The History of the Mauritian Labour Movement
It was largely thanks to the efforts of Dr Maurice Curé, Emmanuel Anquetil, Pandit Sahadeo and other members of the Labour Party that Labour Day was celebrated in Mauritius for the first time on May 1, 1938. This first Labour Day celebration took place at the Champ-de-Mars and was attended by 35 000 people. According to a local newspaper of the period, the last time that so many Mauritians had gathered in Port Louis for such a large political rally was in the days of Dr Eugène Laurent and his Action Libérale during the early twentieth century.
It was the first time, in the unique history of our great country, that Mauritian workers came together to celebrate Labour Day and to show the island’s colonial authority and elite that the Mauritian working class formed part of a popular movement. Furthermore, again for the first time in our island’s history, the Mauritian workers were also expressing their unwavering support for, and solidarity with, the common struggle of the workers of the world.
Labour Day as a public holiday
On the first of May 1939, at another public rally in Port-Louis, Dr Maurice Curé, founder and president of the Labour Party, spoke in Creole and in the name of the Mauritian working class, and demanded that the colonial authorities decree the first of May a public holiday. On that particular day, in the Champ-de- Mars, over 15 000 Mauritian workers gathered to celebrate Labour Day.
However, it was only in April 1949, several months after the historic first general elections of 1948, that Guy Rozemont, leader of the Labour Party and elected member of the Legislative Assembly, actively pushed for the first of May to be declared a public holiday. With the consent of the other members of the Legislative Assembly and of Governor Sir Hillary Blood, Rozemont was able to pass a motion to that effect without opposition. On the first of May 1950, Labour Day was celebrated for the first time as an official public holiday in the British colony of Mauritius.
During the early 1950s, the first of May became even more popular than ever. At the May Day celebrations in 1952, around 50 000 Mauritian workers gathered in Port Louis. This was the largest public gathering until then in the island’s history. It was only fitting that two days earlier, Guy Rozemont eloquently wrote in Advance, the official newspaper of the Labour Party: “Ce congé, qui représente un jour de paie sans avoir à travailler pour les travailleurs sans distinction de race ou de religion, a été obtenu après plusieurs années de lutte.”
It became evident to many that, after the long and arduous years of struggle during the late 1930s and 1940s, the Mauritian working class was finally being given the proper recognition it deserved. During this crucial and turbulent period in the history of the Mauritian working class, one of the key figures was Dr Maurice Curé, leader of the Labour Party between 1936 and 1941. In fact, the late 1930s and early 1940s may be described as the “glorious years” of the Labour Party as a mass movement representing the Mauritian working class.
Dr Curé and the Labour Party
On 20th February 1936, in an article in Le Mauricien entitled ‘Manifeste pour un parti travalliste’, Dr Maurice Curé explained that there was an urgent need for Mauritian workers to form a labour party. He eloquently explained: “Seul un Parti travailliste bien organisé, s’appuyant sur le nombre, ayant des intérêts communs bien nets, peut s’opposer au parti capitaliste et obtenir de lui le respect de leurs droits.” He went on to mention that the Mauritian working class would need to militate to have the British Governor appoint a nominee to the Council of Government to represent the workers of the island and their grievances.
Three days later, on 23rd February, the Mauritian working class answered Dr Curé’s call, as more than 8 000 workers and some members of the island’s petite bourgeoisie gathered at the Champ-de-Mars. At this first mass gathering of the Mauritian working class in the annals of the island’s history, the Mauritian Labour Party was created. The 23rd of February 1936 is a landmark in our history because it marks the entry of the Mauritian working class in active Mauritian politics.
On that historic day, Dr Maurice Curé was elected president of this new political party with the unanimous approval of the workers. For the first time in Mauritian history, “through direct democracy”, a person was chosen as leader of a workers’ party. Truly, this was a unique and special communion between a leader of the Mauritian working class movement and the workers he served. Dr Maurice Curé was the first elected official to speak on behalf of the island’s working class before the Legislative Council. Furthermore, he was the key figure who organized and led a party created for the Mauritian workers and he actively fought for their rights and the betterment of their daily life. Thus, it is evident that he was an important maker of Mauritian history and one of the founders of modern Mauritius.
The history of Labour Day in modern world history
Ever since the 1800s, in the United Kingdom, there has been a long tradition of celebrating Labour Day on the first of May. In May 1832, there was a large gathering of labour unions on New Hall Hill, Birmingham, in England, under the leadership of Thomas Attwood. In 1883, Robert Owen, a British millionaire and famous socialist, declared that the first of May should be decreed a special day for workers in Great Britain and in other countries around the world.
Barely six years later in Paris, at the First Congress of the Second International Socialist Worker, a large gathering of labour organizations from all over Europe and the United States chose the first of May as a special day to commemorate and celebrate the workers they represented. Ever since then, the first of May became known as Labour Day or May Day and as an annual occasion when workers of the world expressed their international class solidarity. The first of May also became inextricably linked with the international struggle of the working class for better pay and working conditions, and for basic rights for workers such as the rights to form labour unions and to vote.
In 1890, the first official Labour Day celebration took place in the United Kingdom in the form of a march which was attended by thousands of British workers. It was also attended by Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl Marx) and her husband Aveling, John Burns, Bernard Shaw, Hyndman, Paul Lafargue, and Cunningham Graham. During the 1890s and early 1900s, these individuals were major international figures in the various European working class movements.
Federick Engels, the life-long friend and dearest collaborator of Karl Marx, witnessed this march and declared that “the grandest and most important part of the whole May Day festival” was that the British working class had “once again entered the movement of its class”. As the nineteenth century came to an end and as the twentieth century progressed, it was only a matter of time, in British colonies like Mauritius, for the working classes to begin to emerge and agitate for their rights, like their brethren in Great Britain, Europe, and North America.
* Published in print edition on 1 May 2015