Sir John Pope Hennessy and Constitutional Reforms

Governor Pope Hennessy’s decision to support the majority pushed us forward on our march towards responsibility in the management of our own affairs

MT 60 Years Ago – 3rd Year – No 93 – Friday 18th May 1956

Glimpses of Mauritian History

Lois Raoul, William Newton and Virgil Naz are naturally the names that we remember when we think of the Constitutional Reform of 1885. It is true that these men, among others, as active members of the Comité de Vigilance by their vigorous articles and by public meetings prepared public opinion in favour of reform. But there is one man to whom, more than to anybody else, we owe the Reforms of 1885 which brought for the first time elected members in our Legislative Council — that man was Governor Sir John Pope Hennessy.

In spite of all their efforts, the Reformists had almost given up their attempt at reform as a sad failure. Napier Broome was opposed to their ways of thinking. He could not bring himself to understand their point of view. In the words of the Comité de Vigilance: “Peu sympathique aux créoles de Maurice vers lesquels il se sentait lui-même médiocrement attiré, n’ayant que peu de contact avec la Société Mauricienne qui se tenait volontiers éloignée de lui, M. Napier Broome n’était pas dans une situation qui lui permit de la juger sainement: il la voyait à distance et comme dans un miroir déformé et obscurci.” As was to be expected no support was to come from such a Governor for the cause of reform. On the contrary Napier Broome, basing his opinions on those of Sir Celicourt Antelme, severely condemned the demands for reform. He succeeded so far as to make the Secretary of State refuse to grant any reform of the Council.

Then came Governor John Pope Hennessy who was a different type of men. One distinguishing trait of his character was his open sympathy for the oppressed class. He condemned the Old Council especially for it having passed laws which weighed down heavily on the Indians. He abrogated some of these oppressive laws for which he won among a certain section of the population the reputation of a certain Indophobie to be the mainspring of his action. However, concerned as we are with constitutional reform, let us deal only with what he did in this sphere. He was one of those rare governors of Mauritius who had at heart the interests of the colony, and if he had any leanings these were in favour of the oppressed. Imbued with a high sense of duty and integrity, he did not during his tenure of office allow himself to be swayed by the nefarious influence of the clique which held the monopoly of economic and political power. He did not as many of his predecessors had done, make an abuse of the powers conferred on governors by the Royal Instructions of July 1831 which defined the powers and limitations of the Legislative Council.

Sir John Pope Hennessy took over the reins of government at a crucial moment in Mauritian history. The Reformists after vigorous but vain efforts to obtain a reform of the Constitution were crestfallen at their failure. But soon their hopes were revived. The newly appointed governor openly showed his sympathy for the Reformers. In one of his first public speeches, at a prize distribution at the Royal College, he said among other things that Mauritius by right should belong to Mauritians. Throughout his tenure of office he was true to this ideal. The Reformists were certain of his support.

In his despatch to Lord Derby, dated 31st December 1883, he reported that all the members present had voted for the introduction of the elective element and that “the only members who spoke against giving the inhabitants of Mauritius some direct voice in the management of their own affairs, were members of Council born in Great Britain, and who have probably not the same family ties or permanent interest in the prosperity of the colony as the others”. It can be said with truth that Governor Pope Hennessy threw the whole weight of his power and prestige on the side of the Reformists in the contest on this important question. He was of opinion that the Old Council had outlived its use and that the elective element should be introduced. He brought the Secretary of State round to these opinions which he held were “entertained by the overwhelming majority of intelligent and responsible Mauritians.”

Finally Lord Derby, the then Secretary of State, acceded to a large measure to the demands of the Reformists which were also the demands of the Governor himself. Lord Derby’s despatch was laid on the Council table for the approval of the members. It was then that the Governor showed his tactfulness as well as his advanced views on Government. In his opening speech he lengthily quoted one of his predecessors, Sir William Stevenson, who had expressed the wish that Mauritians should be brought to appreciate “liberal institutions and popular power for the purposes of government and legislation”. One point to note is that his views were also those of the majority of Mauritians and he could recommend Lord Derby’s scheme as one which answered to the hopes of the people.

When Lois Raoul, president of the Reform Committee, thanked the Governor for his wholehearted support, he did not only use a form of words common to such occasions but was voicing the feelings not only of the majority of the people but also of future generations. He said: “Here are two names which we will never forget, the name of the liberal Secretary of State who has listened to our just and legitimate demand and advised Her Majesty to accede to it, and the name of the high-minded and good governor, of the warm friend by whom we have been so powerfully supported.”

In the course of the debate, Celicourt Antelme as usual expressed his fears of Indian domination. The governor was not moved by his opinions. He refuted them ably. He concluded by saying that he had a wide experience of the characteristics of Indians in this Colony as well as in other colonies where he had served as Governor but that he had found nothing which could justify fears of their domination. It is to the credit of the liberal-minded governor that, by his able support of the Reformists, he fulfilled the wishes of the people for the reform of the Constitution. He could feel the pulse of the country and true to the principles of democracy he did not allow the just demands of the majority to be trampled underfoot in a blind attempt to protect the monopoly of a privileged minority.

A governor’s decision at a critical moment may be productive of good or of evil or a mixture of both. Governor Pope Hennessy’s decision to support the majority pushed us forward on our march towards responsibility in the management of our own affairs.


* Published in print edition on 19 January 2018

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