Glimpses of Mauritian History
Mauritius Times 3rd Year No 87 – Friday 6th April 1956
Il n’est pas raisonnable, pourtant d’imaginer que les Indiens, qui s’instruisent, s’éclairent, s’enrichissent tout les jours davantage, se résigneront indéfiniment à jouer un rôle passif.
— A. de Boucherville
Not very long ago a universal clamour uprose among the estate owners at the prospect of putting an end to Indian Immigration, the only alternative to inevitable ruin for lack of hands to labour in the fields. Today the position is reversed. The nightmare of an Indian majority robbing them of their rights haunts the lords of yesterday. The sheer force of numbers of the Indo-Mauritians is an object of terror to many, not to speak of their advancement in the economic and intellectual fields. Staggered by their political awakening, many wish that the Indians had not set their feet in this island. They forget what has so forcefully been expressed in the words of Governor Sir Charles Bruce: “In appreciating the policy of protecting Asiatic immigration, it must constantly be borne in mind that in view of the refusal of the African population to carry on the elementary labours of agriculture on the estates, there was practically no alternative but the abandonment of the island.”
Even at a time when the Indians kept aloof from politics or rather when they had not yet attained the intellectual level to appreciate its value, the constant increase of their number filled many people with misgivings on their account. As early as the eighteen-eighties when constitutional reform was the burning question of the day, the anti-reformists headed by their veteran Celicourt Antelme brought forward as one of their reasons for opposing the introduction of the elective principle the presence of the Indians who would swamp the Mauritians. Antelme, in the course of his speech in the Council of Government on the debate on Lord Derby’s despatch relative to constitutional reform, said that in 1840 when there was question of having an elective system of representation. He spoke of the necessity of an union with the coloured people but his friends laughed at his idea as fantastic.
Then, “one morning a rumour circulated in the colony that the Sentinelle had been founded, and from that moment a most intelligent, most able and most progressive population took its rank by our side, and we see what it has since become as soon as the Indians get their papers and become barristers, and so on, they will be very different from that of the class I have just alluded to”.
Antelme’s favourite theme, “the Asiatic spectre” was taken up by William Newton, who reminded the Anti-reformist that taking for granted that the Indians were becoming stronger and stronger everyday their progress would not be impeded or stopped simply because the Constitution would remain the same. William Newton warned his colleagues that it was not by “maintaining a despotic form of government, in which the Mauritians have no real power, nor by any artificial legislation” that the Asiatics could be kept in check.
Continuing on his speech he said: “If the Indian population gets into the same powerful position which that important section of the Creole community to which my honourable friend alluded, attained at a certain moment, how will it be possible to prevent them from claiming and obtaining their share — and a share commensurate with their numerical and social influence – of power and representation in the Legislature of this colony.” Here was sensible reasoning.
Again, at the turn of the century, fears of the Indian peril were expressed. Henri Leclezio and Roger Pezzani qualified the Indians in particularly harsh terms in their articles in the Mauritius Illustrated. Anatole de Boucherville, a leader of the Action Libérale, in his booklet ‘Pour l’Autonomie’, refuted one by one all the arguments of the die-hards. In what concerned the Indians, he spoke in the same strain as his illustrious predecessor Sir William Newton. Boucherville also was of opinion that it was not by creating artificial barriers and by preventing the Indians from having their share of power that the Indian problem could be solved. He struck a note of warning to the anti-reformists: “si votre politique anti-libérale, anti autonomique arrive à prévaloir, le péril asiatique ne tardera pas à devenir une réalité”. He asked his countrymen to tender a friendly hand to the Indians who were too intelligent not to realise what they were to gain by walking hand in hand with the other communities of the island.
In 1919 Paul Carrie, while delivering a lecture at the Geographical Society, again referred to the Indian peril: “Il me faut cependant se dissimuler le péril que crée la présence dans l’île d’une population active, énergique de race, de mœurs et de langue étrangère qui possède le nombre et dont la force s’accroit mathématiquement par la dépossession des terres appartenant aux autres éléments. Une erreur, on pourrait dire une faute énorme a été commise par trop de propriétaires qui ont vendu à très haut prix, dans un but de lucre immédiat leurs biens aux Indiens.”
Governor Pope Hennessy had said in 1885 that the Mauritians should not be harassed by fear of domination by the Asiatics as the Indian was not by temperament interested in politics. The truth of his saying is apparent when we realise that in 1885 the elective principle was introduced in the Council and it was only in 1926 that for the first time two Indians Messrs Lallah and Gujadhur were elected. The success of these two Indians intensified the fears of the Indian peril. How often in recent times fears of Indian domination have been shown, we shall refrain from dwelling upon. Fate, allied with time, often plays strange tricks. The mongoose, for example, imported in our island to destroy the rats, began to show a special relish for fat chickens. The coolie brought to slave in the cane field began to dream of power and politics. This is his right. He has had a fair contribution in the prosperity of the island and it is too just that he should claim his share of power.
* Published in print edition on 13 October 2017