass meeting in Champ de Mars where a reform of the outdated Constitution of 1885 was demanded in order for the island’s workers to have an official representative on the Legislative Council.
A petition to that effect was signed by more than 17,000 individuals and 90% of the signatories were ordinary workers. It was addressed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies and eventually forwarded to him. It was the most important petition since the one written by Adolphe de Plevitz on behalf of the Indian labourers in 1870. The petition of de Plevitz contained the signatures of 9,401 Indian immigrants, and it was sent to Governor Gordon who eventually transmitted it to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London.
The Education of the Masses
Between May 1936 and August 1937, Dr Maurice Curé and his close associates held 55 meetings throughout the island. On average, between 500 and 600 Indian and Creole workers attended these public meetings. Thus, it can be estimated that a total of between 27,000 and 33,500 Mauritian workers attended these public rallies.
Gradually, Curé and his political associates were making the labourers and workers aware of various issues which concerned them, such as the need for a minimum wage, better housing and medical treatment as well as hospitals, old-age pension, constitutional reform, and for trade unions. Dr Maurice Curé, Emmanuel Anquetil and Pandit Sahadeo were able to capture the hearts and minds of the Mauritian working class and fire their imagination with their speeches and message.
One of the major reasons why Dr Cure and his close collaborators were able to obtain a large and loyal group of followers from within the Mauritian working class was because they spoke to the ordinary Mauritian worker in his or her own language. After all, at their meetings, they communicated in Creole with the Creole workers, who lived mostly in the urban areas, and in Bhojpuri and other Indian languages with the Indian workers who resided mostly in the rural districts.
Even during this intense mobilisation campaign of the island’s workers, British Mauritius was about to enter a period of great social upheaval with the terrible impoverishment of the working class, the continued resistance of the colonial officials and sugar barons to political and social reforms, and the drop in wages and in standard of living. It was precisely these difficult social and economic conditions which contributed to the labour strikes and unrests of August 1937, September 1938, and September 1943. These are the landmark dates in the history of our country’s labour movement which are commemorated on each Labour Day.
* Published in print edition on 27 April 2013