By SATYENDRA PEERTHUM
Historian, Researcher, and Writer
Dr. Satteeanund Peerthum, ex-Minister, ex-Ambassador, and former Senior Historian, was born in the village of Grand Gaube in the north of Mauritius on 15th March 1941 and died in Vacoas, his adopted hometown, on 22nd August 2021 at the age of 80. He was the son of Chandraduth Peerthum, a carter and small landowner. During the 1940s and 1950s, he grew up in the villages of Cottage and Lallmatie. In 1959, Dr. Peerthum went to the Teacher’s training college at Beau Bassin and during the course of the same year, he joined, as a card-holding member, the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB). During his formative years he was largely influenced by Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal and his younger brother, Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, whom he knew personally for many years as he was a true Bissoondoyalist.
By 1961, Dr. Peerthum was the first person from Cottage to become a primary school teacher at the local school. During the course of the same, he received a scholarship to go and study journalism in France, which he had to turn down because of his family responsibilities. Between 1961 and 1965, he continued to work as a primary school teacher while being an active member of the IFB. In 1965, through Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and the IFB, Dr. Peerthum obtained a scholarship to go and study at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in the Soviet Union.
In 1965, he met his wife, Dular Ramesar, another scholarship student from Guyana in South America who was a member of the youth wing of the People’s Progressive Party and largely influenced by former President Cheddi Jagan and his wife, former President Janet Jagan. They got married in March 1967 and had two daughters, Sandhya Peerthum, who is a senior official in the UN today in New York, and Zoya Peerthum, a fashion designer and an artist.
Dr. Peerthum obtained his M.A in history and international relations in 1970, just like his wife. Between 1973 and 1974, he was Research Fellow at the Marx-Lenin Research Institute in Moscow. In 1973, he obtained his doctoral degree in history and international relations and was invited to teach at the prestigious London School of Economics and to undertake research and lecture at the Royal Society of International Affairs. During the same year he published his first book with Professor Dr. Devendra Kaushik entitled Towards Collective Security in Asia which was launched in Moscow and published in India and is a well-known work among international relations scholars and writers. He used the pen name ‘Satyendra Peerthum’ for the first time for this book ironically two years before the birth of his son.
In May 1974, after more than 9 years abroad, Dr. Peerthum returned to Mauritius where with his brothers he moved from Cottage to live in the town centre of Vacoas close to the municipality. He worked as the Personal Advisor and translator to the Soviet Ambassador, joined the Mouvement Militant Mauricien, and was member of the Central Committee. He also worked as an education officer and later head of the history and social science department of Bhujoharry College in Port Louis where he was the teacher of personalities such as Dr. Jimmy Harmon.
In March 1976, his only son, S.Peerthum, was born who had followed in his footsteps as a historian and writer and currently works as historian at the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and member of the Secretariat of the Indentured Labour Route. In December 1976, Dr. Peerthum ran for political office under the MMM and was also not elected. He became a journalist and then editor of the Militant newspaper of the MMM. Between the first half of the 1970s and early 1980s, his seminal articles helped to shape the historical and political agenda of the MMM and many Mauritians and scholars eagerly awaited his editorial and articles everyday. He was regularly followed by the SSS, the police information gathering service, was considered to be a Communist agent by the regime of the day, and he regularly met Sir S. Ramgoolam, former PM, during social functions.
During the 1970s and 1980s, together with other Mauritian scholars such as Sada Reddi, Musleem Jumeer, Kader Calla, Amédée Nagapen, Vijaya Teelock, Jocelyn Chan Low, and others, he helped to bring about the ‘New History’ and ‘New Historians’. Through their articles, research, and publications, they showed that the indentured workers, vagrants, slaves, maroons and the Mauritian workers were the makers of their history, shaped Mauritian history, and placed them at the centre of modern Mauritian historiography. Dr. Peerthum wrote about the resistance, resilience, and struggle of the Mauritian underclasses and on the need to have a national history and to reappropriate our history. Between 1983 and 1987, he helped established the Nelson Mandela Centre for African Culture and on the early stages of what became the MGI Archives and Folk Museum.
Between 1978 and 1982, Dr. Peerthum went to France on 3 different occasions as a delegate of the MMM to attend the International Socialist where he was hosted by Hervé Masson, famous Mauritian painter and one of his good friends. In June 1982, he was elected to the Mauritian Parliament and was member of the new government’s Chagos Inquiry Parliamentary Committee. Between 1982 and 1983, he was Minister of Labour and Industrial Relations and had to solve the more than 20% unemployment rate which plagued the Mauritian people and economy. Everyday, at his house and office, he received unemployed and poor individuals and tried to help them being a humanist and a man of the people.
In 1983, Dr. Peerthum was a founding member of the MSM and was close to the late Sir A. Jugnauth, former PM, and to the late Mahen Utchanah, former Minister of Energy. During the course of the same year, another general election was held where he was not elected. He returned teaching to Bhujoharry College as head of department. However, between 1984 and 1987, Dr. Peerthum served his country and the people in different other capacities as Advisor to the PMO, Chairman of Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund, Member of the MGI Council, and Member of University of Mauritius Senate.
As a senior research fellow at the MGI, Dr. Peerthum wrote dozens of seminal papers which were published Le Mauricien, Le Militant, the MGI and UOM conferences. They covered themes such as indentured labour, vagrants, resistance, slavery, maroonage, the Mauritian workers, and Mauritian history as a whole. In 1987, he was one of the campaign managers of the MSM which won a large majority. In December 1987, Dr. Satteeanund Peerthum was appointed Mauritian ambassador to the UN by Sir A. Jugnauth.
Between December 1987 and February 1996, he served on various UN committees including as President of the African Ambassador’s Group, the UN Population Fund where he was able to get a prize in terms of population control for Mauritius, and fought to have the Chagos included on the agenda of the UN General Assembly. In 1991, he led the UN delegation, which welcomed Nelson Mandela at the UN and in New York City. In 1994 and 1995, he also served as Vice-President of the UN General Assembly where he chaired several sessions.
In February 1996, Dr. Peerthum returned to Mauritius after a hiatus of 8 years and continued to undertake his research as senior historian. Between the mid-1990s and until 2014, he took part in several international conferences and his seminal articles were published in Mauritius, La Réunion, India, France, UK, South Africa, USA, Canada, and elsewhere. In May 2005, he was invited by the Government of India and the Maulana Kalam Azad Institute to give the keynote address in New Delhi at an international conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. It should be remembered that this conference in 1955 launched the Non-Aligned Movement, which was a third force between the Soviet Eastern Bloc nations and the US Western Bloc nations during the Cold War.
Between 1996 and 2019, Dr. Peerthum continued to give regular interviews on TV, in the local radio stations, and press and wrote dozens of seminar articles. In 1997, Dr. Peerthum joined Dr. R. Sithanen and Mr.S.Bappoo as ex-members of the MSM to create the RPR Rassemblement Pour la Réforme, which was short-lived as he left politics during the following year. In 2000, he joined the MSM and MMM alliance temporarily and helped with their campaign in Piton/Rivière du Rempart constituency where he was able to get their candidates elected.
In 2003, Dr. Peerthum and his son wrote a book entitled Early Modern Mauritius: The Struggle of the Mauritian Working Class, 1921-1950 and a second version was launched by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund in 2014. He was also regular contributor of articles to the AGTF Magazine and in the AGTF and MGI conferences between 2000 and 2019. In 2014, he participated at his last major conference on indentured labour organized by the AGTF and MGI. During this period, several overseas and local scholars sought his advice as senior historian and by 2019, he completely retired from public life. Dr. Satteeanund Peerthum was a man of the people and for the people who served his country for more than 40 years and he was a true Mauritian patriot.