Celicourt Antelme – A New Appraisal

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Doojendranath Napal

Pierre de Sornay has since some time ago been writing historical and biographical sketches in Le Cernéen.

His articles are highly appreciative in so far as the marshalling of facts are concerned. There is one thing, however, which should be noted: when a historian is out to prove some thesis, he may deliberately ignore facts which may go contrary to his contention. I do not mean to say that Pierre de Sornay does so. However, it is clear to anybody that his interpretation of facts betrays conservative leanings.

This is natural, as natural as for somebody to say that my leanings are for the workers. I, for example, always highlight the contribution of the workers in the making of the colony. Facts to me have value in the degree to which they illustrate my contention that the colony owes its existence and prosperity to the unflinching industry of the working classes, whose contribution has been belittled or ignored by our historians.

Mauritius in the 1880s. Pic – Mauritius Attractions

Let me, for example, consider the latest historical-biographical excursion of Pierre de Sornay which is devoted to Celicourt Antelme. Whatever the contributor has written is true, but there are facts of high importance omitted with the idea of minimising the reactionary tendencies of Celicourt Antelme. There is no need to enter into the multifarious activities of Celicourt Antelme to show how much he opposed the progress of the workers. One aspect of his political career is more than enough to support my contention.

Antelme opposed the introduction of the elective element in the Council of Government. When the question was first taken up in 1882, Celicourt Antelme had a deep influence on the then Governor, Sir Napier Broom, who, as evidenced in his despatches to the Secretary of State for the Colonies on the question of Reform, based all his arguments on those of Antelme as they appeared in his articles in Le Cernéen. The Governor even spoke of him as an authority on local matters. He was in fact at that time a senior unofficial nominated member of the Council for more than a quarter of a century. And he was jealous of the prerogatives of his class, who in those days monopolised political power. He regretted too, that coloured people had progressed since the coming of Remy Ollier on the political scene.

Hear him on this matter and note the tone of regret. “Forty five years ago, I may say half a century ago, when I arrived in this island, the class to which I belonged thought they were predominant and it was question at the time to have an elective system. I had frequent conversation with my friends on the matter and I told them before you get an elective system you should establish a union (1) between all classes of the population. Some of them laughed at the idea and thought that the descendants of the former masters would always have the upper hand in everything. 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.”

The advocates of reform found in the new Governor, Sir John Pope Hennessy, an ally to their cause. Gradually all the nefarious influences on the Secretary of State were effaced and the reform of the Constitution became a certainty. Then almost desperately, Antelme came forward with his bogey of Asiatic sceptre and Asiatic hegemony. May I note that in those days Indians were regarded not in terms of Hindus and Muslims but as Asiatics. Antelme said: “As soon as the Indians get their papers and become barristers and so on, they will take up a position here which will be very different from that of the class I have just alluded to.”

He went on in this vein, fighting desperately for the retention of the status quo, the old Council of official and nominated unofficial members. His efforts proved vain. The elective element was introduced.

When the Electoral Commission was appointed, Celicourt Antelme was a changed man; he fought for a wider franchise to include the coloured middle classes and some of the enlightened Indians. Why?

Historians may say, some have said that he proved to be liberal-minded. I do not agree. I shall not say that he was a politician endowed with the foresight which is hallmark of outstanding statesmen. Had he been one, he would not have made vain attempts to stop the wheels of history by creating artificial barriers to stop the progress of the Indians. Nor had the principles for which he would be ready to sacrifice his own career. He had at the time of the agitation for the reform of the Constitution been a member of the Council for a comparatively long period. He would not for the sake of principles be prepared to give up his seat in Council.

He was an arch-Conservative who did everything in his power to prevent the reform of the Constitution. Yet when Reform became a certainty, he made volte face. Knowing that if at that stage he would continue to support his conservative ideas he would risk his seat as a member of the Council. He therefore pronounced himself for a wider franchise than those who had since the beginning agitated for Reform, notably Sir William Newton. The cunning politician in him had the better of the reactionary or die-hard conservative. Needless to tell that Celicourt Antelme was elected in the first election held in the island in 1886 with a strong majority. Was it because he was liberal-minded, keen on the progress of people or simply because he was an adept in political maneuvering, ready to sacrifice cherished principles for some immediate end? Here is a question of interpretation, without which History is no more than as dry as dust a pursuit, to put it in Carlyle’s words.

(1) When the conservatives in those days spoke of Union, they did not mean union based on brotherhood and equality but a sort of union in which they had the lion’s share in all the good things of the island. Remy Ollier used to denounce this unfairness.

5th Year – No 208
Friday 1st August, 1958

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