NOVEMBER 30, 1938

ANAND MOHEEPUTH

Thanks to the considerable pressure exerted by friends in London of the Mauritius Labour Party on Lord Dufferin, the Parliamentary under-Secretary of state for the Colonies, Emmanuel Anquetil found himself relieved of the solitary confinement he was held in Rodrigues. Arthur Creech Jones, the influential British Labour MP who was well acquainted with Anquetil together with Reginald Bridgeman of the National Council of Civil Liberties led the charge against the Colonial office until a reversal of the deportation sanction issued by the Governor, Sir Bede Clifford, was obtained.  After a little less than three months spent in exile, it was cheerful homecoming for Anquetil. That was eighty years ago, on 30 November 1938 when the ‘Tegelberg’ carrying the flamboyant Trade Unionist reached Port Louis. The unusual heavy presence of soldiers and baton wielding police, intended to bring a dissuasive effect,   hardly dampened the ardour of Anquetil’s 500 or so supporters thronged in the vicinity of the port area. Those supporters floating banners carrying the inscription “Vive Anquetil” and shouting slogans were joined     by school children of the Windsor college founded by the Labour Party.

That display of solidarity, perhaps, boosted   further Anquetil’s indomitable spirit. For, battling against a life-threatening illness that was to give him only one year to live, Anquetil despite his meek garb and a declining health went on to live longer. Even on his deathbed in December 1946, he whispered to those coming to pay him a visit that he was not done yet and would be with them for years to come, animated as he was   by the utmost zeal to promote industrial associations, as trade unionism was then called, for the benefits of the labouring class.

Why was Anquetil singled out for deportation?  Sir Bede Clifford, himself hailing from a conservative and aristocratic ancestry dating back to the Norman conquest in 1066, right from the outset of his governorship developed a repugnance for the sheer agitational posture adopted by the  nascent Labour Party. It was the first time the island was witnessing commotion on an unprecedented scale causing huge ripples in the hitherto placid social and political life of the island. While the Governor said he was going to “play a modernising role” to fulfill the desire of the Secretary of state anxious to “see a more progressive labour policy in Mauritius”, he alienated himself from the Labour Party by his high-handedness towards those regarded as “agitators” in the party. The Governor even chose to dismiss the advice of the Colonial office that to achieve labour reform, and “if we are to run the place smoothly”, the support of the Labour Party, “a force to reckon with”, had to be secured. That was so, notwithstanding, the perception built by British officials at the Colonial office that the founder and president of the Labour Party, Maurice Curé, was a “windbag”. But Sir Bede Clifford’s crackdown approach exacerbated an already sour and tensed relationship. To Sir Bede Clifford, Maurice Curé was “mentally unbalanced” and Anquetil was viewed as “the organising genius and the brains directing the action…” But Anquetil, with a solid trade-unionism background in Mauritius at that time, was seen by Sir Bede as “predominantly more dangerous” than Curé. The profile drawn by the local Police Superintendent, Captain Parker, depicted him as “a regular communist of the worst type, sowing discontent…”. That sort of assessment, by attaching the communist tag to Anquetil, would be enough for the Colonial administration to identify him as a marked man and keep a hawk eye on his activities.

So when Anquetil in the course of a public meeting held at Mahébourg unleashed a barrage of vitriol against the Colonial government, inciting the crowd to a frenzy, the Governor became nervous and looked for options about how to tackle the Labour Party. More so, as its leaders gave vent to their anger over the Governor’s decision to dismantle    the ‘Société de Bienfaisance’, an arm of the Labour Party, formed under the Friendly Societies Ordinance of 1874, to help the needy.

Sir Bede summoned Curé to Le Réduit to tell him that the Labour Party was to exercise restraint and moderation in its approach.  He said if the Labour Party was willing to support the government’s action on social reform, the ‘Société de Bienfaisance’ could be revived. He also proposed to Curé a seat as a nominee in the Legislative Council before the year was out. Anquetil was proposed a decent job in the newly established Labour department headed by H.T.W Oswell. Curé declined the Governor’s offer. Neither was Anquetil interested in the Governor’s proposal. He was about to negotiate for a wage increase and reduction in working hours for docks’ workers through the Conciliation Board appointed by the Labour department.

But before the Conciliation Board began its assignments, workers forming part of the ‘Dockers, Wharves & Harbour Workers Association’ went on strike. Sir Bede Clifford wrote “they (dockers) refused all offers to negotiate and picketed the dockyard gates…..There were clashes with the police and a number of people were injured”.

To prevent unrest like the one that occurred in 1937, the Governor declared a state of Emergency. Activities in Port Louis came to a standstill.  Access to the town from outside was controlled by soldiers placing barbed wires across all entrances.

Sir Bede lost no time in breaking the dockers’ strike. He organised with estates’ owners for labourers to be transported to Port Louis.  Under police protection, they began loading lighters and ships so that activities in the port were not affected.

The Governor thus pulled off what can be described as a ‘masterstroke’ to outwit the dockers and for which he was heartily complimented by Philippe Raffray, a senior member of the Legislative Council. From London, the Secretary of state, Malcolm MacDonald, congratulated Sir Bede for his efficient handling of issues the strike raised and the firmness he adopted in “discouraging the lawless elements in Mauritius which have been giving us all so much anxiety”.

As regards Anquetil, the “predominantly dangerous man”, in the Governor’s words, he was arrested in the night of 7 September 1938 and his house raided with lots of documents seized by the police. The next day, in the company of two police constables, in what was a closely guarded secret, he was hustled on board the Bonketoe sailing off to Rodrigues.  The same night at eleven o’clock, knocks at the door woke Curé from his sleep. The police informed him he was placed under house arrest and so were his close associates.

Anquetil’s deportation stirred resentment in the British Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress. Arthur Creech Jones, a Labour MP and Reginald Bridgeman of the Council of Civil Liberties, were in the forefront urging the reversal of the Governor’s decision.

Indeed, Creech Jones who was to become Secretary of state for the colonies in later years, showed concerns over Anquetil’s deportation and the unrest prevailing in the island. He not only exposed these elements in the House of Commons but went about assailing the Colonial office with queries, even giving Colonial office staff instructions about how to manage the Governor of     Mauritius. The Colonial office complained that “it was getting heartily sick of Mr Creech Jones and his enquiries”. It was feared Creech Jones’ “interference” might upset Bede Clifford who, the officials thought, “may soon begin to wonder whether he or Mr Creech Jones is responsible for the Government of Mauritius”.

In the course of a meeting on 2 November 1938 at the Colonial office with Lord Dufferin in the presence of H.B Kemmis, Creech Jones “criticised the drastic repression of labour unrest in the colony”.  He urged that the strikers still imprisoned “should at once be released” and that “immediate action should be taken to provide the working population with the means of industrial and political expression”. To which Lord Dufferin said, according to a Minute, “in this dangerous situation, the Governor had no choice but to act with firmness and promptitude to prevent bloodshed and rioting…”. According to Lord Dufferin, “Sir Bede Clifford’s action was quite justified by circumstances”.

Lord Dufferin stated that Anquetil’s deportation was meant to be “temporary” and he “has been allowed to return”.  He said the “arrested strikers were released except 20 who are serving sentences for acts of assault and violence”.

Even then, Creech Jones expressed his dissatisfaction about the so much time taken to release Anquetil.  “I must still protest”, he wrote to Lord Dufferin, “against the conduct of the authorities in respect to this man (Anquetil) and the restrictions on Dr Curé so that he could not perform his ordinary medical work”.

When Anquetil landed from the Tegelberg, docks’ workers waved to him. Outside, members of the Labour Party and supporters gave him an enthusiastic welcome, showering him with garlands. He was thankful to Magistrate Le Gras and the population of Rodrigues for having treated him like a “petit roi”. He was also thankful to his 15-year old son, John, for his “devotion” to him.

Mounted on the shoulders of his supporters, Anquetil led a procession through the streets of Port Louis ending up at the Labour Party headquarters housed on the first floor of La Flore Nationale on the Chaussée.

…….

References

-J.M. Curé: Letter: Une page de l’Histoire du Syndicalisme Mauricien, published in Le Mauricien, 7 September 1958

-L.R. Quenette: Emmanuel Anquetil

-Report of an interview between Lord Dufferin, Mr A. Creech Jones and Mr K.B. Kemmis at the Colonial office, November 2,1938 (courtesy, Archives University of Warwick, UK)

-Sir Bede Clifford: Proconsul

-J. Seekings: British Colonial Policy, Local politics and the Origins of the Mauritian Welfare state

-R. Croucher & J. Mcilroy: Mauritius 1938: The origins of a milestone in Colonial trade union legislation

-Newspapers (1938): Le Radical, Le Mauricien, Le Cernéen