The Long March

Other Mauritians have written about Mauritian freedom fighter Louis Van Mauritius, yet it was left to the South Africans to give him his right place in history

By Dr Rajagopal Soondron

During the last two days of our visit to South Africa we had the opportunity to visit the Maropeng Museum (about 60 minutes’ drive from Pretoria) of life-like bronze statues of those who contributed to the Long March to Freedom. None of us were prepared to see the hundreds of statues in this lost corner of the savannah of SA; we were taken by surprise and amazement as our car approached our destination to the Maropeng museum. In the sun, breeze and the cool winter morning we hurried to see those 100 figures depicting the freedom fighters who ultimately liberated a nation from despotism and inhuman discrimination.

We trotted here and there in the dust of Africa as if willing to absorb the lessons of four centuries of struggles all in one go; history is suddenly revealed to us in such a novel, surprising, interesting and captivating manner. We inevitably felt that we have become part of that historical drama; we videoed our own restless spirit as our mobile camera moved haphazardly from hero to hero, from statue to statue. Where to start our investigation? Finally, we went to the back of the procession where the statues are arranged in rows of three; we came to know of those centuries-old kings and chieftains who with their spears and skin dresses put a valiant defense against foreign people willing to subjugate them. Some were even on their horses, with their primitive weapons, a proud people who had decided that they would fight to death to protect their native land and their belongings.

But the surprise came when my friend Madhukar called me to do a U-turn back to him; I was not at ease to interrupt my own trend of thoughts and amazement; after all what more could he tell me. But soon I was to realize my misplaced reaction. Having mentioned that he was from Mauritius, his female guide was happy and eager to reveal to him that there was a Mauritian hero in that Long March to Freedom!!!

Louis Van Mauritius

That was how we came to see and hear about Louis Van Mauritius (LVM); his statue was among the first freedom fighters, hence almost at the back of the historical procession. He had in his own way contributed to the freedom movement in South Africa.

In fact, we came to learn that he was a Mauritian-born slave in 1778 and, at the age of 3, he left Mauritius. And as the ship he was on came to the Cape, he was sold to a German couple Kitsner. No one can say whether he was with his parents. He got used to the cruelty that slavery was but his masters allowed him to join school as he grew up on the farm.

When the masters of his estate got divorced, Louis was to become the property of the mistress Grove and the latter hired Louis to various other masters so as to get some revenue back. As he became older, Louis was even married to a free slave woman, Anna, under which regime the wife had to go on paying the mistress for using her slave as her husband! And his brother-in-law had a wine tavern on the waterfront of the Cape. Louis, now working as a tailor, got all the news from passing sailors and his two Irish friends Kelly and Hooper about the freedom fighters and revolts in other places; how slavery was abolished in the UK as from 1806, how Toussaint L’Ouverture sent his army into battle, how the Irish rose against their British occupiers.

That was how, by the time of the Napoleonic wars, the news of revolt in other places — Ireland, France and Haiti –, reached him and stirred him to rebel against the oppressors for freedom. He set himself at the head of more than 300 other slaves and donned a Spanish sailor uniform, which to historians, was an exact replica of the uniform of Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti who had led the revolt against the French colonialists. In such disguise he convinced many white farmers that he was sent officially by the Cape government along with his two white Irish companions, passing them off as two British officers, convincing them to give up their Khoena servants and slave for the “military” cause of the province.

It is said that he got his makeshift uniform and more artillery and arms on the battlefield of Blaauwberg some two years previously during the war between the French/Dutch alliance and English troops from the Cape.

However, as LVM built his little army of rebels to claim freedom and went through some 30 farmlands to liberate the slaves, news reached the Cape Governor Lord Caledon’s ear, who set up a contingent of the army – the Dragoons — to go after the rebels. And at Salt River, on 27th Oct 1808, the confrontation lasted for 36 hours as LVM troops were outnumbered, defeated and captured; 51 prisoners including LVM were put on trial. Out of the five leaders, four were to be hanged: Louis, Hooper, Jephta of Batavia and Adonis of Ceylon. He managed to escape from prison but a bounty hunter captured him again and he was later hanged. That was in 1808. He was the first black man to have led an organized army against the colonizers.

Many of the slaves who had temporarily hoped to have had a leader to lead them out of slavery were disillusioned by that setback. They had to wait until1833 to know what the official end of slavery could mean.

In 2008 the City of Cape Town commissioned an art work to commemorate the 200th anniversary of that rebellion – also known as the Jij Rebellion; this is on display at the Church Square near the old Slave Lodge. Simon’s city, south of Cape Town, has also paid homage to that hero.

Other Mauritians have written about this Mauritian freedom fighter, yet it was left to the South Africans to give him his right place in history.

The Iconic Heroes

That unique experience of seeing a hundred statues of people who had participated in their own way to fight the enemies coming to monopolize their land is memorable. Our visit to Maropeng had become a pilgrimage to celebrate those heroes.

The South African authorities who contributed to that exposition did not leave any stone unturned to do justice to their struggle. My friend Madhu had a talk with the son of Oliver Tambo who was there on site. Later we would learn that the son, weeping on the tomb of his illustrious father, promised to have a statue erected in his memory. But it seemed that he had a dream in which his father told him that that would be an injustice. His job was to celebrate all those who had participated in the struggle for freedom. Hence Tambo Junior went out to spearhead that illustrious exhibition.

All those who paid with their lives and struggle to preserve their land were included in that parade and march. And the South African authorities went further than that – they did not forget those foreigners who had fought the colonialists in their own land, or who had contributed in their own way to dismantle apartheid. That’s how the statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro are all included in that restricted club, the latter just behind Mandela’s.

There were people of Indian descent like the one of Mrs Moosa and of a white Bishop who all fought for the oppressed against the unacceptable regime that the white Afrikaners fostered.

And in the front row of that Long March were the three most illustrious contemporaries. On the left was Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela in the middle and Oliver Tambo on the right. Each was accompanied by his wife, for the latter was no less involved in the struggle for freedom. In the dust and sun of the savannah, that exhibition assumed a greater significance as it had been shifted from Pretoria to just about 200 meters away from that magnificent universal exhibition – The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site — dedicated to the evolution of our universe, our species Homo Sapiens, and life on our planet.

That visit to Maropeng was the culmination of one’s vacation – the icing on the cake.

* Published in print edition on 21 June 2019

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