Economic and social historians should analyse how despite the provision of government-financed education some people went ahead and others trailed behind
By Harry Booluck
There is a close relationship between education and social evolution in any country. It is paradoxical to find out how the descendants of those Indian Indentured labourers who came to step in the shoes of the emancipated slaves in British plantation colonies succeeded in climbing up the social ladder within the lifetime of a few generations. In so doing, they disrupted the former social order higher up the ladder and brought about a new realignment they had never thought of. How did this happen?
While the Second World War was still going on, a coalition of some of the major British political parties led respectively by Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain took over as a National Government. It set up the Beveridge Commission to work out how to make Britain a safer place to live in once the war was over. Its report published in 1944 laid emphasis on education as the single major factor that could uplift the working-class people’s living standards and social status and avert social conflicts. The logic was based on the principle that ‘an oasis of rich cannot live in peace surrounded by an ocean of poverty’.
This reasoning led to the vulgarisation of education after the war with the creation of ‘Red Brick Universities’ over and above the elitist ‘Oxbridge Universities’ that produced talents for both domestic and colonial requirements, just like the Royal Colleges in the colonies. What the British did was to open wide the doors of institutions to wards of working-class people who could not have attended school otherwise. University education was accessible to the working class through grants and scholarships. Some 20 years later, a British Labour MP, commenting on the impact of education on social mobility, stated in the House of Commons: ‘Almost every senior civil servant has at least one working class parent.’
Like the slaves, indentured labourers were brought to work in the plantations under a five-year contract. As demand remained high, planters were forced to provide some incentives to attract more labour: free passage to spouse and children and payment of six-month advance salary while still in India. The colonial government provided free primary education, but not many could afford to attend those schools as they were far from plantation camps, and of those who did attend, the vast majority were urban males.
There were also schools run by the Catholic Church and London Missionary Society. Government schools were of two types: one for Christians and the other for non-Christians, though both had the same syllabus. This ‘apartheid’ in education was denounced by Adolphe de Plevitz in the late 1860s when he fought against the injustices the Indians suffered. De Plevitz encouraged his Indian labourers at Nouvelle Decouverte to send their children to school and learn, over and above the ancestral languages, English and French so that in their adult life they would know of Western civilisation and ‘not fall back on Atavism’(ancestral practices).
Despite De Plevitz’s efforts to fight for the cause of the Old Immigrants (those not subject to indenture at the end of their contract) with the coming of the Royal Commission in 1872, not much was achieved, becausehe was compelled to migrate to Fiji because of the persecution he was subjected to by the planter community after the departure of his protector, Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, to his new posting in Fiji.
Education remained unavailable to the labouring class until the second decade of the last century when Coloured and descendants of Indentured labourers, both inside and outside plantations, took education seriously. First were the urban residents, mainly the merchants of the capital, who benefited the most as their wards attended the elite colleges and had the financial clout to meet the education expenses in Europe. When MK Gandhi visited Mauritius on his way to India from South Africa in 1901, he, too, emphasised the importance of education as the gateway to social mobility for those wretched people of Indian origin.
When they returned home after graduation, the young elite conveyed a sort of ‘demonstration effect’ on other members of the community who thereafter started saving and investing in higher education abroad for their children, mostly the boys. Parents wanted their wards to study law and medicine as lawyers and doctors were placed very high up in the social ladder in those days. Parents with large families would encourage and finance the elder son to continue his studies with the siblings contributing to his upkeep.
Those were the days when college education, apart from the Royal Colleges for boys and later the QEC for girls, was fee paying. Rural Indians too joined the ‘demonstration effect’ bandwagon and sent their children to colleges to earn a certificate that would open the door to a government job and pensions after retirement. To attain that objective, the Indians reared a cow or two that would provide an additional income through the sale of milk, manure and a calf or heifer. Up to the early 1970s, the contribution of cattle farming cannot be downplayed in the uplift of that community.
Economic and social historians should explore this area of education in Mauritius (and why not in the other plantation colonies where the Indian Indentured labourers went to toil the land and eventually settled down) to analyse how despite the provision of government-financed education some people went ahead, and others trailed behind as well as the impacts of that outcome on the social fabric.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 23 June 2023
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