Despite the total registered voters for the first general election held in Mauritius in January 1886 numbered 4059, still the island witnessed a high-voltage tension as the Franco-Mauritian elite, split into two rival factions, dominated the political scene for the general election. While out of the majority Indian community which numbered 284,013 of a total population of 360,000, according to the figure quoted by Sir John Pope Hennessy in his Despatch to the Secretary of state for the Colonies, only 295 Indians and 15 Chinese could be registered as voters. The Indians remained passive spectators having been bumped out of the electoral circuit by the restrictive qualifications set in the 1885 Constitution.
But for the first general election in Mauritius, it was the role and political posture adopted by the Governor, Sir John Pope Hennessy, that became the main theme evoked by the then two opposing factions. The electoral campaign had a serious repercussion in that the Governor was suspended by the Colonial office following complaints made by his detractors about his administration and partisanship displayed in local politics.
It was the elective element in the 1885 Constitution that the Governor, Sir John Pope Hennessy, vehemently supported despite the objection raised by Sir Célicourt Antelme, leader of the Oligarchy, who since 1882 was fighting tooth and nail for maintaining the status-quo. That another group having floated the “Reform party” led by William Newton, Georges Guibert and Henri Leclézio tried to torpedo Antelme’s plan by insisting upon Constitutional reform in order to champion the causes and interest of the white plantocracy. The Reformists endeared themselves to the Governor when they went about proclaiming the “enlightened, liberal and truly Mauritian policy” pursued by Sir John Pope Hennessy. That inevitably drove a wedge within the Franco-Mauritian community.
Instead of adopting a neutral posture during the 1886 election period, Pope Hennessy gave indications that he was on the Reformists’ side and did his utmost to secure the election of William Newton and Georges Guibert in Port Louis where the Democrats’ candidates Dr Onésipho Beaugeard and Gustave de Coriolis were considered as a certainty for victory. William Newton and Georges Guibert formed part of what Antelme described as the “coterie of hangers-on of Le Réduit”. Pope Hennessy listened to these men who made him think that he was a rain to heaven.
In fact, in a confidential and private letter dated 20 December 1886 to the Oriental Bank in London, John Alexander Ferguson, a Director of the bank’s local branch and an independent candidate standing for election in Port Louis, complained that Sir John wanted him to desist in favour of William Newton for which he would be rewarded with a nomination in the Council and when he declined the offer made through the Receiver-General, Nicolas Beyts, the Governor began “maligning me”, accusing him of being “an accomplice in the frauds of which the Old Bank found itself” and that “I was not a fit and proper person to be a member of Council”. Ferguson stated that at the time the bank ceased activities, Newton “owed a good deal of money to the Bank”.
Pope Hennessy’s famous slogan “Mauritius for the Mauritians” cheered up the Reformist’s supporters but irritated the Democrats and the small Protestant British community which launched the “English party” that went fizzling out like a firecracker, on account of the “weakness of character”, although the Colonial secretary, Dalton Clifford Lloyd, in conflictual relationship with Pope Hennessy worked hard with the support of Antelme to discredit the Governor.
Pope Hennessy was furious over Lloyd peddling rumours that the Colonial office was “sick of the Governor”. The Colonial secretary even wrote a memorial to the Secretary of state stating that the island was in crisis and that he was suffering from “mental derangement”. Pope Hennessy hit back: “I’ll smash Clifford Lloyd and have him out in three months…” Lloyd was soon transferred to the Seychelles and then to Kurdistan upon the intervention of the British prime minister, William Gladstone.
The Democrats led by Beaugeard and Gustave de Coriolis lashed out at the Governor accusing him of indulging in local politics and attributing to him the leadership of the Reform party. “Who is the leader of the Reform party, if not the Governor”? they claimed.
The Democrats focused their campaign on what they called the “maladministration” of the island under Pope Hennessy. To that effect, they found support from the “ultra” Conservative Célicourt Antelme, who had an axe to grind with the Governor. Held in high esteem at the Colonial office, Antelme was nonetheless labelled an “old ruffian” by his political opponents in Mauritius. His fall into disgrace came when William Newton was drawn too close to Pope Hennessy as “lips and teeth are” and the Governor no longer paying heed to his advice, still less to his prophetic warning about the “invasion” by the Indians of the political life of the island.
Indeed, Antelme stoutly opposed the introduction of the elective system in the 1885 Constitution. That system, he feared would “in the not too distant future”, place the lever of political control in the hands of the Indians, thus “swamping the true Mauritians”.
But Pope Hennessy tried to allay Antelme’s more than justified fears. “The Indians are too sensible to be politicians”, said Sir John. “Rest assured that neither the Indians nor the Chinese will ever trouble your political life”.
Antelme parted ways accusing the governor of being a “fanatic of the Asiatics”, mounted a campaign of vilifications, holding Pope Hennessy responsible for having dilapidated the treasury and meddling in the affairs of the judiciary.
It was against the background of a political turmoil, the first of its kind in Mauritius, triggered by two rival elitist factions that the elections were held between 11 and 20 January 1886 and saw the Democrats and Reformist emerging triumphant each with five elected members.
But that which came in the limelight was the defeat of the leader of the Reform party, William Newton and his associate Georges Guibert in the Port Louis constituency by the Democrats Onésipho Beaugeard and Gustave de Coriolis, thus giving a “nasty shock” to the Governor.
Though the elections were over, political passions were still running high. The opening sessions of the Legislative Council on 19 April 1886 was going to be marked by clashes between the followers of the two parties. Troops were placed on standby to deal with any flaring up while in the Council, the junior member for Port Louis, Gustave de Coriolis warned, « Il faut qu’on sache que tant que je serai au Conseil, je tiendrai le fer chaud et ferai la chair fumer… » To which the Governor in one of his piques bursting out at de Coriolis told him to “shut your mouth and sit down”.
On the eve of the elections urging the inhabitants of Port Louis to vote for Beaugeard and de Coriolis, Léoville L’Homme wrote that the elective element brought “the first wind of freedom and marks the dawn of Mauritian democracy”.
Yet, the architect of Mauritian democracy, Sir John Pope Hennessy, was to be suspended from office since the Mauritius desk at the Colonial office was flooded with complaints against him but was reinstated as Governor after he was cleared of all allegations.