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Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Peter Ibbotson

Ten years ago, on March 29, 1947 grave incidents occurred in Madagascar. It was the Rebellion of 1947; in various parts of Madagascar there were uprisings against French colonialism. The insurrection itself caused the death of about 150 Europeans; the waves of repression which followed led to the death of at least 80,000 Malagasies (Malgaches) — these are figures given to Parliament by the French Government; so that the total of 80,000 may well be an understatement. Since then, Madagascar has been an island of veiled terror. When Mr Brockway visited it before he came to Mauritius, he was followed everywhere he went; even when he went out with the British Consul on a picnic.

Outraged French colonialism was seen at its worst after the insurrection of March 29. Only in Algeria have the excesses committed by the colons in Madagascar been equalled. Leaders of the Mouvement Démocratique de la Renovation Malgache (MDRM) were arrested and accused of stirring up the insurrection. In fact, the Mouvement had nothing to do with the rebellion, and on the contrary had urged its members all over the island to keep calm and quiet. There is good reason, indeed, to believe that orders for the insurrection were given by an ex-member of the Mouvement acting as an agent provocateur. The arrested leaders, including at least one doctor, two priests and three deputies to the National Assembly, were forced to confess to complicity in the insurrection; the forced confessions were obtained by the use of various unspeakable tortures. One young man, Rakotovao Martin, aged 27, son and grandson of clergymen, was held upside down by two Senegalese policemen over a tub of dirty water and plunged in it up to the chest. This happened several times, when Rakotovao said to M. Baron, the Chef de la Sûreté, “Je demande au moins des traitements dignes de la France…” (I ask for treatment at least worthy of France), he was told by Baron “Voici les traitements de la France“.

The forced confessions were used to convict various of the arrested leaders of the MDRM – a movement whose principal aim was the independence of Madagascar from French colonial rule and its free association with the French Union on the basis of equality with France. But the colons did not like this idea, so something had to be done to smash the Mouvement. Eventually 17 people were condemned for being “leaders” and “originators” of the insurrection. Six, including two deputies and one clergyman, were sentenced to death (later commuted to detention in a fortified prison; in effect, the six were first confined in Comoro, then moved to Corsica). Four were sentenced to forced labour in perpetuity; one to 20 years, two to 10 years, and two to 5 years forced labour. One man was sentenced to 10 years detention, and one to 10 years “reclusion”. One of the four condemned to perpetual forced labour was a deputy; a clergyman was one of the two who got 10 years.

And the “crime” of these men? They were accused of organising the insurrection of March 29. In effect, their “guilt” was “proved” only by forced confessions wrung from tortured victims. Many accused men were threatened with execution if they did not “confess” to what the Sûreté wanted. All the accused were closely questioned under threats of torture, and were compelled (if their bodies or spirits gave way under torture) to sign documents “proving” the complicity of their comrades in their insurrection. All the accused vehemently protested — and those who are alive still protest — their innocence of causing the insurrection; as I have said, there are good grounds for believing the insurrection was deliberately started by agents provocateurs with the intention, by so doing, of smashing the MDRM and so crippling the ranks of those who wanted to see Madagascar free from the yoke of colonialism.

Similar treatment is being accorded to Algerian patriots who want to see the end of colonialism in Algeria. Ten years after the insurrection, however, civil and political liberties are denied to the people of Madagascar; truly has it been called (by Max-Pol Fouchet among others) “L’Ile de la Melancolie”. Mauritius may not be heading for responsible government, but at least she has avoided the repressions of Madagascar; the only “success” of agents provocateurs in Mauritius, so far, has been the affray at Chemin Grenier.

* * *

Admission to Primary Schools

Opening the Legislative Council debate on the Speech from the Throne, Mr Hinchey praised Mr Ardill’s “resourcefulness in planning” for a record intake this year into the primary schools: 24,000 in fact. On paper this sounds very good. But what are the conditions in which these children find themselves in school? Have they enough space? Have they proper classrooms, desks, equipment?

The other day at the Immaculee Conception Government School in Port Louis (it was due to be enlarged by 510 square feet of classroom space under the 1952 Five year Development Programme), one class was under the principal verandah, and another class was out in the schoolyard. And their benches? Planks, or broken uppers of benches, laid on empty milk powder tins.

It may be a matter of pride that 24,000 children have been admitted this year; but there can be no pride in condemning classes to sit at benches made out of scrap wood and empty tins. Nor do such improvised benches support the idea of “planning” for the intake of extra children. It suggests instead that so many children had unexpectedly been admitted that the Education Department was taken unawares and hadn’t enough school furniture for them.

* * *

Toujours La Politesse

“Are we polite in Mauritius?” asks Action. This is hardly a surprising question after M. Merven has elegantly told me to shut my big mouth. I am really distressed that M. Merven cannot do better than that. Surely an heir to the tradition of French literature — to the tradition of Molière, of Racine, of Proust, of Voltaire, of Gide, of Mauriac, of Zola, of Balzac, of Dumas — can manage something more elegant, more limpid, more stylistically satisfying than “shut your big mouth”?

Such crudity of expression ill-befits one who has surely learned the art of masterly invective from the Baron himself? Myself, I would never stoop to such a low level of riposte. I might dismiss Notre Propos with the comment that “c’est toujours la même guitare”; but I would never dream of telling him to shut his big mouth. He might do so; and then we should have no more revealing truths from him about capitalism not being able to ensure a fair deal for the workers.

4th Year – No 138
Friday 29th March 1957  

* Published in print edition on 21 February 2020

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