Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By Somduth Bhuckory
Today when the population of the world is increasing at an alarming rate the ghost of Malthus once more haunts us with the fear of a world population outstripping by far the production of food. True it is that his warning that disease, war and famine would keep a check on the excess of population did not realise in Europe and America, yet in several Afro-Asian countries, earthquake, flood, disease and famine have, to some extent, maintained the balance. It was Malthus who predicted the danger of unemployment due to mechanisation of labour.
This is particularly true of this colony which is faced with an acute demographic problem although the problem is not a new one. It has existed since the beginning of this century. For a period of prosperity, however, the problem was temporarily pigeonholed. On the basis of 1901 Census, the density of the population was 526 to the sq mile and Mauritius was considered to be a very densely populated colony at that time.
* * *
Let us look at some figures and go back into history so as to ascertain how our demographic problem has affected us.
There is no reliable record of what was the population of Mauritius when the French took possession of the colony in 1721. But we have the record for 1767 which tells us that it was 18,777. In 1830 it reached 96,945.
Then took place one of the most important events in the history of the colony which considerably affected its demographic and economic structure. In 1828 slavery was abolished. The freed slaves refused to work on the soil which reminded them of their cruel days. So, in 1834 Indian immigration started. The influx was steady for three quarters of a century and stopped ultimately in 1910.
A substantial part of the Indian immigrants after the end of their contract did not return to their country. They made Mauritius their home and worked for its prosperity. The Indian population which in 1846 was 56,245 rose to 335, 327 in 1952.
* * *
The rapid growth of our population during the last ten years is due to two main factors: the successful malaria eradication campaign which was started in 1947 and the post-war prosperity of the colony. The natural increase in the population in 1955 was 15,882 which is more than five and a half times the corresponding five-year pre-war (1935-39) average which was 2,670. The total natural growth has exceeded the whole population since 1946 by 114, 580 souls.
With this trend of growth, the forecast of the Central Statistical Office is that by 1972 the population of this colony will reach the vertiginous figure of 916,760 souls. Last year the average density of the population of the island was 778 to the sq. mile. It is interesting to compare it with 15 to 18 to the sq. mile in Northern Africa and Central America; or with agricultural colonies similar to Mauritius as Jamaica where it is 324 per sq mile or with Trinidad where it is 328 to the sq mile.
* * *
In theory the income of the colony in 1954 was Rs 506 per capita, but as in most colonial territories the unequal distribution of the wealth of the nation is most keenly felt here.
Only a few dozen families control the whole wealth producing mechanism of the island. They are the proprietors of the docks, the only Mauritian bank, sugar mills; furthermore, they are the biggest importers and exporters and agents. Their policy of centralization of sugar mills and mechanization of labour and the use of insecticides to destroy weeds are throwing thousands of labourers and artisans out of job.
In 1875 there were 171 sugar factories in the colony. This number dropped to 65 in 1909. There is at present only 26 in operation. There is talk of bringing that figure down to about a dozen. Before the war there were hardly a score of tractors in service throughout the colony, but in 1954 it was estimated that about 240 were in operation.
* * *
Unemployment is becoming more and more acute. During the inter-crop season, it is worse. The return to Mauritius of the six thousand pionniers form the Middle East has added considerably to the existing misery. Farming, which is the only occupation of the peasants, has almost reached its limit because there is a scarcity of land and pasture. Government, which is the biggest proprietor of unreclaimed land of this colony, is little helpful to them. On the contrary there is evidence that it is helping the big landlords. Government prefers to lease thousands of acres of land at a nominal price for deer hunting than lease them to cow breeders. Government rents 9,806 arpents of Crown Lands and Pas Geometriques to big landlords at Rs 17.62 per arpent per annum.
In the absence of a land legislation (which the Government is obstinately refusing to introduce) these lands are sub-rented to peasants from Rs 300 to Rs 425 per arpent to plant one crop of tomato or tobacco.
* * *
Because of the absence of a land policy, the non-existence of an emigration project and Government’s attitude of dilly-dallying in putting into force, probably for some obvious reasons, of the Report of the Committee of Population, the public is viewing the future with grave anxiety. Shall we have to wait for a responsible government to tackle our demographic problem?
May we conclude with the following note of warning sounded in time by no less an authority than Mr, M. Herchenroder Director of Central Statistical Office in his recent report on ‘Natality and Fertility in Mauritius’ (from which we have drawn some statistics):
“The inhabitants of Mauritius are thus faced with the challenge of its population growth and it will depend on the rational choice and exertion of its individuals that they get freed from the menace of degradation through grinding poverty and needless suffering.”
Friday 21st December, 1956
* Published in print edition on 26 July 2019