“Let justice be done, though Heavens may fall”, so declared Lord Mansfield, when the defenders of slavery pleaded for maintaining the slave system in 1772. A slave, James Somerset, under the impulse of the abolitionist Granville Sharp filed a petition to the Court soliciting freedom. Somerset won his freedom. The Mansfield judgment hailed as a “landmark” became the mantra evoked by abolitionists seeking the demise of slavery.
While many in British elitist society championed the cause of abolition, such was not the case in the sugar producing colonies where slave holders struggled by all means to perpetuate the slave system.
One blatant example was that of Mauritius where the process leading to emancipation was resisted with utmost vigour. The colonial administration under Sir Charles Colville (1828-1833) buckled under pressure and ceded power to the makeshift ‘colonial committee’ formed by the French elite.
With a population, in 1832, of roughly 10,000 whites, 40,000 free coloured and 65,000 black slaves, the island started witnessing a simmering discontent in the 1825s when the Secretary of state for Wars and Colonies, Sir George Murray, informed of the “frightful extent” to which illegal slave trafficking had reached Mauritius ordered an inquiry. The Eastern Inquiry Commission subsequently set up confirmed the existence of such trade. Fear and nervousness gripped the slave holders when the Colonial office announced it would adopt measures to free from bondage the smuggled slaves without any payment of compensation to owners. That decision was fiercely opposed and gave rise to a sense of frustration.
The issue of slave smuggling into Mauritius in breach of the Abolition of Slave Trade Act (1807) that came in force in 1813 for Mauritius was loudly decried by Thomas Buxton in his ‘Mauritius scandal’ speech in the House of Commons in 1826. It would be one of the most important items on Adrien d’Epinay’s agenda for discussion with the Secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Goderich, in 1830.
But what set the colonists on a ‘warpath’ was the Order in Council introduced in 1828 proclaiming the Slave amelioration Act which was further consolidated in 1830 with a view to alleviating the hardship endured by the slave population in the colonies. The amelioration measures signified the British government’s intention of moving with caution towards a gradual phasing out of slavery.
From 1828, it became a legal requirement for slave owners to adhere to the new conditions spelt out in the amelioration Act. That meant reduction in working hours of slaves up to a maximum of nine hours per day and an increase of food and clothing. The use of chains for punishment was abolished. A Protector of Slaves was appointed. Importantly, slave marriages and ownership of property were introduced.
These amelioration measures triggered a wrath bordering on a revolt by the planters. Some referred to the Order in Council as the “signal of a civil war”. The response came in the form of a challenge to the Legislative Council when a Colonial Committee and a Volunteer corps with armed men were immediately established. The Governor Charles Colville incapable of taking decisions confined himself to Le Réduit surrounded by thirty-five military guards for his own protection. “There is a great deal of bad feelings against his Majesty’s government in Mauritius”, wrote the Governor, nicknamed ‘old woman’ by British soldiers.
In the thick of the agitation, the inflammatory character of the appeal launched to the “inhabitants of Mauritius” by Adrien d’Epinay that a “tempest is ready to burst upon us” and urging them “to prepare yourselves to prove to the world that you…..possess noble hearts, capable of repelling by force injustice and oppression”, or that of Henri Adam, Chief of the Volunteer Corps, warning Governor Colville that “le sang coulera”, according to Froberville, reflected the iron determination of the colonists not to budge an inch in order to protect their own interests.
Emerging as the leader of the white population, d’Epinay hurriedly embarked on a mission to London to make representations on behalf of the colonists to the Secretary of state, Lord Goderich. High on his agenda were two demands: first, the re-introduction of the 1791 Constitution to give back to people of French descent the “right” they enjoyed during the French occupation; second, the cessation of inquiry into the smuggling of slaves into Mauritius.
But Lord Goderich brushed aside those two demands. Though the mission was described in certain quarters as a failure, d’Epinay returned home in 1831 with a “rancorous” sentiment that would bolster further his antagonism towards the British. Nonetheless, he obtained three concessions, namely, the removal of censorship clamped on the local press; a revision of the criminal codes and a legislative Council reconstituted of equal number of official and unofficial members, besides the Governor.
The “colonial committee” of which d’Epinay was one of its instigators substituted itself for the government Executive Council and looked like one wielding absolute powers in the colony. Upon its directives, the colonists stopped paying taxes and duties as a protest gesture against the 1830 Order in Council. “There is almost a total cessation in the payment of taxes and duties”, complained the Governor. The inhabitants were ordered to disregard previous laws enacted by the government and conform only to those passed by the colonial committee.
Amidst the upheaval prevailing in the island came the “disastrous” announcement that exacerbated ill-feeling and caused the flaring up of temper to high-voltage level.
The abolitionist and influential member of the Anti-Slavery Society, Sir John Jeremie, was on his way to Mauritius to take up his assignment as Procureur and Advocate General. That announcement unleashed a wave of panic and resentment. Already before he set foot on the Mauritian shores, Jeremie was declared a persona non grata by the slave holders who began flexing their muscles and vowed to send him back to England. Apprehension was also raised that Jeremie’s presence on the Mauritian soil could incite the slaves to insurrection.
It seemed the appointment of John Jeremie, a former Chief Justice of St Lucia, reputed for his passionate commitment to liberty and justice, was a carefully thought-out move by Lord Goderich, because the “glaringly disorganized state of the colony of Mauritius” as he said, needed a man of the calibre and one espousing liberal causes to set things right.
Jeremie’s ship, the Ganges, berthed in Port Louis harbour on 3 June 1832. He was not authorised to land as the port area was thronged with a hostile mob led by Adrien d’Epinay sitting on a horse shouting in chorus – ‘A bas Jeremie!’, ‘A bas cochon!’. The movement of slave holders was such that it was reported “every third person in the streets of Port Louis was armed”. The ‘Volunteer Corps’, serving as an auxiliary military unit to suppress any slave uprising was ready to intervene if required. That corps’ men were trained in military operations and armed with weapons and “other ammunition of war” clandestinely introduced in the island. It was placed under the responsibility of one Henri Adam who formerly served as lieutenant under Napoleon Bonaparte.
Sir Charles Colville was forced from his retreat at Le Réduit to come out to Port Louis. The Governor succumbed to the pressure of d’Epinay and at the mob’s demonstration that he conceded to their demand of sending back home the Procureur and Advocate-General.
Jeremie came ashore two days after his arrival. Escorted by a detachment of the troops, he made for Government House to report to the Governor but when he called at the Supreme Court later in the week, Chief Justice Blackburn and Justice Virieux boycotted the swearing in session so that he could not take the oath for his installation in his new position. Again, he was threatened by people lined up along the streets shouting slogans hostile to him. The men from the Volunteer Corps armed with sabres, pikes and ammunition muskets said they were determined to drive the “English” from the colony and to be independent so that they could make their own laws.
A resolution proposed by Adrien d’Epinay and seconded by Colonel Edward Allured Draper, a staunch ‘esclavagiste’ whose name was associated with horse racing and 200 years on now is commemorated by the Mauritius Turf Club (MTC), voted for the immediate expulsion of Jeremie.
Governor Colville meekly obeyed. Like in 1796, Baco and Burnel came to Isle de France with a decree abolishing slavery and were chased away by the slave owners with gunshots fired at them, so was Jeremie forced out of the colony but he nonetheless promised to be back and he did so.
The events in Mauritius were disturbing and prompted action from the home government. The ring leaders were accused of engaging themselves in an “open and public rebellion” as stated by an MP in the House of Commons on 15 February 1836, “by taking up arms against the crown and His Majesty’s government”.
Colonel Draper, head of Customs and who was also an official member of the Legislative Council was dismissed from his post and removed from the Council.
So was Adrien d’Epinay. Destituted of his seat as a member of the Legislative Council, he was declared “unworthy to serve the crown again in any capacity whatever”.
The new Governor, William Nicolay, was directed by the Secretary of state to “instantly remove” from the island all “aliens” including the chief of the Volunteer Corps, Henri Adam, for having instigated people to take up arms.
« The abolitionist and influential member of the Anti-Slavery Society, Sir John Jeremie, was on his way to Mauritius to take up his assignment as Procureur and Advocate General. Already before he set foot on the Mauritian shores, Jeremie was declared a persona non grata by the slave holders who began flexing their muscles and vowed to send him back to England. Apprehension was also raised that Jeremie’s presence on the Mauritian soil could incite the slaves to insurrection. »
« A resolution proposed by Adrien d’Epinay and seconded by Colonel Edward Allured Draper, a staunch ‘esclavagiste’ whose name was associated with horse racing and 200 years on now is commemorated by the Mauritius Turf Club (MTC), voted for the immediate expulsion of Jeremie. Like in 1796, Baco and Burnel came to Isle de France with a decree abolishing slavery and were chased away by the slave owners with gunshots fired at them, so was Jeremie forced out of the colony but he nonetheless promised to be back and he did so. »