Mauritius is celebrating the 45th anniversary of its independance on coming 12th March. Narainduth Sookhoo, our contributor, has as usual gone through recently declassified British official records. In the following article, which he claims is an analytic and careful assessment, Narainduth Sookhoo sheds new light on some long surviving myths about Mauritian decolonisation. The second part of the article will be published in our upcoming edition.
There is an uncanny connection between the Cold War and Mauritius Independance. The zenith of the confrontation between the capitalist West under the leadership of the United States of America (USA) and the communist East, led by the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was the October 1962 episode known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, an actual chilling nuclear event enacted in the style of the hollywoodian celluloid High Noon. Half a century ago, Soviet President Nikita Khruschev bowed down to President John Kennedy’s ultimatum and withdrew his nuclear arsenal from Cuba. The American administration vowed to prevent any such future show of Soviet nuclear capability. In the geo-strategic game, USA was intent to prevent realisation of the USSR dream of naval access to the Indian Ocean. America approached the British for access to the Chagos Archepelago to build on Diego Garcia a sophisticarted communication satellite tracking station, a naval anchorage base area for its carrier support ships like the USS Enterprise (withdrawn from service last December), and a landing and take-off base for its advanced combat aircraft, including the F1-11.
This article is based on an analytical and careful assesment of recently declassified British official documents at the National Archives including sensitive Cabinet Defense Papers.
At highly confidential discussions between the USA Department of State and the British Ministry of Defense held in London from 25th to 27th February 1964, the Americans expressed the following opinion : « From the military point of view, Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago should be detached from Mauritius now. It would be advantageous if they were to come directly under United Kingdom administration… The United States delegation is very anxious that the settlement of the constitutional issue of Mauritius Independence should be pursued as quickly as possible. » The British agreed. The ultimate fate of Mauritius Independence was unwittingly decided.
Detachment of the Chagos : a British priority
In historical investigation, it is important to pick out essentials from the surrounding mass of details and hence avoid seeing the trees from the wood. We will therefore focus our discussion on two axes : (a) the geo-strategic importance for naval and miltary purpose of Mauritius and its dependencies at the peak ot the Cold War period ; and (b) the behaviour and state of mind of the colonial administration in Mauritius and the political poisitioning of Mauritian leaders, particularly, Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam during the three decades 1937-1967. However, each of these two axes must be discussed against the backdrop of political developments, both in Britain and Mauritius, and the judgements, right or wrong, of all decision-makers that had a direct bearing on the future of Mauritius and its dependencies.
What clearly emerges are two theses :
(a) The detachment of the Chagos from Mauritius was a priority for the British and this had to be done as soon as possible with preferably the consent of the Mauritian colonial political leaders or, at the extreme by duress or even threat.
(b) Britain had decided as early as 1964, well before the Mauritius Constitutional Conference of September 1965 even stated, that Mauritius should preferably become independent. Integration was ruled out.
Let us see how events unfolded and decisions were made according to archival documents. Realities are the state of things as they actually happened. And this is evidenced by Cabinet, Executive and Departemental records. Myths are fabulous, imaginary, invented beliefs accepted as true for the sake of cultural and political convenience. The two extremes will be clearly discernible in this article.
In history, maritime power has always been an inspiration of rising world powers. The French revolution (1789) shattered the French navy and allowed Britannia to rule the waves. This ruined Napoleon’s plans for invasion of Great Britain. Yet, nearer home, General Isidore Decaën, Napoleon’s admirer and Governor of Isle de France defeated, through the skilled directives of General Martin Vandermaessen, the British at the Battle of Grand Port in August 1810. That was the only naval victory of Napoleon and, for posterity, it is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. However, by the end of 1815, the French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish fleets were all defeated and their colonies mostly in British hands. With the acquisition of the Cape, Ceylon, Seychelles, Mauritius, Rodrigues and the Chagos, Britain firmly secured the route to India and laid the foundation of what is known as the second British Empire.
Britain constantly setting up new colonies
British interest in its scattered island colonies in the Western Indian Ocean has always been predominantly geo-strategic. And in its administration, it constantly resorted to dismemberment of one entity to form another to suit its shifting naval, military, imperial and most importantly, mercantile needs. Seychelles main islands were removed from the administration of Mauritius in 1903 and formed a new colony. In 1908, Coetivy Island, mid-way between Seychelles and Chagos, was cut off as was Farquhar in 1921 and added to the new colony. Though Agalega and St Brandon remained with Mauritius, Rodrigues was kept in constitutional abeyance because Colonial Office also considered its detachment. Indeed, Rodrigues became quite an issue when the Mauritius Independance Bill was being prepared by Colonial Office and Whitehall Legal Department for debates in the Commons and Lords in January/February 1968.
However, it was in the Cold War period, with the development of submarine launch strike nuclear missiles and outer space orbital communication and spy satellites, that the blueprint of Anglo-American Defense Strategy in the Indian Ocean was formulated. It must be said here that the British Imperial success was based on an entrenched administration carried out by well-trained Colonial Office staffs and representatives overseas with considered judgements supported by reliable intelligence reports. They knew the ambitions, weaknesses and modus operandi of key colonial leaders and carefully monitored these qualities for their own advantage.
On the international scene, the October 1929 New York stock market crash plunged the world into the worst slump in modern history. Trade and prices collapsed worldwide and millions were out of work. The 1930’s saw most western governments taking responsibilty for economic revival replacing the old economic order by state intervention. But in Germany, Spain, Portugal and all across South and Eastern Europe, the crisis provoked extreme nationalism, paving the way to authoritarian governments (some fascists, others communists) and the advent of World War II. Only in Britain, with its large empire markets and a National Government formed in 1931, did democracy survive.
But there was unrest in the colonies. India was in the grip of nationalist fervour. In Mauritius two diametrically opposed groups emerged. One at the grassroot level where labourers and small planters, mainly Indians and artisans (predominantly Creoles) asked for better wages and working conditions. They had the support of the Mauritius Labour Party led by Dr Maurice Curé, Emmanuel Anquetil, Pandit Sahadeo and Hurryparsad Ramnarain, a Union man. The Colonial authorities branded them « Agitators ». The other group was at the elite level, consisting of professional coloureds and Franco-Mauritians dominating politics, but now joined by western educated Indo-Mauritian professionals, who also wanted to join politics on equal terms. It is this elite group that Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam chose to join in first instance.
(To be continued)