Opposite Government on the Place d’Armes, Port Louis, stands the statue erected in 1908 of Sir John Pope Hennessy, who was Governor of Mauritius from 1883 to 1887. Sir John is seen holding in one hand a document purported to be the 1885 Constitution of Mauritius. It was, indeed, the 1885 Constitution that was to pave the way for the emergence of political democracy in Mauritius. It was Pope Hennessy who lobbied hard with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Derby, to obtain a Constitution in which was enshrined a key element – the elective system – that would give a representational Legislature as from 1886, for the first time in Mauritius. In fact, the demand for a Constitutional reform was triggered by the Reform Movement since 1882 but the acting Governor then, Sir Napier Broome, did his best to obstruct the Reformists’ mission by his absolutely negative reports to the Colonial office. One of Pope Hennessy’s predecessors, Governor William Stevenson (1857-1862) pressed the Secretary of State that “Mauritians should be brought to appreciate liberal institutions and popular power for the purposes of government and legislation”. But his advice was turned down. Sir John on assuming office in 1883 threw all his weight and determination behind the Reformist’ demand to bring it to a successful conclusion despite stiff opposition of the “ultra-Conservatives”.
The historic advent of the 1885 Constitution was largely possible due to Pope Hennessy’s outgoing personality and the liberal spirit that animated him. He was the second Irish Catholic Governor of Mauritius, after Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole (1823-1828). His ideas and decisions at times in the colonies’ affairs proved controversial and irritated many in the elitist societies and even at the Colonial office though he was much liked by the ordinary people.
In Mauritius, for example, defying all odds, he went about proclaiming ‘Mauritius for the Mauritians’, a slogan that caused eyebrows to be raised in the small English community. In 1884, at the prize-giving ceremony of the Royal College, he bluntly said in the presence of the English Rector that he wished a Mauritian could attain the position of Rector. He appointed Mauritians to the higher echelon of the Civil Service.
For example, his appointment of Eugène Leclézio as Chief Judge, the first Mauritian to hold that position was a bold decision. He recommended to the Colonial office the appointment of a “Creole” Nicolas Beyts for the post of Colonial Secretary, exclusively reserved for British born. But that recommendation was rejected because Beyts was considered “deficient in the moral qualities so necessary to be the Head of a great Department”. Apparently, his “very dark skin” was also a factor that let him down.
Another example of Pope Hennessy’s liberal thinking was the idea he wanted to experience in Sierra Leone in 1872 when he suggested the establishment of a university in West Africa so that “sons of rich Africans and the poorest youths who have talents may have the opportunity of cultivating learning”. But his grandiose idea was dismissed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl of Kimberley, as “rubbish”.
Here was a Governor who basically had the profile of a rebel, who stirred the hornet’s nest wherever he went and Mauritius was no exception.
When the Reform Movement revived its Constitutional reform project foiled earlier by Sir Napier Broome, it pinned its hopes on the new Governor. Because Pope Hennessy, the ardent supporter of Home-Rule, could be relied upon to tilt the balance in favour of the Reformers. His proximity with people in England’s political circle, in particular, with Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the Secretary of State, Lord Derby, was a positive aspect he made good use of to expedite matters.
So when the Reformist Loïs Raoul tabled a motion on 11 December, 1883, to the effect “that the Constitution of this Council which exists since 1831 is no longer in accord with the material and intellectual condition of the people and with the feelings and opinions of the time, an elective element should be introduced therein”, Pope Hennessy was all too happy to oblige.
But resistance to the proposed reform which began in 1882 was still running deep. Led by Sir Célicourt Antelme who, according to Pope Hennessy in a letter dated 10 May 1886 to Lord Derby, “so frequently expressed his horror at seeing an Indian element in the Council Chamber”, the anti-Reformist faction hoped to prevail upon the Governor to forestall the elective element. The fear of the island’s “Indianisation” as a result of an elective system was uppermost in the minds of the “ultra-Conservatives” as reflected in this extract from the editorial of the newspaper, ‘Le Cernéen’, of 2 October, 1882: “Mais notre conviction profonde est que nous faisons le jeu des Indiens en hâtant le moment de leur émancipation politique. Si l’heure doit un jour sonner où ils auront forcément une part active dans la direction des affaires de la colonie, laissons venir cette heure, mais ce n’est à nous, enfants du sol, à déblayer cette voie et à les faire arriver un peu plus vite….”
To Pope Hennessy, there appeared nothing sinister about the conduct of the Indians. According to him, they had no interest in politics and Antelme’s “invasion of our political life” was but a figment of his imagination. Furthermore, the Governor said Indians accounted for 19% of school-going children in the island.
“Perhaps”, said Pope Hennessy, “the Indians are too sensible to be politicians. You may rest assured that neither the Indian community nor the Chinese for whom I have also a great respect will ever trouble your political life. I like both the Indians and the Chinese but they are foreign to our style of politics; they have certain customs and usages of their own, in some respects, perhaps more rational than ours, but at all events, they are not in our political system…”
But Antelme still had the acute sense of disquiet. Perhaps, his far-sightedness, a trait that is rarely to be found in local politicians, enabled him to make up how the future political landscape would look like and that could explain his nervousness.
Despite Sir John’s assurance that there was no worry about the “Asiatic spectre”, Antelme remained consistent with his convictions until he discovered his hope for maintaining the status-quo was a forlorn one. He then jumped in the band-wagon of the ‘Democrats’, calling the Governor a “fanatic for the Asiatics”. As a freshly converted “democrat”, he even supported the lower franchise qualification proposed by Beaugeard.
As such, the relationship between Antelme and the Governor took a nose-dive. While Pope Hennessy’s administration of the colony came under sharp attacks from Antelme’s followers, the Reformist leaders praised the Governor for his “enlightened, liberal and truly Mauritian policy”.
Pope Hennessy’s “strong recommendations” and continued pressure in favour of a representational Council that would, he said, “be beneficial and acceptable to the people”, indeed, influenced a reluctant Lord Derby to agree to the proposal for the elective system, while cautioning that the Governor should under no circumstances be made to surrender control in the Council.
Already, there was jubilation on the Reformists’ side and also talks of Lord Derby’s “capitulation”. A banquet hosted by Virgile Naz to thank the Governor for his unflinching support to the Reformist cause was attended by 650 guests. The banquet was held at the Royal College, Port Louis. The Governor on his arrival was greeted with roaring applause.
When the Electoral Commission Committee whose members were picked up by the Governor met on 15 September, 1884 as suggested by the Secretary of state, to draft a new Constitution, the representatives of the Reform Movement and the ‘Democrats’ of Beaugeard and de Coriolis clashed over the franchise qualifications that would be applicable to qualify one as a voter. The Reformists again insisted on the adoption of an elective system that would give a Legislature consisting of ten elected members. Their spokesman, Georges Guibert, proposed a franchise qualification known as the “cens Guibert” which, if applied, would have restricted the number of eligible voters.
The Democrats seized the opportunity to turn the tables on the Reformists. Their spokesman, Onésipho Beaugeard, proposed a lower franchise qualification, the “cens Beaugeard” that would allow a larger participation of the inhabitants as voters.
It did not matter whether it was the ‘cens Guibert’ or the ‘cens Beaugeard”, as both ‘cens’ bore the same dimensional criteria. The only difference was that the ‘cens Beaugeard’ was like a discounted rate in money worth of the ‘cens Guibert’. Only those who were property owners or paid monthly rents of Rs 25 or earning a minimum yearly salary of Rs 600 had the right to vote.
As pointed out by Pope Hennessy in a despatch dated 23 December 1885 to the Secretary of state, for the first general election held in Mauritius in 1886, only 4060 eligible voters, broken down into “3300 Roman Catholics, 450 Protestants, 295 Indians and 15 Chinese”, were registered out of a population of 360,000.
Anyway, in a despatch dated 31 December 1883 accompanying the proceedings of the Electoral Committee meetings, Pope Hennessy kept turning the heat on Lord Derby when he wrote that there was “an almost unanimous sentiment about the adoption of an elective system” in the colony.
A telegram dated 29 July 1885 from the Secretary of State informed the Governor that the demand for ten elected members of the Legislative Council was approved. “Will prepare Order in Council without loss of time”, the message read.
Pope Hennessy announced in the Council of Government on 30 October 1885 the award of a new Constitution to Mauritius which was followed on the same day by a Proclamation in the Government Gazette.
It was the beginning of a tumultuous electoral campaign dominated by the participation of a fractured Franco-Mauritian community in view of the first general election scheduled from 11 January to 20 January 1886.
But that breakthrough in electoral reform was not very much appreciated at the Colonial office. Some officials seemed uncomfortable with the award of the elective element. Sir Robert Herbert, for example, saw Mauritius as “a weakening of Crown colony government which others would rush for and ultimately there will hardly be a Crown colony left”.
– SD/SA Despatches from/to Sir John Pope Hennessy, Mauritius Archives
– Minutes/Papers Colonial office in D.Fairfield’s Constitutional History of the British Empire
– James Pope Hennessy: Verandah- Some Episodes in the Crown Colonies (1867-1889)
– L.Rivaltz Quenette: Le Combat Réformiste
– L.Rivaltz Quenette: Le Grand Beaugeard
– Marc Serge Rivière: No Man is an Island:The Irish presence in Mauritius (1715-2007)
– Newspapers: Le Cernéen, Le Progrès Colonial, La Sentinelle de Maurice, Planters and Commercial Gazette