The career of Rev. Jean Lebrun (1814-1865) : Missionary Education and the Fashioning of the ‘gens de couleur’ in Mauritius

“The good old man I think I see him still, with his snow-white hair, his open honest countenance, his simple but touching eloquence, and his earnest faith — an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile” Beaton. P Creoles and Coolies in Mauritius. 1859

Après l’excellent papier “Rémy Ollier, l’Histoire en héritage” signé Dr Jimmy Harmon paru dans notre édition du dimanche 20 novembre 2016, Week-End a le plaisir de présenter en deux volets (dont le premier paraît aujourd’hui) une communication, en version abrégée, du Professeur Abdool Cader Kalla autour de la thématique “The career of Rev. Jean Lebrun (1814-1865) : Missionary Education and the Fashioning of the ‘gens de couleur’ in Mauritius”. Cette communication a été présentée lors des assises d’un symposium international “The Gens de couleur in Insular Societies : Political, Social, Cultural and Economic History” tenue à  l’Université de Maurice. La pertinence de ces deux papiers du Dr Jimmy Harmon et du Professeur Cader Kalla réside dans le fait que Rémy Ollier et Jean Lebrun ont été parmi les architectes les plus notoires de l’émancipation des gens de couleur à Maurice.
Recent research on ‘Imperialism’reveals not only the domination of people in distant lands, but also the idealist and progressive agendas and advocacies of certain individuals for the uplift of the ‘dominated people’. (1) Critical work on colonial philanthropists and humanitarians, especially regarding missionaries had in the not-so distant past been labelled as ‘cultural imperialism’. (2) Furthermore, the inputs of Evangelical missionaries in the provision of education for slaves and free people of colour were critically analyzed  as embedded with socializing intents for the demands of the plantation economy for docile labour. Such a one way formulation fails to take into account missionaries, who were moved by a genuine sense of philanthropy for the oppressed. Up to now, research on Rev. Jean Lebrun’s missionary activities in colonial Mauritius, have been focusing on his whole career (3) or his contribution to the provision of education for the ex -slave  and the coloured population (4). This paper will analyze Lebrun’s specific concern for the gens de couleur in an attempt to mitigate some of the social and economic disadvantages under which this category of people had  to endure at the dawn of nineteenth century, and in the process helped to fashion them

Setting the stage
Jean Joseph Lebrun was born on 7 September 1789 on the Channel island of Jersey (British) off mainland France. Both of his parents, his father Abraham Lebrun and his mother Simone Bissen, were originally from St Malo in France; no doubt to escape religious persecution, they moved to a British island where the Protestant  churches were tolerated .We do not have much information about his childhood except that he was a devout churchgoer and at the age of nineteen, he expressed the wish to serve the church in spreading the words of God. (5 a)
Lebrun came of age in a Britain, which went through many social and economic changes. The American Revolution (1765-1783), the French Revolution (1787-1799), and the Haitian Slaves Revolt (1791-1804) impinged on Britain, which was undergoing the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840s). Tom Paine’s Rights of Man published in 1792, which sold 200000 copies in a year, elaborated on the civil rights of the people, and galvanized social protests. In short, radical ideas about the notion of citizenship were being expressed vociferously, especially by the Dissenters those people who disagreed with the Anglicans like the Presbyterians (5b), who were labouring under very harsh social restrictions as they were prevented from acting as legal trustees, executors, guardians and from holding office; and burial in the parish cemeteries was denied to them among others. They were also in the forefront of the slave trade abolition movement culminating in the Abolition Act of 1807. They were most importantly involved in the  struggles for civic liberty and  human rights.
It was in this atmosphere of protestations  and repressions with increasing class polarization which characterized the earlier stage of the industrial revolution in mainland Britain that Lebrun approached the then Mission Society based in London. He was referred to the co-founder of the society (in 1795), Dr David Bogue (1750-1825), a Non Conformist Scot preacher, who had opened an academy at Gosport, in the south of England, for the training of missionaries. Lebrun and his contemporaries, David Jones and Thomas Bevan, the first missionaries to Madagascar, were trained at the Gosport Academy and sponsored by the LMS.
It is safe to assume that Lebrun followed the same theological and pedagogical curricula asthe West Indian missionaries from 1809 to 1813. All trainees at Gosport received 120 lectures on theology, 30 on the Old Testament, 30 on the New, 20 on evidences of Christianity, 16 on Jewish Antiquities, 35 on missionary lectures, 40 on the pastoral office, 5 on universal grammar, 5 on logic, 35 on rhetoric,28 on ecclesiastical history, 4 lectures on dispensations before the  Christian era, 11 on the  different period of the Church, and 30 on geography and astrology. They were also drilled in composition and preaching. They had to read the classical authors like Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Cicero and others. (6) Trainees were urged not to meddle in political affairs. Their main mission was to “save soul”, not bodies, and “to promote the happiness of Man and the honour of God” — the motto of the LMS.
According to Gibbard, Dr Bogue was an “able man, well-read, cultured, but not an outstanding scholar. His main concern was the development of ministerial skills among the trainees. As ‘the curriculum was related to preaching’, the gospel based on the Bible, Philip Doodridge’s hymns and Watts’catechism had to be mastered. Dr Bogue encouraged the trainees to acquire the language of the ‘natives’ for the purpose of proselytization. His efforts and concerns for the development of the Malagasy language is well documented.” (7) He noted very early the proficiency of Lebrun at the French language, as he commented thus on him — ‘a peculiarly zealous young man and likely to be useful in situation where the French language is spoken’. (8)
Furthermore, Lebrun had training in the Monitorial or the Mutual System of  Education, also referred to as the Lancastrian System after the British educator, Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838) who rationalized it into classroom management and organization, and methods of teaching. He wrote several booklets to propagate his ideas.(9) He suggested the identification and use of monitors for peer teaching, he categorized them according to various classroom tasks and advised trainees how to form homogenous groups. He developed the concept of “exposure” and was against corporal punishment. The Lancastrian system was perceived as a means of providing mass education most economically and efficiently, as it was based upon a system of rote learning, question-and-answer and memorization, and did not require separate reading book for each pupil. It was thus felt it spread the values of industry, discipline and order. In other words, its social control role was favourably acknowledged by the evangelical humanitarians and philanthropists, and the emerging industrialists. His school on Borough Road, Southwark in London became a training institution and the Monitorial System was adopted by various countries.
Mauritius: Pre-emancipation society
Rev Lebrun, on board the Isabella, reached Mauritius on May 1814 at the age of twenty-five. Imbued with a sense of mission and driven by his own convictions, he stepped into the creole society of pre-emancipation Mauritius, which ignored the notions of propriety. This society was pyramidal in structure with the Whites occupying the apex and the slaves at the broad base with the people of mixed parentage- the gens de couleur, in between. This simple scheme failed to portray the intricacies of some of the social realities of this colonial society. Apart from the ethnic and racial differentiation, colour of the skin was an important social-  marker. This was a “dermocracy” i.e. a society based on the colour of the skin- the   whiter a person was, the higher that person was in the social order. And it was  among the gens de couleur that this marker was felt most. Jumeer (10) in his seminal work on the manumitted population referred to them as ‘les Noirs libres’, stated that ‘la couleur de l’épiderme prend au sein de la communauté des Noirs libres une valeur symbolique démesurées et devient un important élément de différentiation et d’hiérarchisation entre les Noirs libres eux-mêmes’.
This community was internally very fragmented by exclusion and disunity. Some of them, who challenged racial exclusion identified themselves with institutions of slavery, and continued planters’ domination. Recently the Truth and Justice Commission carried an analysis of the gens de couleur and various historians have examined the processes towards the formation and transformation of this population. (1) Most of them noted the laxity in morals and Lebrun in one of his earliest report to the secretary of the LMS castigated  this society in which ‘the corruption of morals is now so great that every one lives as he pleases without any respect for conjugal law’ (12) In fact libertinage and concubinage were rampant. Lebrun was to lament about ‘the sensuality of the Europeans (which) is another cause of these troubles by their union with the women of colour or with their female negro slaves’. This ‘sensuality’ gave rise to ‘spurious offspring of illicit connection’ who were later in life ignored by their White progenitors as they ‘pass(ed) each other without any relation subsisting between them’. (12 )
The spatial distribution of this free coloured population of about 10979 in 1817, representing 11.2% of the total population (13) shows a concentration in Port Louis with small pockets in Mahebourg in the south east and Rivière du Rempart in the north east. In these early years of the nineteenth century, this population was occupying the area of Ward 4 off the Ruisseau des Créoles stream and the Plaine Verte area off Rivulet La Paix in Port Louis, following the segregationist policies of the French administration. It could well be that some of the elite group like the engineer Lislet Geoffroy and some merchants and traders lived in the White city. Under the British, access to the then central business district in the White city was opened to all.
The free population of colour showed certain demographic characteristics as noted by Allen — the number of ‘children’ exceeded males and females, as shown by the following demographic statistics for 1817:
10979 (total pop) 2116 (men) 2752 (women) 6111(children).
This trend was going to persist till the 1840s. (14)

The first stage in Lebrun’s career (1814-1832) — the fashioning years
Under British administration, the contested space of the White city around the Government House and some of the commercial streets were accessible to street children of the gens de couleur referred to as “mulâtres” by Hitié. E. (15.) It was no doubt, the sight of these children and younger persons loitering the streets  that partly motivated Sir Robert Farquhar to request the LMS in June 1813 for a missionary to be sent to Mauritius for the evangelization of the population and to provide for the education of  the inhabitants of Port Louis. Farquhar as a devout Christian and a free mason was deeply committed to humanitarian work. And so in October1813, Lebrun was informed by Dr Bogue of Farquhar’s request. Lebrun accepted the offer and informed Rev G. Burder, the Secretary of the LMS, that “I do not mind where to go, provided that I might pass all my days in doing good to my fellowmen” (16). As a well-trained pedagogue, he set out collecting Bibles, textbooks and books which he felt might be of use for his evangelical work in Mauritius.
The early part of this first stage of Lebrun’s career was devoted to the provision of religious and moral education to the ‘gens de couleur’. It is safe to assume that apart from Farquhar, Lebrun was welcome by the high officials of the administration like Telfair. C, Secretary to the Governor and Colonel E. Draper, the Chief of Police, and by the small British community residing in Port Louis. He  developed through his letters with  other missionaries in the Indian Ocean area and his contacts within the evangelical movement in Britain a network, which would prove helpful later. As a result, he was able to settle in and started coaching three free coloured people. By the end of 1817, a group of fifteen ‘gens de couleur’ belonging to the Catholic Church joined the small Nonconformist congregation of Lebrun. He had to move from Maison Mabile on Chaussée Street to St George Street in a more spacious setting to accommodate more than 300 students by 1818. It was mainly the urban poor section of the ‘gens de couleur’ based in the present day Ward 4 of Port Louis and Plaine Verte, who were available for some form of schooling. Lebrun was thus able to set up a first congregation on Easter day-22 March 1818 — made up of 14 members.

By Abdool Cader Kalla
Ass. Professor Social Studies, Mauritius Institute of Education (Rtrd)


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2. Carnoy. M Education as Cultural Imperialism. D McKay Comp 1974.
3.  Quenette, Rivaltz. L’Oeuvre du Révérend Jean Lebrun à L’Ile Maurice. Regent Press 1980
4. Kalla. A, The Negro Education Grant 1835-1845: Its inception in England and Working in Mauritius, in Bissondoyal &Servansing, eds, Slavery South West Indian Ocean pp.58-75
5. (a) Vanmeerbeck.E Révérend Jean Le Brun. Fondateur de L’Instruction Gratuite à Maurice et Quelles Révélations Historiques. Edit F. Laselle 1865 ebook available.
5. (b) Protestant Dissent www.qmulreligion and,uk/research/the dissenting academies project/protestant-dissent/ recovered on 11/9/16. Note also Costa Emilia.V Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerrara Slave Revolt of 1832N.Y OxfUni 1997. The introduction and Chapter 1 describe the conditions prevailing in early nineteenth century Britain.
6. Gibbard. N., David Bogue & the Gosport Academy. Archive/-30p
7. Munthe, Ludwig La Bible à Madagascar. Forlaget Land Og Kirke. Oslo 1969.
8. Giddard op.
9. Lancaster. J  Improvements in Education as it Respects the Industrious Classes of the community. London. Dalton &Harvey 1805.
10. Jumeer. M ‘Les Affranchis et les Indiens Libres à L’Ile de France au 18ème Siècle,1721-1803’ Ph. D thesis Uni Poitiers, 1984
11. Truth and Juctice Commission. Vol 4 2011, Jumeer.M 1984 op.cit, Allen R.B Creating Undiminished Confidence: The Free Population of Colour and Identity Formation in Mauritius 1767-1835.Slav &Abln .32 Dec 2011.These are the most recent. The Mauritian situation can be compared with the West Indies- Mewton, M. The Children of Africa in the Colonies: The Free People of Color in of Barbados in the Age of Emancipation. Louisiana State University Press. 2008 ebook
12. Lebrun to Burder 7/1/1817 Box1 SOAS London, Barker A.J Slavery and Antislavery in Mauritius, 1810-33. Macmillan 1996 pp 135-150
13. Allen. R.B, 2011
14. Hitié, Evenor Histoire de Maurice,  Pamplemousses Edition 2014
15. quoted by Quenette p.6.
Note This is an abridged version of a paper presented at the International Seminar on “The Gens de couleur in Insular Societies : Political, Social, Cultural and Economic History” held at the University of Mauritius 29 September - 01 October 2016.