HISTOIRE : Mauritius Independence 1961-1968

Mauritius will celebrate its 46th independance anniversary on 12th March tis year. This article starts with the 3rd Mauritius Constitutional Conference of 26th June to 7th July 1961 known as “The Mauritius Review Conference” and terminates with the grant of Independence on 12 March 1968. It is as usual based on declassified papers at the British National Archive (BNA) with a rational analysis of both events and evidence. History has an uncanny way of unfolding and this is apparent with the added benefit of hindsight. We will chapter the road to Independence by looking at the action of different protagonists. We will carefully look at role of, on one side, our colonial masters, British politicians in office and top Whitehall civil servants advising and assisting them and, on the other side, that of our colonial political leaders led by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR) for independence and by Jules Koënig and Gaëtan Duval for integration with the United Kingdom.
The idea to grant Mauritius its independence came from the most unlikely quarters. The Americans decided Mauritius should become independent. But only after the Chagos Archipelago is detached and come directly under British administration and Diego Garcia lease to them for a military base. They wanted UK to pursue the constitutional issue of Mauritius Independence as quickly as possible without themselves gretting involved in it. The British agreed. This evidenced by records of highly confidential discussions between the United States of America (USA) Department of State ant the British Ministry of Defence held in London from 25th to 27th February 1964.
American President Lyndon Baines Johnson was then in office. In Britain, the conservatives were in power for 13 years (1951-1965) with confortable wins at three successive general elections: October 1951 under Churchill, May 1955 under Anthony Eden and October 1959 under Harold Macmillan. However, Sir Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister (the 4th conservative) for a year 1963/1964 following Macmillan’s resignation largely due to his Secretary of Defence, John Prefumo’s affair with the prostitute Christine Keeler who shared her charm with a Soviet naval Attachée in a bizarre ménage-à-trois possibly compromising defence secrets. Sir Alec’s Foreign Secretary was R. Butler and his Colonial Secretary was Duncan Sandys, successor of Ian Macleod, SSR’s friend.
We have to keep in focus a few events in the international panorama that had a bearing on the Anglo-American decision on Chagos. In 1954, Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt and in July 1956 he nationalized Anglo-French owned Suez Canal. In August 1956, an Anglo-French expedition which landed in Egypt was forced to withdraw after American President Dwight Eisenhower angored by what he regarded as a display of Anglo-French “imperialism” imposed financial sanctions on Britain. This was a major, if not humiliating setback for Anthony Eden who had to back-out.
In 1961, Macmillan agreed with President John Kennedy that the gap from Suez to Singapore would be filled jointly by USA and UK. The arrangement became part of the fabric of British “East of Suez” policy well adapted to Harry Truman’s Doctrine of Containing communism yet somewhat anti-imperialist in nature echoing Macmillan’s famous rhetoric statement “Wind of change is blowing over Africa”. But British budgetary restraints made it difficult to maintain its carriership, for launching nuclear missiles and for take-off and landing operations for its combat aircraft like F1-11A. The leasing of Diego Garcia to the Americans to build a permanent land base for joint use appeared realistic. Suddenly the Chagos became the most prized archipelago for military operation because of its lonely yet strategic location in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Agreement on Mutual Defence
When Harold Wilson leading party came to power winning the October 1964 general elections narrowly defeating by only four seats the conservatives, he clung to the same “East of Suez” policy and to the nuclear deterrent stance as tenaciously as his conservative predecessors to the satisfaction of his top brass technocrats at the Navy, Army and Royal air Force. Prime Minister Wilson followed the same beaten track as the conservatives in the conduct of Foreign Affairs and Decolonisation ably assisted by civil servants. The vigilant Sir Burke Trend, Secretary to the Cabinet (1963-1973) carefully monitored development in the Indian Ocean and regularly minuted his opinion to Wilson. At the Colonial Office, Sir  Hilton Poynton, Permanent Secretary, equally hawk-eyed, will with the superb assistance of his senior staff, outwit SSR and the Mauritian delegation, at a secluded Whitehall office away from the Lancaster House Conference room, with a red-herring called “Agreement on Mutual Defence” and will skilfully keep the detachment of Chagos a bilateral issue strictly between the British and Marititian delegation convincingly arguing the Americans cannot get involved in it. Wilson firmly presided over a cabinet of strange bedfellows: left wing James Callaghan, SSR’s friend, was Chancellor of Exchequer, right wing Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary and later had to exchange office. There was an orderly succession of unlikely fellows as Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker, Michael Stuart and George Brown. Left wing Anthony Greenwood, another close SSR’s friend, was Colonial Secretary (from October 1964 to december 1965) and the pompous Denis Healey took over the Ministry of Defence. Indeed it was under the Labour Government of Wilson that, after the detachment of the Chagos, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) with  war established underduress with full participation of our colonial leaders led by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam.
Conservative Colonial Secretary Ian Macleod (October 1959- October 1961) chaired the very important 3rd November Mauritius Constitutional Conference in June-July 1961 which paved the way to Contitutional advance in two stages, the first effective on 1st January 1962. Governor Sir Coleville Deverell was in office. Macleod and his successors, Reginald Maudling and Duncan Sandys had decided in their analysis of events in other colonies, particularly Cyprus and Fidji, that Mauritius should have an All-Party Government after the general elections to be held in 1963. That was a perequisite to implement the second stage. But there was trouble of a politico-communal nature brewing in Mauritius. A careful study of British National Archive papers will reveal the hidden facets of our colonial political leaders and will provide clues to the understanding of our present political culture.

High-case  Hindus dominating Mauritian politics
In the general elections of 21st October fought on Trustam-Eve’s 40 one-member constituencies, Dr. Ramgoolam leading the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP won only 19 seats (42%) compared to 23 (46.7% in March 1959 elections). The other two main parties did better in 1963: parti Mauricien got 8 seats (19% of the votes) compared to 3 seats (15%) in 1959 and the Independant Forward Block (IFB) won 7 seats (nearly 19%) compared to 6 seats (18.7%) in 1959. Even the Comité d’Action musulman carried 4 seats (7% of the votes) of all the Muslims. An analysis prepared by the Colonial Office provides disturbing yet accurate reading. The report mentions communal/ethnic and caste as overt consideration (or machinations) in both the fielding of candidates by parties and voting behaviour of electors - now grown into a distinctive and salient feature of Mauritian electoral politics. Simplified versions of both 1959 and 1963 elections were made available to Banwell Commission in 1966. The Colonial Office analysis was based on monthly political intelligence reports compiled by the Mauritius Intelligence Committee of the Mauritius Police Force, whose acting - Secretary was M. S. Guillemin, and sent to the Colonial Office with comments by the Governor or, in his absence, the Officer administering the Government (OAG). The report says of 19 Mauritius Labour Party elected, 14 were hindus, 8 (over half) were high-caste (“Baboojee/Maraz”), 2 “Vaishs”, two low caste, of which 1 was a “Chamar” and the other a “Dusad”, two belonged to the Tamil/Telegu linguistic group. The IFB elected one Muslim (Wahab Foondun at Bon Accueil) and six Hindus of which, the Colonial Office aptly noted, one was a “Vaish”, 1 of the Tamil/Telegu group and 4 high-castes.
Clearly, in those days, high-caste Hindus dominated Mauritian politics and Dr. Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (not Sir yet) in the Labour Party was at their beck and call. But he was confused and elusive about the nature and form of Independence. The Colonial Office noted that he was excited, awe-inspired about the trappings of Independence but wanted certain responsibilities, like internal security, defence and even budgetary assistance, to remain with U.K. A theme that Sookdeo Bissoondoyal will stick to but for different reasons.

Detachment of Chagos, a  “sine qua non”
One can argue that the only two issues on which there was full consensus among Mauritian leaders, and which ironcally was not even on the agenda of Lancaster House Conference, was internal security and external defence of Mauritius. Sir Hilton Poynton grasped this and cleverly made this a theme to be discussed with party leaders in seclusion in his office in Whitehall. And with dexterity and gusto made the detachment of Chagos a “sine qua non” for any treaty on security and defence with Mauritius. The lobbying exercice of Dr. Ramgoolam with the British political class and officials is quite documented with at times embarassing and sarcastic observation in minutes and official corespondances to Governor Rennie or to Officer Administering the Government, Tom Vickers. In a letter dated 29th 1964 by Trafford Smith to Gevernor Rennie, we see how Dr Ramgoolam made a laughing stock of himself  in London: “Ramgoolam went about London to meetings here at Colonial Office in an enormous Roll-Royce wearing the Mauritian Flag — the blue insign of the Mauritius crest — he is likely a near Prime Minister approaching independence”. Colonial Office with the help of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office compiled a list of overseas visits by the Mauritian Premier. Dr Ramgoolam appears as a regular and frequent visitor overseas much to the irritation of the Colonial Office officials and ministerial office holders in London. He made three visits in two months in early1965. He was in Formosa (Taïwan) from 5th to 13th January as guest of President and Madame Chang Kai Shek, despite being advised by Governor Rennie no to go as United Kingdom did not recognised Formosa. Then Dr Ramgoolam went to India for a fortnight to attend Republic Day celebrations. Returning to Mauritius for a few days he went to Cairo for 8 days as guest of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of The United Arab Republic. In a letter dated 29 January 1965, Tom Vickers (OAG) wrote on Dr Ramgoolam to Colonial Secretary Anthony Greenwood: “According to one of his Labour colleagues, the Premier swayed no doubt by his visits to no less than five sets of Independance celebrations ( Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya, Malawi, Malta) an those of Republic of Kenya, chided by East african political leaders, and conscious of his own gathering years (he will be 65 in september) is more than ever anxious to push on quickly to Independence”.

Duval’s lobbies
Gaëtan Duval, then deputy-leader of Parti Mauricien, too embarked on his lobby exercice for Integration. In a highly confidential note on a file dated 18th November 1964, Trafford -Smith says that Duval, Minister of Housing and land, was to have a meeting with Colonial Secretary Greenwood and the Parliamentary Under Secretary, Mrs Irene White on thursday 19 november at the Colonial Office “to obtain reaction to a possibility of eventual integration of Mauritius as an alternative to Independence”. In the same note, Trafford-Smith ominiously writes “We would not consider integration a practical proposition for Mauritius, even if the majority of parties in Mauritius wanted it”. Duval also lobbied with his contacts at the Palais de l’Elysée and with officials of the French Foreign Ministry at Quai d’Orsay. Earlier in July 1961, a group of Franco-Mauritians had evoked their “original settlers rights” and had asked the French Government to intervene on their behalf in the face of a likely Indian take-over of power. The French Government replied it had no “Locus Standi” and could not intervene because the term “inhabitants” as it is referred to in the Capitulation Treaty of 1810 meant only those living at the time and not future generations.
The Colonial Office considered Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam a capable and far-sighed leader. They could count on his collaborative stance in the colonial gouvernment. They were also fully aware of his personal ambition. In December 1963 the British Conservative government of Alec Douglas-Home was desperate to reach an agreement with him on an All-Party Government in Mauritius. R. Terrell, a top-brass at the Colonial Office, in a minute note dated 2 December 1963 wrote the following: “Perhaps if Dr Ramgoolam were given a knighthood in the New Year Honours, the above proposals would be acceptable to all the parties concerned. What we want to avoid is a deterioration of security in Mauritius. The death of Dr Ramgoolam — who is not a strong man — or undue frustration of the Parti Mauricien could easily precipitate a most difficult situation”. A subsequent unsigned handwritten minute says this on the award of a knighthood to Dr Ramgoolam. “Far too late now even if the Governor were to suggest it”. Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was eventually given a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of June 1965 and dubbed on Saturday 18th september 1965 on his 65th birthday when the London Contitutional Conference (Lancaster House) was in full swing.
Briefs to Prime Minister Harold Wilson by J.O Wright of Prime Minister’s Office  (PMO) based on information supplied by the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office are eloquent. The briefs clearly underline SSR’s defined sense of political purpose and his almost obsessive degree of political ambition. Extracts from a steering brief by J.O. Wright to Wilson reads : “Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam is coming to see you at 10.00 tomorrow morning. The objet is to frighten him with hope : hope that he might get Independence. Fright lest he might not unless he is sensible about detachment of the Chagos Archipelago... Call him  « Sir Seewoosagur » or « Premier » his official titles. He likes to be called  «Prime Minister ». Getting old. Realises he must get Independence soon or it will be to late for his personal career. Rather status-conscious. Responds to flattery”.
Latter day historians argue SSR fought the British and “integrationists” tooth and nail to bring Mauritius Independance. Documentary evidence gives a different picture suggesting Independence was the outcome of an Anglo-American decision to maintain their military needs in the new strategic area of the Indian Ocean. To what extent our colonial political leaders were collaborative or otherwise in the process has to be spelled out. And this without compromising our inherent need of a patriotic vision of State and Nationhood.  


A couple of observations:

I find it incredible how the vital role of Sir Abdool Razak Mohamed should deserve but a (barely) fleeting mention in this article. Arguably, without SARM and CAM, there would not have been independence.

You fail to mention, in all the meticulous details you have provided, how SSR met with David Ben Gurion whilst he (SSR) was on a secret-short visit to israel in 1962.

The conclusion of this piece is quite telling. Mauritius was a non-entity in the scheme of things. Due to the geopolitical situation; Britain had already let it be known that it was 'redeploying' East of the Suez before 1970. As has already been highlighted, the US sought a strategic base in the Indian Ocean. The need to placate India was paramount, hence the granting of 'independence' to Mauritius.

"In August 1956, an Anglo-French expedition which landed in Egypt was forced to withdraw".

The French, UK and Israeli attack and invasion of Egypt, took place on the 29th October 1956.