Let Us Also Celebrate the Arrival of Our First Immigrants in 1598

Every 2nd November, Mauritius celebrates the arrival of indentured labourers from India. The Government holds official ceremonies to pay homage to their hard work which has built up the economy of this country. They have also enriched our culture with their values developed over several millennia, and brought us several lines of religious thinking that have extended our concept of brotherhood. The arrival of Indian indentured labour as from 2nd November 1834 constitutes the second wave of immigrants coming to Mauritius after a first wave began in 1598 with the annexation of the island by Holland. We should also celebrate the arrival of these First Immigrants because they have left us at least three legacies that have strengthened us as a nation.
The first legacy is Christianity which guides the daily lives of many (if not most) of our countrymen up to this day. Father Philips Pierterz de Delft held the first Christian prayers on the island on 20 September 1598, the day the Dutch took over Mauritius and gave it its name. A most notable contribution of Christianity to the country is the work of Father Jacques Désiré Laval who arrived in Mauritius from France on 13 September 1841 to join the Church’s establishment. As part of his mission he started the process of healing the wounds inflicted on our society by slavery which had been abolished in 1835. When much later, in 1966, a consensus had to be reached on an electoral system for the country, children of slaves and slave owners were grouped in one community called the “General Population”.
The Church has, when the need arose, taken other initiatives that have contributed to nation building. I shall mention only one of these since it came at a crucial period of our history when the country could have plunged into chaos. Within one week after the 1967 general elections, Bishop Daniel Liston, then Head of the Church, invited Catholics to be patriotic and show loyalty to the country rather than to their community. It is to be recalled that the campaign for the 1967 general elections was very harsh since it deeply divided Mauritians along communal lines on the issue of whether Mauritius should be independent or claim an association with Great Britain similar to the status enjoyed by our neighbour, Reunion, with France.
The next legacy given to us by the First Immigrants is a free press. Nicholas Lambert published the first Mauritian newspaper in 1773. The inhabitants of the island managed to secure press freedom from the British Colonial Administration in amendments carried out in 1831 to the 1825 constitution. Later in 1909, Manilal Doctor, a prominent lawyer sent to Mauritius by Mahatma Gandhi to defend the rights of indentured labourers, founded a newspaper called “Hindustani” and used it as a tool to denounce the inhuman treatment inflicted on the labourers by the sugar oligarchy. More recently in 2016, the existence of a free press was a significant positive factor behind the classification of Mauritius as a full democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Such a distinction, bestowed on only 19 countries in World, increases our image as a safe and reliable destination for investment, tourism, and other services.
The third legacy left by the First Immigrants is the Royal College, which they founded under the initial name of “Collège Colonial” in 1791. The first British Governor of Mauritius, Sir Robert Farquhar, gave the college its present name in 1813. Many Old Royals (name given to former students of the College) have over the past 200 years become top professionals and civil servants. According to History Professor Dr Sada Reddi, “it was in the realm of politics and economic development that the Old Royals would play a decisive role in the development of Mauritius. Whatever be the island’s class and race prejudices, Royal College education provided adequate commonalities among its students so that they could in later life collaborate and deal creatively with the complex issues of Mauritian political, economic and social development. Amidst the debates and discussions, the concessions, albeit grudgingly made to find solutions to facilitate the development of the country rest one of the most important contributions of the old Royals”.
Just like there would be disunity in a two-child family if the parents decide to celebrate the birthdays of only one particular child, we shall not be able to have complete national unity if the Republic of Mauritius continues to ignore the benefits brought by its First Immigrants. The Authorities should designate a special day in the year when the Republic shall pay homage to them. This will increase the sense of belonging of their descendants to the Mauritian nation.
(1)                Sydney Selvon, A Comprehensive History of Mauritius, 2005.
(2)                K. Hazareesingh, History of Indians in Mauritius, Macmillan Education Limited, London, 1977.
(3)                Sada Reddi, The Royal College in History, Mauritius Times, January 16, 2014.
(4)                Chit Dukhira, Winning and Celebrating Independence 1968, Mauritius Times, March 14 2014.
(5)                en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal College
(6)                www.dioceseportlouis.org/historique/bienheureux-jacques-desire-laval/
(7)                Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index 2016, Revenge of the Deplorables, London, UK