Twenty Years Ago – The Strikes of 1937

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Doojendranath Napal

August 1937 is a landmark in the history of the struggle of the workers in this island. Before that period, they were inarticulate, accepting the rigour of their lot with patient submission. When they stirred it was not of their own free will but due to pressure from outside. This too happened only twice before 1937. The first time it was Adolphe de Plevitz who championed their cause, and the second time it was Manilal Doctor.

“The real cause which brought the outbreak of the strike was the cumulative effect upon the workers of Dr Cure’s Labour campaign and his speeches delivered to audiences of Indians and other workers on sugar estates on behalf of the Mauritius Labour Party which he founded, assisted by his associates, Mr Anquetil and Pandit Sahadeo.”
– Report of the Commission of Enquiry

But the labourers had to wait for a quarter of a century before anything concrete could be done for them. During that period, they came to realise, though dimly, their role in the political and economic life of the island. Then suddenly came the strikes of 1937, which convulsed the whole country. Mill owners, their managers and staff trembled before the forces of despair let loose. For the first time they witnessed or rather they had to play a part in events which disturbed the complacent life of the upper strata in the sugar industry. For the first time the respect due to them was thrown overboard. They were abused and dubbed as exploiters by men who felt all the humiliation of semi-starving workers in a prosperous industry. The government instituted a commission of inquiry. But this measure did not satisfy the Chamber of Agriculture which convened a special meeting where the following resolutions were passed and published in the press.

“The planters and members of the community in general assembled today at the Chamber of Agriculture request the office of the chamber to proceed immediately to the government in order to make known to the acting Governor, or in his absence, the Colonial Secretary, the anxiety which they feel and to tell him that they consider the situation to be far more serious than the government appear to think.

Also they consider the measures taken up to now to be totally inadequate and demand that the acts of violence which are being committed at all points should be repressed without weakness in order to prevent the disorders from becoming more and more serious.

In particular, they call the attention of the authorities to the obstacle placed in the way of liberty of work and to the acts of intimidation and terrorism of which a population of workers for the most part loyal is the object by organised agitators.

They inform the government that by not acting with greater firmness the latter would incur a great responsibility which they refuse for their part to share.”

The Officer administering the colony while sympathising with the attitude of the Chamber of Agriculture made it clear to that body “that in no circumstances would he look to them to relieve him of any part of his responsibilities in the event of any unfortunate occurrence.”

From the above it becomes clear that the employers instead of thinking of remedying the grievances of their workers contemplated the use of force to suppress them.

But let us return to the tragedy itself. In the month of July 1937 disturbances occurred in different parts of the island. The mob marched on the sugar estates, overturned trucks, blockaded the estate roads and put fire in the cane fields.

 The police had to mobilise itself to disperse them. At Deep River it made use of rifle butts which resulted in the injury of many labourers. On another sugar estate, one Mr Ross wanted to parley with the mob which flung stones and sugar canes at him and abused him. They had a particular grudge against him. They roared:

“Li meme ti oule ecrase nous avec camion grand matin” (he wanted to run us over with the lorry this morning). On the sugar estate, in the presence of the police, shots were fired upon the mob resulting in the death of 4 labourers while 6 sustained heavy injuries. This, however, is only a glimpse of the situation.

What drove the labourers to fury, making them ready to lay down their lives? It was better for them, they had come to realise, to expose themselves to bullets rather than continue leading wretched lives. On every estate where there occurred disturbances, the grievances of the labourers were the same. These were (a) insufficiency of wages (b) inferior quality of rations (c) poor hospital treatment (d) cut in rations and wages on account of absence (e) low rate of pay for overtime work. The small planters had joined hands with the labourers launching the strikes. Their particular grievance was the cut of 15% on the uba cane. Another cause was political unrest, as the electoral system was such as to enable representatives of only one section of the community to be returned.

These, broadly speaking, were the causes of the unrest. But by themselves they would not have brought the tragedy. Agitation on the part of labour leaders had had its part which was not an insignificant one. Though it is true that the ferment and dissatisfaction were there, the picture of the strikes of 1937 will be incomplete unless due cognizance is taken of the part played by Dr Curé, Mr Anquetil and Pandit Sahadeo. How can history ignore them especially Dr Cure, when the commission of enquiry into unrest on sugar estates in 1937 so often mentions his name in bold types. Whoever will read the Report in question will not fail to be impressed by the contribution of Dr Curé in the upsurge of the working classes. However, let us content ourselves in citing the following words of the commission of Inquiry:

“The real cause which brought the outbreak of the strike was the cumulative effect upon the workers of Dr Cure’s Labour campaign and his speeches delivered to audiences of Indians and other workers on sugar estates on behalf of the Mauritius Labour Party which he founded, assisted by his associates, Mr Anquetil and Pandit Sahadeo.”

Whatever may be the causes of the upsurge, whatever may have been the actors in that tragic drama, the results are there to show that human sacrifice, entailing the shedding of blood, never goes unrewarded.

Things which were considered as extravagant demands in those days have become facts today. In the political field the workers have marched a few steps further than the men who took part in the agitation ever dreamt. Trades unions have become a necessary part of the life of the Colony. Consequently the labourer who is victimized or incurs any injury in his work knows where to look for protection. This is to say the least of the benefits of the strikes of 1937.

4th Year – No 158
Friday 16th August 1957

* Published in print edition on 2 March 2021

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