DR JIMMY HARMON

The night of 22nd to 23rd August 1791, in Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) saw the beginning of the uprising that would play a crucial role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. It is against this background that the UNESCO International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is commemorated on 23 August each year since 1997.

This International Day is intended to inscribe the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples. The state of Mauritius has celebrated for the first time this International Day on Monday 23rd August 2021 upon the initiative of the Board of Directors of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum (ISM), Mauritius LTD. Two symbolic activities took place on that day at the Labourdonnais Ex-Military Hospital, site of the future museum. First, the presentation of an official ‘Deklarasion’ in three languages (Kreol Morisien, English and French) in memory of all those who have come from Africa, Madagascar, India and South-East Asia. During the colonial period they were forcibly taken on slave ships by the Dutch, French and British to be enslaved in Mauritius. Second, the tossing of flowers at sea at the Port Louis Waterfront which is one of the places of disembarkation of slaves.

Over the past decade, we had the Truth and Justice Commission Report (2011) which gave the findings of the study on the legacy of slavery and indentured labour since colonial days to date and the setting up of the ISM Mauritius Limited in 2019 for the implementation of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum. These achievements had been marked by intensive public advocacy in which I was myself involved with other colleagues. In fact, our country has made such remarkable strides in the field of history, heritage and memory thanks to the works of the generation of local and foreign ‘new historians’ from 1970s to end of 1990s. We just learned on Sunday 22nd August the passing away of Dr Satteanund Peerthum. He was one of these prominent ‘new historians’ of post-independent Mauritius.

Dr Satteanund Peerthum was born on March 15, 1941 in Mauritius. He was Member of the National Assembly (1982-1983), Head of History Department at Bhujoharry College (1978-1982) and chief Editor (1977-78) of the main opposition party newspaper, Le Militant. He was Minister of Labour in 1983 and ambassador (1987-1996) at the United Nations. In fact, until the late 1970s and early 1980s, the study of slaves, slavery and maroonage was largely overlooked because they were not considered to be important themes for research and for the writing of the history of Mauritius. It was only during the 1970s and after, in Mauritian historiography, that the first attempts were being made to restore slaves and the maroons to their rightful place in the social and economic development of our country.

The ‘new historians’ included individuals such as Monseigneur Amédée Nagapen, Dr Vijaya Teelock, Sada Reddi, Jocelyn Chan Low, Rivaltz Quenette, Daniel North-Coombes, Musleem Jumeer, Cader Kalla and Dr Satteanund Peerthum. With the advent of these ‘new historians’, extensive research was being undertaken which shed new light on slaves, slavery, maroons, maroonage, and the slave society in Mauritius between the 1640s and 1830s.  In February 1985, a major international conference entitled ‘Slavery in South West Indian Ocean’ was organized by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI). This was done in the context of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by the Government of Mauritius. In his paper ‘Resistance to slavery’, Dr Satteanund Peerthum introduced the study of the themes of slave resistance, maroonage, and the Mauritian maroons into modern Mauritian historiography.

In 2017, Dr Peerthum stated in an interview given to a local newspaper: « Je suis de formation marxiste et j’ai initié ici une nouvelle manière d’appréhender l’histoire de Maurice. La première lutte sociale est celle menée par nos ancêtres esclaves pour mettre fin à leur asservissement.» (30 December 2017). It was in this vein that Dr Peerthum taught General Paper to my classmates during our secondary school years at Bhujoharry College. He used to talk and walk between the wooden desks of our class, giving us a historical background to all topics that were on the syllabus. Our copybooks were full of notes. They were precious to us. When I would get back home, I would tell my father that we had class today with Mr Peerthum. His name came regularly in our conversation as my father was working at the United Docks and was fond of reading his articles published in Le Militant. His articles covered class struggle and national heroes like Dr Maurice Curé, Anquetil, Ramnarain, Pandit Sahadeo, and Bissoondoyal. He provided a counter-discourse to the dominant discourse that Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was the ‘Father of the Nation’. He demonstrated critically that SSR did not really fight for independence but was rather a man of high political acumen, close to the British and who knew how to position himself for the post of Prime Minister.

These writings were new knowledge for the urban working class which was the main readership of Le Militant. For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related. In that sense, knowledge is an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge. Knowledge of history provided power to the class struggle. Today, Tabue Nguma, Coordinator of the UNESCO Slave Route Project: resistance, Liberty and Heritage reminds us in his Message to ISM Mauritius LTD, published in a flyer, that one of the key messages of this International Day is: ‘Remember the past to repair the present and build a reconciled future’.

On this special occasion, time is for us to pay special tribute to the ‘new historians’. My heartfelt condolences to Satyendra, the son of Dr Peerthum, who is himself a historian and the family and relatives.