Africa-Press – Mauritius. The retrocession to France movement was rightly and justly rejected by the Mauritian electorate at the general elections of 1921 thanks to both the right and the left of the main political divide.
The history of this movement has been at times misunderstood. It is true that some excess and touches of racism marked the speeches and writings of some retrocessionists. However, historian Dr.
Satteeanund Peerthum, one of the foremost specialists of our national history and who mentored me during my research from my very first book on history, discovered that retrocession was vigorously opposed by the sugar, trade and business multiethnic elite.
This elite kept in power the conservatives from 1886 to 1948, when the Constitution changed and the conservatives, under a new enlarged suffrage, were swamped from power by the Labour Party led by Guy Rozemont, the successor of Dr.
Maurice Curé, with the help of the Jan Andolan movement of the Bissoondoyal brothers – with Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, elected as an independent with Labour support, and who brought with him two other independents, Harilal R. Vaghjee and Aunauth Beejadhur, the latter ironically, or to say the least, defeating two official Labour candidates, Partab Algoo and Donald Francis!
The future SSR finally joined Labour, took over the leadership with a team of his own after the successive deaths of Rozemont and Renganaden Seeneevassen, the next in the line of succession in the party, while the Bissoondoyal’s broke away later on to form the IFB.
For its part, the Retrocession Movement was born several years before 1948, on the back of the terribly desperate but educated and unemployed classes, including doctors, demoralized by the victory, at the 1911 general election, of the Oligarchy Party over the Parti Libéral of Dr.
Eugène Laurent’s and Manilal Doctor who had toured the island extensively rallying the support of the so-called ‘indo-creole masses’. It was not difficult to see, therefore, why Dr.
Maurice Curé, a brilliant laureate and doctor who looked after wounded soldiers of the First World War, became a candidate with the Retrocessionist Movement.
He was not at all a communalist, and went on, later, to enroll into the anti-oligarchy mass movement, the smaller agricultural entrepreneurs and workers of all communities, to create the Mauritius Labour Party, with the support of the Jan Andolan and his most trusted lieutenants like Pandit Sahadeo.
It is important to revisit the Retrocessionist Movement as it was born and died between the defeat of the Laurent-Manilal Doctor tandem and the creation of the Labour Party by Curé-Sahadeo-Rozemont in 1936.
In fact, there were a few ‘Indo-Mauritians’, a tiny minority, who supported the Retrocession while what remained of the Liberal Party of Laurent (by the way the author of brilliant medical articles in The Lancet and other medical publications) after both he and Manilall Doctor left Mauritius, fought against retrocession at the 1921 general elections.
The British in London and Mauritius had been seriously worried by Action Libérale’s leaders Dr. Eugène Laurent and Manilal Doctor. They thought, in their simplistic analysis based uniquely on ethnicity as the Colonial Office papers indicate, that the Creole leaders and other Creoles were going to be ‘assimilated’ by the Indians:
“Laurent, a Creole leader of Indian origins, was an example of that assimilation which alarmed the officials. But they soon found a new enemy. Creole leaders were not the only threat to Indian loyalty.
There was Manilal Doctor, a lawyer from Gujarat who was favoured by Mahatma Gandhi and had helped Indian workers to complain against ill-treatment. The procureur-general thought he was trying to ‘stir the Indian element’.
The movement for retrocession gathered momentum among the opponents to the Parti de l’Ordre of the sugar barons, raising again British fears of a rebellion, but this time unlike the 1832 rebellion of the slave-owners and coming from the other side of the political divide.
History shows that immediately after the retrocession movement died out, London was expressing fear that the Indo-Mauritians were being influenced by ‘terrorists’ who got their inspiration from the pro-independence movement in India.
In both cases, those fears were imaginary as the retrocessionists submitted themselves to the electoral process, while the Indian nationalists had been seeking financial help, as some researchers have established, from Indo-Mauritians who could afford to support them.
This was only partly true, in fact, as in the 1940s Labour leader Emmanuel Anquetil appointed his close friend Basdeo Bissoondoyal as the political representative of the party with the independentist Indian Congress Party.
The retrocessionist initiative was in truth another way to challenge the colonial authorities and the sugar barons. Many believed that integrating the French fold would bring them a better social status and jobs and the ensuing well-being that they were being deprived of.
What can be established already is the constant influence of ideas of freedom from overseas, especially Europe and India, has always played a role in the island’s history.
One cannot dissociate the events in Europe where socialism was on the rise, especially in France with such great leaders as Jean Jaurès, assassinated in 1914, and who had probably influenced Dr. Maurice Curé, who had studied in Britain, then had participated in the Balkan War as a doctor, and other intellectuals of his days.
The same can be said of influences brought to Mauritian shores by Mohandas Gandhi and Manilal Doctor and of the considerable influence of Indian nationalism on great Mauritian leaders like Cashinath Kistoe, then later Curé and Anquetil, and Basdeo and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, the latter even being appointed representative of Labour with the Indian Congress Party.
The Franco-Mauritian sugar barons opposed retrocession to France and so did the richest leaders of Indo-Mauritian businesses. Those ultra-conservatives monopolised the right to vote except in Port-Louis where there was a large number of self-employed people and middle- and low-ranking government employees who could satisfy the very restricted property franchise.
At the Colonial Office, there was a lot of head-scratching, observes researcher Ballhatchet on the basis of an examination of the frantic correspondence between the governor in Mauritius and the officials in London in those days on the topic of retrocession and then on imaginary Indian ‘terrorists’.
It is extremely unfortunate that such people were defining the destinies of the colonies. For those officials, the partisans of retrocession were being disloyal.
They had the same reaction when Manilal Doctor, Gandhi’s envoy, mobilised the Indian small planters and labourers and disturbances broke out before and after the 1911 general elections and the influence of India started to be felt in the island.
In 1922, following the demise of the retrocession movement, the Colonial Office was considering action against the Indo-Mauritians inspired by Indian nationalism and C. O. (Colonial Office) files contain references to those persons as ‘sedition-mongers. ’
Cashinath Kistoe had organised strikes in the south of the island and had been sentenced to prison and then upon liberation went to India from whence he came back a priest and an even more resolute militant and founded the militant Hindi language newspaper Arya Vir.
More serious disturbances would come in the 1930s and 1940s from the masses of Indo-Creoles militating under the banner of Curé’s Labour Party and the Jan Andolan, and one of the names that come up in the Colonial Office papers was going to be that of the young Pandit Sahadeo:
“Then Bede Clifford, the governor, told the secretary of state that Pandit Sahadeo, Cure’s ‘principal assistant’, was in India ‘going through a course of instruction with Nehru and the terrorists’.
Bede Clifford thought he was ‘a rank seditionist’ who wanted ‘to induce Mauritius Indians to follow the anti-British policy prevalent in India’. He was ‘cunning’, whereas Curé was ‘mentally unbalanced’.
” It must be also admitted that there has been in the course of some political movements, excessive language used on various sides.
Such excesses were literally made available to the communalist strategists like when a supporter of retrocession argued that in Réunion Island the Indians had been assimilated and that it should be the same in Mauritius to avoid an Indo-Mauritian majority that would rule the country.
This came from a district cashier, one Abel Loumeau in his ‘La rétrocession et les aliens,’ a publication smacking of anti-Indian racism, published in 1919 in Port-Louis under the pseudonym of Elba L. He was justly sacked by the British administration.
Nevertheless, the policies ‘keep-them-apart’ of the ultra-conservatives to divide the work force, and, its equivalent, the ‘divide-and-rule’ of the British colonial administration were being tested and put into practice, and the ultimate result is today’s ethnic politics, pushed to the extreme, unashamedly, by the Mauritian political establishment to this date, in independent Mauritius.
And yet, scholarly studies have established that Mauritius has remained an ‘integrated’ society to such an extent that the greatest geniuses in the science of statistics have never been able to solve the problem of ethnic classification and demographics with so many intercultural and interethnic marriages, the blurring of the divide between the Indian castes following immigration to Mauritius, etc.
This has led to such conclusions as this one: “The very problems of the census commissioners derived from the fact that throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the variously defined communities lived as an integrated society, notably in Port Louis, the capital, making segregation and separation impossible.
Retrocession to France, it must be said, was also, despite the underlying class-based antagonism between the rich and the poorer sections of Coloured and Creoles, motivated by a mixture of nostalgic ideas about French colonisation that had left in the island a major cultural heritage.
Anand Mulloo writes, “With the long World War I over, the bottled up feelings of sympathy for France – La douce France (sweet France) – exploded. ” U. Bissoondoyal sees the more political aspect of the movement: “During the 1921 elections, the main issue was the retrocession of Mauritius to France.
Some liberal politicians of Mauritius campaigned in favour of the annexation of Mauritius to France in the hope that this would give Mauritius a larger measure of autonomy in internal affairs.
In Madden and Darwin’s ‘The Dependent Empire’, it is observed that Colonial Office documents mentions the case of an Indian who was a retrocessionist: “The son of the deputy mayor of St.
Louis (Port-Louis), a wealthy Indo-Mauritian, had been treated in an offensive way in Cape Town: his father had become an enthusiastic ‘retrocessionist’.
” The defeat of the retrocession movement was not the work of the Indo-Mauritian electorate which was only composed of a very tiny number of voters that were rich enough to qualify as electors and most of them sided with the conservatives.
The defeat was the doing of two major political forces, both the oligarchs and the liberals of the former Liberal Party of Eugène Laurent and Manilall Doctor.
In fact, in Port-Louis, the anti-retrocessionists Edouard Nairac and Jérôme Tranquille defeated not just the two retrocessionist candidates, but also those of the oligarchy.
In the rural areas, the conservatives were instrumental in the defeat of the Retrocessionists. Indian voters represented only a tiny fraction of voters nationally, the very rich among them voting with the conservatives.
Class politics prevailed over other considerations. ‘The Dependent Empire’ reveals the Franco-Mauritian Oligarchs’ hostility to retrocession. In addition, Sir Henri Leclézio, knighted by the Queen is quoted in the book as stating:
“There were some 5,000 ‘gentry of colour’, attached to England and opposed to retrocession – equal in intellect with the whites.
There are some 15,000 coloureds of middle class and ‘pretty well educated’ with some French blood: clerks, professors, traders, doctors, attorneys &c.
– where in particular retrocessionists could be found, but not many. The promoters had indeed neither influence nor prestige to lead this section . [Leclézio and elected members of the Council of Government asked for the advocacy of retrocession to be treated as disloyalty, believing that the leaders knew it was a ‘chimera’.
The Oligarchy controlled a majority of the electoral votes and the majority in the Legislative Council from 1886 to 1948 and so, thanks to Leclézio, the leader of the multiethnic conservative electorate, descending from an old French family, a leading figure of the battle against the retrocessionists, and to the liberals, retrocession disappeared in national politics – and that’s the plain historical truth. It was class-based politics, or politics, simply put, based on class interests.