BY ANAND MOHEEPUTH
The 1911 general election was a test of the political strength between the all-time dominating oligarchy and the Action Libérale launched in 1907 by Dr Eugène Laurent, Anatole de Boucherville and Edouard Nairac. Would the oligarchy continue to maintain their grip in the political field? Or would there be signs of political power slipping out of hands with the arrival in the political landscape of more liberal and democratic parties?
While the oligarchy derived its power to consolidate its own interest from the 1885 Constitution, the Action Libérale tried to garner support from the middle class and lower section of the population to make it a party representing the masses. It pegged its campaign on the need for the setting up of a Royal Commission to inquire into the finances of the sugar industry after the influential leader of the Franco-Mauritian elite, Sir Henri Leclézio, member for Moka since 1886, sought in 1907 the British government’s intervention in the form of a loan of £600,000 to help the industry tide over its financial difficulties.
In the Council of Government, Leclézio evoked the steep fall of sugar prices since 1897 and got the support of the Governor, Sir Cavendish Boyle, for recommending the loan to be sanctioned. But the Secretary of state for the Colonies, Lord Elgin, rejected the demand arguing that he could not disburse any sum from the British treasury without a thorough inquiry being conducted on the prevailing state of the industry. Lord Elgin suggested that the local government should by itself overcome its difficulties, by drastic cuts on extravagances and opulence of estates’ owners and levying of additional taxes.
In the oligarch’s camp, the immediate reaction was one of fear and restlessness. “It’s absolutely useless”, retorted, Sir Henri Leclézio. “This will have the effect of creating disorder in the island”.
The Action Libérale, for its part, seized the occasion to score a political leverage. It heartily welcomed the idea of the appointment of a Royal Commission, which, by the way, became a battle-cry for the party’s mission throughout until the election in 1911.
Two of its members, René Mérandon and Willie Dawson set off on June 1,1908, on a ‘pilgrimage’ from the place d’Armes in Port-Louis to Souillac passing through Beau-Bassin and Nouvelle France on an ox-drawn cart baptised “La Vérité en Marche”, harping at each village stop-over on the urgency of a high-level inquiry in the sugar industry because according to them “le Rwa finn tande ki ena kouyonad dan sa pei-la…sa mem bann gran blan ankoler. Zot napa le enan lanket….”
The first leg of the tours in the South ending in the village of Souillac was punctuated by a “memorable” meeting held on Sunday June 7, 1908 when by a show of hands, a resolution addressed to the Secretary of state was voted requesting a Royal Commission.
The orators spoke about the Governor’s yearly salary of Rs 75,000, seen as too high, mismanagement of public funds – “larzan tax sa, larzan ki tou dimounn peye…”– and reminded the public of the exploitation of the poor by the sugar magnates – an anti-white rhetoric that became popular with politicians down the years.
According to one speaker, Dr Octave Guibert, Mauritius was already ripe for self-rule. That was said in… 1908!
In the Council of Government, Dr Eugène Laurent led the charge against the oligarch establishment. But Sir Henri Leclézio in 1907 renewed his demand made earlier in 1904 by forcefully expressing the concern of the Chamber of Agriculture about the crisis facing the sugar industry.
That his application for a loan for the benefit of the sugar industry was not approved by Lord Elgin unless an inquiry was set up supplied ammunition to the Action Libérale’s armoury to lampoon the plantocracy. The motion tabled by Laurent on February 2, 1909, requesting the new Secretary of state, Lord Crewe, to appoint at the earliest a Royal Commission placed the oligarchs in a most embarrassing situation.
In fact, Leclézio was not all in favour of a Commission of inquiry. At a meeting of the Chamber of Agriculture, he cautioned that a Royal Commission, if instituted, would be dangerous, for, according to him, it might “unleash the Asiatic peril” which meant that the British could entrust the management of Mauritius to India for a “more economical” administration. Indian magistrates and officials would then be employed here at lower costs- “à vil prix”.
But Leclézio soon revised his decision when he suggested an amendment to be brought to Laurent’s motion which hardly changed anything. “Que l’enfant soit habillé d’une façon ou d’une autre, c’est toujours le même”, retorted Laurent. The Action Libérale’s supporters regarded the amendment as a “capitulation” by Leclézio.
It was in a sense the popular support galvanized by the Action Libérale that influenced the appointment of a Royal Commission although Governor Boyle had all through sided with the oligarchy so much so that it was said Leclézio kept Governors like Boyle in his “pocket”.
The Commissioners reached Mauritius on June 18, 1909 at three in the afternoon. At the Chien de Plomb in Port Louis, they were greeted by an impressive crowd of “12,000” persons, led by Laurent, according to Auguste Toussaint. Later, Sir Frank Swettenham, the Chairman of the Commission would write that in an island where “the high life is politics, the people are profoundly lazy”.
But the acid test for the Action Libérale, formed on the model of British liberalism opposed to Conservatism, was yet to come. Though the party was able to drum up support from a large section of the population which, it said, had had enough of that “sick oligarchy” that was the “cause of all the evils in the island”, the Colonial administration, however, seemed worried about the likely turn of political events.
In a despatch dated July 15, 1908 to the Colonial Office, Governor Cavendish Boyle wrote that the Action Libérale was whipping up communal antagonism, instigating passions of “coloured Creoles as well as the Indian inhabitants against the Whites”. According to him, the party had made “Creoles and Indians” believe that a Royal Commission would help them “secure cheaper food supplies and obtain unlimited borrowing facilities”.
The Colonial secretary, Graham Bower in another despatch dated August 1,1908 dwelt on the danger of a political alliance between Creoles and Indians. “Laurent’s appeal to an illiterate community (the Indians) is dangerous”, he wrote.
But when the general election was held from January 16 to 31, 1911, the Action Libérale could not translate its mass support into votes. It lost badly in the election. The “Parti de l’Ordre” led by Sir Henri Leclézio, trounced the Action Libérale winning eight seats. Only the two seats of Port Louis went to the Action Libérale as Eugène Laurent and Edouard Nairac triumphed over the oligarch candidates, William Newton and Victor Ducasse.
The defeat of Newton stirred much bitterness in the Oligarch camp. The ‘Planters’ and Commercial Gazette attributed the election of Laurent and Nairac to Muslim votes, calling them “députés des asiatiques” and as such could not represent the “Mauritian community”. The paper even went to the extent of referring to Nairac as “Hadjee Nairac”.
In Curepipe, on the day the election results were proclaimed, the clash between supporters of the two sides fuelled rumours that spread like wild fire that Eugène Laurent was murdered. The Laurent’s supporters in Port Louis decided to march on to Curepipe the same night in a spirit of revenge but were stopped as assurance was given that Laurent was safe and would come down from Curepipe to Port Louis the next morning.
In the meantime, the Action Libérale’s supporters like “hounds in leash” went on a plunder spree, looting shops, assaulting with sticks oligarch supporters forcing them to shout “Vive Laurent!”. The offices of the newspapers ‘Le Radical’ and ‘Le Cernéen were ransacked. The situation looked more alarming due to drunkenness of troublemakers who marched to Labourdonnais street to attack Victor Ducasse, the oligarch’s defeated candidate, but were scared away by gun shots fired from Mr Ducasse’s home.
In the morning of 18 January, after Laurent had a short meeting with Sir Cavendish Boyle at Government House, he led his excited supporters to the Champ de Mars. He opened the meeting with an appeal to keep calm. “Paix, mon Peuple”, he exclaimed raising both his hands to the sky and the mob still in a state of frenzy responded by “Vive nou le Roi (Eugène Laurent)”.
Though enjoying popular support, the Action Libérale found itself a casualty of the very restrictive 1885 Constitution which denied voting rights to the bulk of the population.
Dr Eugène Laurent had the rare distinction of serving nine terms as Mayor of Port Louis. A disillusioned man, he left Mauritius in 1919 to settle in London where he died in 1926.