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Riots of all sorts recorded in Mauritian history

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam at the old Military Prisons in Phoenix with Singapore-based British soldiers who had been called to help restore order in the country following the racial disturbances of January 1968, a few weeks before independence. (Source: Glimpses of XXth Century Mauritius /Maurice Images d’un Siècle, Editions Vizavi, 1999)

Mauritian history is rife with the occurrences of riots, be they the fruit of communal, socio-economic or political motivations. The best example of a politically motivated riot occurred under the French rule, while the helm of government was held by the Colonial assembly in the early 1790s. There followed a period of utter restlessness and lawlessness which compelled the Governor, Thomas Conway, an Irish by birth, whose administration ran from 1789 to 1790, to resign his post and return to France.

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After Conway’s departure, his friend, Macnamara, of Irish birth like his predecessor, stepped in. The revolutionary rioteers did not give him any respite until they did way with him. “His friend Macnamara, another Irishman, who commanded the French naval forces in the Indian Ocean, remained in Ile de France, obstinately opposing the revolutionary ideas of the Colonial Assembly and of Port Louis’ undisciplined, troublesome crowds. In July 1790 he narrowly escaped being hanged in the streets of Port Louis; in November he was murdered while trying to escape from a mob of soldiers and common people, with whom he had long been unpopular.”(1)

Another instance of politically motivated riots

Another instance of politically motivated riots occurred in 1911. One of the elaborate research on the causes, events and consequences of the 1911 riot has been produced by historian Anand Moheeputh and published in the issues of “La Gazette des Iles de la Mer des Indes – No 1, mars 1986 & No 2, February 1986”. Just to situate the context of the 1911 riots, let us quote the introduction of the author’s first text:

“The 1911 General Elections were marked by an orgy of violence at Curepipe and Port Louis. The two opposing groups which confronted were the Action Libérale whose flamboyant leader, Dr Eugène Laurent, represented a leftist tendency much in line with that of Beaugeard in 1886. The other group, the Oligarchs representing the white plantocracy carried a violent campaign for retaining the political power in the Council.” (2)

The causes of the riots of 1911 were delved into by a Commission of Enquiry instituted by the governor, Sir Cavendish Boyle, “to enquire into the causes which led to the acts of disturbance and violence.” (Ibid) Briefly, the contributory causes can be summarized thus – the onslaught of the Oligarchs on Dr Eugène Laurent, the leader of the Action Libérale; rumours spread about a supposed assassination of Dr Laurent; thirdly, “the inefficiency of the police as it failed to deal promptly with the situation which arose.”(3)

Riots with communal motivations

Sometimes, it is difficult to assert how far a riot is politically or communally oriented. However, when it boils down to clashes between two different ethnic groups, then the communal motivations are clear. Let us quote this reminiscence of the 1968 riots in eastern Port Louis: « Je me rappelle toujours ce mois de février 1968 lorsque des bagarres raciales avaient éclaté dans la capitale. A l’époque, on ne savait pas trop ce qui a été le détonateur de ces affrontements. Le 9 février 1968, la presse indépendante évoquait déjà le chiffre de 14 personnes tuées au cours de ces émeutes qui allaient entacher l’histoire du pays, pourtant réputé pour sa multiculturalité, sa cohésion sociale et sa capacité exemplaire de vivre-ensemble. Selon la police, les bagarres avaient commencé entre deux groupes de voyous dans la rue et allaient dégénérer en une confrontation de gens de différents groups ethniques. »(4)   

For both the riots of 1911 and 1968, the government called for British troops to help restore order in the island. In 1911 there was a military intervention by the regiment which was stationed on the island. However they did not have to use their weapons. The regiment, consisting predominantly of Sikh soldiers, formed part of the Hong Kong Singapore Battalion, Royal Garrison Artillery. In 1968 the British regiment which was called into action on Mauritius in 1968 was the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry [KSLI], under the command of Major Brian Lowe. At the time, the regiment was stationed in Malaysia and were ordered without warning to leave for Mauritius. (5)

What about the recent riots of April 22-23?

“April last riots occurred in a dozen localities in Mauritius to protest against escalating consumer prices.”(6) Serious incidents occurred in a dozen localities including Camp-Levieux and Roche-Bois on the night of Friday April 22 to Saturday April 23 (which resulted in arrests including that of Darren l’Activiste, one shot and injured among civilians and 13 police officers wounded), against the backdrop of escalating consumer prices. These riots were followed by a unanimous call for calm from the highest levels of state and government (head of government Pravind Jugnauth speaking from India where he was on an official visit), religious leaders of all persuasions who all argued that violence and destruction lead to nowhere.

At government level, there was talk of a conspiracy with regard to the localized riots, the Prime Minister not hesitating to accuse, from India, those who are behind this coup of wanting to revive the infamous Kaya episode of February 1999, and the Deputy Prime Minister to affirm: “Sa bann insidan-la inn konplote et inn organize bien avan.”

How to unravel the gordian knot?

Sometimes, it is really difficult to state in no uncertain terms which motivation has been behind a riot. It may boil down to a societal problem – “fim lerb!” as in the uprisings following Kaya’s death in police custody in 1999; a clash of civilization and religious norms as was the case with Indian Mutiny (1857-58); the eternal confrontation between the haves and the have-nots as during the French and the Russian revolutions. For sure, there is no clear-cut vision of motivations which have driven people to riot, although it would be unwise to dismiss that there are forces, legitimate or not, commendable or not behind any uprising…

References

1. Barnwell, P.J. & Toussaint, A., A Short History of Mauritius, 1949, Longmans, Green & Co, London, New York, Toronto.

2. Moheeputh, Anand, An Orgy of Violence for the Elections of 1911, in “La Gazette des Iles de la Mer des Indes – No 1, mars 1986.”

3. Moheeputh, Anand, Causes of the Riots of 1911, in “La Gazette des Iles de la Mer des Indes – No 2, février 1986.”

4. Lallmahomed, Louckman, « Plaine-Verte d’antan, une région arc-en-ciel, Les Bijou de Plaine Verte » in Star, No 1947, 8 au 14 mai 2022.

5. Mauritius Mag. Com

6. Mauritian Overseas Gazette (MOG) which can be accessed on : mauritianoverseasgazette@yahoo.com. Website: http://mauritianoverseasgazette.com.

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