Dr Jimmy Harmon
February is celebrated as the Black History Month in USA and Canada, UK and other parts of the world including Mauritius as a way of remembering important people and events in
the history of the African diaspora. The Black History Month was first launched in 1926 by the African-American historian G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History during the second week of February as it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14. This year the month of February will mark a turning point in the history of the Republic of Mauritius. The commemoration of the 185th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery on the 1st February will coincide most probably with the soft launching of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum on the site of the ex-Labourdonnais Military Hospital.
In A short History and Description of the Military Hospital in the 18th and 19th centuries (2019), Ass. Prof Teelock, Coordinator of the Centre for Research on Slavery and Indenture (CRSI) and President Scientific Committee, of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, writes that ‘the Military Hospital’, as it is still known today, was one of the many achievements of French Governor Mahé de Labourdonnais, who administered the island from 1735 to 1746. It is currently the oldest building in Mauritius. The hospital was located between what was called the Bassin des Chaloupes (today Port Louis Waterfront) and Trou Fanfaron Bay. It was at first a small wooded hospital, started by Governor Maupin and it could hold only 35-40 beds. When Labourdonnais succeeded Maupin, the hospital accommodated some 240 beds by 1741. It was mainly for the crew and army officers. With the increasing number of government slaves, these were also nursed at the hospital. Over centuries, the building has been used as warehouses and for several purposes. The Truth and Justice Commission Report (TJC, 2009) recommends that the building must house an Intercontinental Slavery Museum following a project proposal submitted jointly by Prof. Benigna Zimba and Ass.Prof. Teelock, who was also at that time Vice-Chairperson of the TJC. The idea of having slavery museum in the capital city of Port Louis is to give more visibility to slavery and the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, promote slave history and emphasize the contribution of the African diaspora in the world development. Being one of the independent researchers on the project, I can say this museum is full of promises. It will help to re-member the past, educate for present and build the future.
‘Re-membering’ the Past
Last week, we had the opportunity to listen to the Address of his Excellency Prithvirajsing President Roopun, G.C.S.K, for the ‘Discours-Programme’. It is interesting to note that ‘The Government Programme 2020-2024, Towards an inclusive, high income and green Mauritius forging ahead together’ states right at the outset that the Programme is about how our ‘country values its population as its main asset, through empowerment, enhanced social inclusiveness, and equality’ (para.6). In its conclusion, the President observes that ‘our history has taught us that working together, as one nation, has enabled us to build the resilience and progress of our Republic’ (para.204). This is totally true. In spite of our differences and divergent views, the capacity to bounce back after a cyclone or during periods of tense social conflicts like the ‘1968 bagarres raciales’ or the February 1999 riots and our sustained peaceful coexistence with all its ethnic lobbies playing ethnic politics have been described marvellously by some foreign academics and observers as the ‘Mauritian enigma’. Reconnecting with the past is not always a comfortable exercise be it at an individual level or as a community of human beings. The history of slavery and slave trade will surely unravel unexpected features of the past. It happens then that places like a slavery museum become more a site of conscience or an act of community memory than just a display of artefacts. The TJC (2009) recommends ‘to introduce “socio-biography” of groups and life histories of individuals, with particular emphasis on History and the forging of patterns in values, attitudes and behaviours. This is also a form of narrative therapy’
It is at this point interesting to borrow the concept of ‘re-membering’ from the field of psychology and which has gained currency in postcolonial studies to describe the situation of ‘dis-membered societies’. The term re-membering (with an intentional hyphen), first coined by American anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff (1935-1985) in her ethnographic work on the Jewish community, refers to therapy conversations which reconnect the bereaved person to her/ his deceased loved one and other members and any significant others that belong to one’s life story. This is a restorative way of reconciling people with their past. It can help to educate the present.
Educating the Present
Out of 17 592 candidates at the School Certificate of Cambridge Year 2019 (M.E,S, 2019), only 48 (26 boys + 22 girls) candidates sat for History of Mauritius. The overall pass rate is 52.08 percent. The syllabus covers Ile de France –1715 to 1810, British Mauritius – 1810 to 1922 and Towards a Modern Mauritius: 1922 to 2000. Some specimen questions are : (i) Describe how the Colonial Assembly of the Ile de France rejected the order to abolish slavery by the French government during the Reign of Terror in 1794. Explain why Napoleon was prepared to allow slavery to continue and the consequences of this decision for the Ile de France. (ii) Outline the part played by the Corsairs in the competition between Britain and France to control the Indian Ocean. (iii) Why were conflicts in Europe (the Seven Years War) and in America (the American War of Independence) important for the fortunes of the Ile de France? (iv) Describe the conditions of slaves in Mauritius. What part was played by Adrien d’Epinay in delaying the abolition of slavery in Mauritius so that it was later than anywhere else in the British Empire? (v) Who were the ‘Oligarchs’ and what did they stand for in the debate over reform in Mauritius? How significant was the role played by Sir John Pope Hennessy in constitutional reform in Mauritius? (vi) Describe the efforts of Dr Maurice Curé to improve the position of the workers in Mauritius in the period 1935–1937. Why were there serious labour disturbances in 1937 and 1938 and what was the outcome? The slavery museum will be a repository of knowledge on the history of Mauritius. But it is important that we factor in the views and ideas of the people. Public consultation can be made when visitors come to the museum or the museum can go to the people. School children and students are important actors in this consultation process as it involves a dialogical pedagogy. It is essential that our youth co-construct the concept and content of this museum. This will then give a national narrative to our history.
Building Our Future
The TJC (2009) recommends the ‘setting up of specific historical and cultural programs to foster a sense of belonging. Community-based organizations should be identified or created, if they do not exist, and supported by the State to offer parents and youngsters sensitizing sessions on their social, cultural, spiritual, artistic heritage through story-telling sessions, cultural workshops in order to anchor identity’. The point is not to build isolated communities but helping each group to foster its identity so that it is in a better position to relate to others. In fact, the slavery museum will be a cultural reparation for the Creole community. In an essay ‘From slave to tourist entertainer’ (2011) in Islanded Identities, Construction of Postcolonial cultural identity (Edited by Maeve McCusker and Anthony Soares), on the construction and contestation of identity and difference in the multi-ethnic setting of Mauritius, the two researchers Burkhard Schnepel and Cornelia Schnepel write that ‘Mauritians rarely celebrate their ‘hybridity’, displaying instead a strong preference for emphasizing their (presumed) ‘roots’ and for drawing distinctions between other apparently distinct and ‘natural’ ethnic groups’. Both researchers also observe that like many other postcolonial nations ‘symbols to which all inhabitants could relate have had to be found in order to create and reinforce a sense of common identity’. In my view this is the Mauritian way of living its citizenship. It is not ‘citizenship’ in the French sense of the word where there is abstraction and negation of particular groups and where people declare themselves ‘citoyens’. The Creoles have been the victims of this intellectual hypocrisy. Instead all Mauritians should take pride in our own ways of living side by side, valuing our differences and commonalities. True, we need to go move further and develop the sense of a shared history. The Intercontinental Slavery Museum can be the confluence of our shared diversity. Only truth-seeking and truth-grounding can help us on this path. The museum should then be a place which nurtures critical thinking leading us to intellectual enlightening and not be the harbinger of a generation of sycophants.