Mauritius: The road to independence (1945-1968)

Updated September 2009.

Until independence in 1968 the economy of Mauritius remained as dependent on sugar production as it had been since the mid 19th century. Sugar and derivative products consistently accounted for around 99% of its export earnings, sugar cultivation utilised 90% of the island's arable land and the industry provided employment for a large (70% in the early 1960s) but ever declining proportion of Mauritius' work force (Brookfield 1957, 105; Walker 1964, 244). The vulnerability of the economy to large and unpredictable changes in the international sugar price and to unforeseeable catastrophes, such as the cyclones of 1960 that ravaged the sugar crop and led to a 62% fall in export earning over those of the previous year, could lead to sudden balance of payments crises, dramatic falls in government revenue and general misery that impacted worst on the poor (Walker 1964, 244, 245; Simmonds 1982, 145; Brookfield 1957, 105. According to Simmonds, revenue plummeted in 1960 exactly at the time when the cyclones caused £33 million in damage and left over 70 000 people homeless).

The Commonwealth Sugar Agreement of the early 1950s that gave Mauritian sugar producers preferential prices and guaranteed export quotas provided the industry a measure of security, but could not shield it from price fluctuation or from "acts of God" (IMF 2002, 25). Employment in the industry as a share of the work force declined because the population rose steadily in absolute numbers but sugar production employment remained almost static between 1890 and 1952; the 350% increase in production in the same period was almost wholly due to the mechanisation of the industry (Brookfield 1957, 117). Nevertheless productivity and income remained dismally low and though the increasing power of labour achieved a virtual doubling of the real wage rate between 1956 and 1964 it was at the cost of rising unemployment and loss of international competitiveness (Brookfield 1957, 105; Meade 1967, 250).

While the economy stagnated the population did not. The Colonial Development and Welfare Act, passed in 1940 to bind the colonies to Britain in its time of crisis, supplied the colonial government with resources to expand education and healthcare to the poor, so that between 1955 and 1959 primary school enrolment doubled as the colonial government strove to provide universal free education at this level (Meade 1967, 248; Simmonds 1982, 71). As soon as the Second World War ended a programme was launched to eradicate malaria; by 1948 the incidence had been halved and by 1951 the principle vector of the disease had been eradicated from the island, followed shortly by the second vector; from being the largest cause of deaths in 1944, only three people died of it in 1955 (Meade 1961, 522; Walker 1964, 243). Not only did adult mortality rates fall quickly (from 28/1000 in 1936-1940 to 12/1000 in 1956) so did infant mortality rates (from 120/1000 in 1946 to 76/1000 in 1950), while better health amongst women led to higher fertility rates and higher birth rates (from 38/1000 in 1945 to 50/1000 in 1950. Meade 1961, 522; Brookfield 1957, 105). From 128/1000 in 1936-1940 infant mortality plummeted to 12/1000 in 1958 (Meade 1961, 522; Brookfield 1957, 105). As the inevitable consequence of all of this, Mauritius experienced a population explosion. The annual average growth rate rose from 0.11% between 1911 and 1944 to 1.5% between 1944 and 1952 and 3.6% between 1952 and 1962; the population grew by 62.6% in eight years between 1944 and 1952 compared with 13.7% in 33 years between 1911 and 1945 (Christopher 1992, 59). The ethnic structure of the population remained fairly constant, with the General Population forming just under 30% of the whole and the Chinese just under 3.5% in 1962; in that year Muslims were counted separately from Hindus for the first time and formed 16.2% of the population to the Hindus' 50.5% (Christopher 1992, 59).

The population explosion created a number of socio-economic difficulties. Attempts to provide primary school education for all children were made more difficult as the numbers of the children to be accommodated swelled (Meade 1967, 248). With more children born and more surviving their first years the number of children that had to be fed and clothed in any one family increased, putting great strain on the financial resources of their parents; in 1944 only 35% of the population was under the age of 15, by 1962 this had risen to 46% (Meade 1967, 246). Per capita income fell by 11% between 1953 and 1958 (Walker 1964, 245). In time the number of school leavers looking for work rose steadily, but the stagnant sugar based economy did not create jobs in sufficient numbers to absorb new entrants, resulting in rising unemployment; in 1967 7000 school leavers competed for 1000 jobs (Kaplan 1967, 34). By 1965 there were 20 000 unemployed people and between 1965 and 1970 38 000 young people already born would enter the labour market in the immediate future (Meade 1967, 249).

To deal with the problem in 1957 the Mauritius Family Planning Association was founded to educate the public about family planning and modern contraception, while in 1963 Action Familiale was formed to promote the Catholic Church approved rhythm method (Gauthier & Brown 1975, 294). Nevertheless, deep seated opposition had to be overcome. When the alarmed colonial government raised the problem of overpopulation and the promotion of family planning as a solution in 1966 all the political parties in the legislature united in rejection of family planning; only in 1965 did the elected government adopt family planning as a policy and in 1966 did it begin to financially support the organisations engaged in education (Simmonds 1982, 146; Gauthier & Brown 1975, 294). However, Mauritians quickly saw the advantages of smaller families and from a peak of 49.7/1000 in 1950 the birth rate dropped rapidly to 35.5 in 1966 (Walker 1964, 243; Meade 1967, 245). Rising populations and a relatively stagnant economy intensified competition for resources, sharpened inter-communal conflict and raised the stakes in political power struggles.

In 1947 the British government granted a new Constitution to Mauritius, that gave the vote to women, abolished property qualifications for the franchise and limited it only by a simple literacy test; as a result the electorate increased from 12 000 to 71 806 people (Simmonds 1982, 100, 101, 104; Ballhatchet 1995, 1003, 1004). Indian leaders opposed the extension of the franchise to women, since few Indian women were literate, while Creole leaders supported it since near all Creole women were; already communal driven politics was supplanting the class based politics that had characterised the pre-War era (Ballhatchet 1995, 1003, 1004). The new Legislative Council was comprised of three officials, 12 members nominated by the governor and 19 elected members from five multi-member constituencies (Simmonds 1982, 100). Elections in terms of this Constitution were held in August 1948 and for the first time the majority of members returned, eleven, were Hindus, seven were Creoles and one was a Franco-Mauritian; there were no Chinese or Muslim members (Simmonds 1982, 107; de Smith 1968, 604). The majority of the members were independents, while the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP) won only four seats and one of the Creole members and the Franco-Mauritian member were leaders in the elite of large landowners that had dominated the legislature hitherto (Simmonds 1982, 107). The governor appointed members and officials that were supportive of the elite, who combined with the two elected members of the elite, could frustrate the reform efforts of the majority (Simmonds 1982, 109, 110).

Though they had performed poorly in the election, the MLP leaders used their representation in the Legislative Council to criticise the government and rally support from the Hindus of all classes and as the party revived its leadership passed from Creoles to high caste Indians, its Creole working class support was steadily eroded and it became increasingly a Hindu communal party (Simmonds 1982, 113, 114; Houbert 1981, 80). The Franco-Mauritian and Creole landowners, dislodged from power, cast about for new allies and found them by making common cause of opposition to Indian domination, initially with middle class Creoles and increasingly also with the Creole working masses (de Smith 1968, 604; Houbert 1981, 80, 81). From the 1950s onwards Mauritian politics was that of ethnic based communal struggle, with class considerations playing only a subsidiary role. Frustrated by the Constitution of 1947, after the 1953 elections in which the MLP won a clear majority of 13 seats, a motion was passed by the Legislative Council demanding talks on constitutional reform (Simmonds 1982 114, 115; de Smith 1968, 605). The colonial authorities stalled matters as far as possible and only in 1955 was a constitutional conference convened and, after much wrangling, in March 1959 was a new Constitution promulgated (Simmonds 1982 115, 117; de Smith 1968, 605). As the negotiations process dragged on new political parties emerged. In 1955 the leaders of opposition to change, loosely grouped as the Ralliement Mauricien since 1952, formed the Parti Mauricien with two elected members in the Legislative Council, but with wide support amongst unelected members (Simmonds 1982, 116-118, 124). In 1958 more radical Indians formed the Independent Forward Block (IFB) in opposition to the MLP, while the Comite d'Action Muselman (CAM) was formed to rally Muslim voters as a power broking block (Simmonds 1982, 116-118, 124, 136, 137).

The 1959 Constitution was imposed by the governor with the support of the Indian and Muslim parties, but against the opposition of the Parti Mauricien (Simmonds 1982, 132, 133). It provided for 40 single member constituencies with members elected by a plurality and up to 12 nominated members allocated by the governor to "best losers" to underrepresented minorities; the franchise was extended unconditionally to all adults over 21 years; the first and last met the demands of the MLP, while the second accommodated the concerns of CAM, but the Parti Mauricien's demand for a proportional representation system for the election of the legislature was disregarded (Simmonds 1982, 132, 133; de Smith 1968, 605, 606; Ballhatchet 1995, 1008). A ministerial system of government was adopted and the Governor was to create a nine member Executive Council by inviting members from all parties in the Legislative Council to join, roughly in proportion to their representation (de Smith 1968, 606). A boundaries Commission was charged with the delimitation of the constituencies (de Smith 1968, 606).

In the run up to the March 1959 Legislative Council elections the MLP and CAM formed an electoral alliance while, more unexpectedly, the Parti Mauricien and the IFP did the same (Simmonds 1982, 138). The MLP won 23 of the 40 elected seats, the IFB six, CAM five, Parti Mauricien three and three independents were returned (Simmonds 1982, 139). Best loser seats were allocated to redress under representation of communities without altering the balance of power and an all party coalition government was formed (Simmonds 1982, 142; de Smith 1968, 606). The election saw a voter turnout of more than 90% and was characterised by a high degree of discipline amongst party supporters and a high degree of party cohesion based on primarily of communalism and caste/class as a secondary factor; Indians and some working class Creoles supported the MLP, Muslims CAM, low caste Hindus the IFB and middle and upper class Creoles the Parti Mauricien while most working class Creoles, alienated from all parties, stayed away (Simmonds 1982, 135, 139, 140; Walker 1964, 246).

In June 1961 a Conference of the main parties was convened in London to chart the course for the future constitutional development of Mauritius, where the Parti Mauricien led opposition to independence from Britain, supported less enthusiastically by CAM and the IFB, and the MLP found itself isolated in its call for independence (Simmonds 1982, 150, 151). The colonial authorities, however, pressed for increasing self-governance and imposed a reform of the executive whereby the leader of the largest party in the Legislative Council (renamed the Legislative Assembly) would become Chief Minister and would head up a council of ministers from all parties; further reform would be postponed until after the 1963 election (Simmonds 1982, 150, 151; de Smith 1968, 606). In the October 1963 elections that followed the Parti Mauricien IFB coalition held, but the of the MLP and CAM began to break down, with the result that the MLP lost four seats and CAM one seat, while the IFB gained one and Parti Mauricien five seats and two independents were elected (Simmonds 1982, 154, 155; de Smith 1968, 606, 607). Once more best loser seats were allocated, but this time the process was contentious and difficult, yet the system was retained (de Smith 1968, 607). Key to the Parti Mauricien's advances was that it was able to mobilise young working class Creoles to support it (Simmonds 1982, 157; de Smith 1968, 607).

In protest at the new executive order the Parti Mauricien boycotted the November opening of the Legislative Assembly, and organised instead a massive demonstration that was broken up by police using teargas, but in February 1964 it was persuaded to join a multi-party government (Simmonds 1982, 157, 158). The formation of the militant All-Mauritius Hindu Congress in 1964 and the Parti Mauricien's militaristic campaign to mobilise Creole support in early 1965 resulted in rising communal tension, which culminated in May 1965 in 48 hours of inter-communal violence that threatened to degenerate into civil war and was only quelled when the governor declared a state of emergency and had additional troop shipped in from Aden (Simmonds 1982, 160-162; Houbert 1981, 87 footnote 4).

In September 1965 the British Government convened a conference to reach agreement on Mauritius' final constitutional arrangements; the MLP wished for independence within the Commonwealth, the IFB wanted Defence and Foreign Affairs to remain with the United Kingdom, the CAM adopted an ambivalent position while Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate (PMSD, as the Parti Mauricien was now named) argued on economic grounds for close constitutional ties with Britain and demanded a referendum to settle the issue; the parties also disagreed on how the Legislative Assembly was to be structured and elected (Simmonds 1982, 164-168; de Smith 1968, 607, 608). The British government rejected communal voters' rolls for minorities, as proposed by CAM and Parti Mauricien, made it clear that Mauritian independence was unavoidable, rejected calls for a referendum on the issue, and left it to an electoral commission led by Lord Banwell to thrash out the details of the final constitution (Simmonds 1982, 168, 169; de Smith 1968, 608).

Three concerns underlay the PMSD's rejection of independence. In the first place Britain's accession to the European Economic Community would provide preferential access to new sugar markets, secondly it would enable Mauritians to work in Europe and thus reduce unemployment and renew ties with France and thirdly it would act as a constraint on Hindu domination of minorities (Houbert 1981, 82; Houbert 1992, 469). The MLP reluctantly espoused independence as a way of consolidating the power of Indians and argued that independence from Britain inevitable, that the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement would continue to ensure preferential sugar access and that an independent Mauritius could better consolidate ties with France (Houbert 1981, 82; Houbert 1992, 469). Britain did not want an influx of subjects from its colonies and wished to reduce the financial burdens that accrued to it as a colonial power and so was determined that Mauritius become independent (Houbert 1981, 82, 83; Houbert 1992, 469). The British did, however, use the divisions over independence and the threat of a referendum on the matter to extract an agreement from the MLP leaders to permit the remote and sparsely populated Chagos Archipelago to be detached from Mauritius, to be used as an America military base, in exchange for £3 million in compensation, which included payment for the resettlement of the archipelago's population of around 1400 people (Houbert 1992, 469, 471; de Smith 1968, 608; Houbert 1981, 84, 85).

In May 1966 the report of the Banwell Commission was made public, which recommended the arrangements for electing members of the legislature that are still in place today (Simmods 1982, 177; de Smith 1968, 609, 610). Twenty constituencies return three members by plurality, with each voter having three votes, while Rodrigues returns two (see Constitution for details). Up to eight additional seats are allocated to 'best losers' from underrepresented communities, but without altering the balance of power in the legislature (see Electoral system for Parliament in Mauritius for details on how these seats are allocated). An Electoral Boundaries Commission was to delimit constituency boundaries and an Electoral Supervisory Commission was to supervise electoral operations conducted by an Electoral Commissioner (see Electoral management bodies for details. de Smith 1968, 614). The government is formed by a Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in the legislature (de Smith 1968, 615). Ordinary clauses of the Constitution require a two-thirds majority for them to be amended, but almost half the Constitution is specially entrenched and require a three-quarter majority to be changed (de Smith 1968, 621). After a little wrangling and tinkering the proposals were substantially accepted by all the parties and elections to clear the way for independence were set for 7 August 1967 (Simmods 1982, 177, 178; see Background to the election for details).

The MPL had formed an "Independence Party" alliance with the IFB, the CAM and the Hindu Congress (but the last broke ranks just before the election), while Parti Mauricien attempted to reposition itself as a non-communal national party (Simmods 1982, 174, 177, 179, 181, 182). Election day passed peacefully for the most part, except for a riot in a section of Port Louis as Muslims attempted to stop Creoles and Chinese from voting; it was dispersed by tear gas wielding police (Simmods 1982, 184; see The 1967 election for details). Once more a high voter turnout of 89% was recorded and the Independence Party alliance won 55% of the vote and 39 of the elected seats (24 were won by the MLP) while the PMSD obtained the other 23 seats with 43% of the vote (Houbert 1981, 87. See Election results for details). The PMSD did better than expected, for Muslims broke ranks with the CAM and 70% voted for the PMSD, and the party won all the urban seats (de Smith 1968, 611; Houbert 1981, 87). Nevertheless the MLP had won its mandate to lead the country to independence. Four best loser seats were to each party, six to the General Population and one each to a Muslim and a Hindu (de Smith 1968, 611).

On 22 August 1966 the Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a motion requesting independence for Mauritius from the United Kingdom, for the Parti Mauricien walked out before the vote was taken (Simmonds 1982, 186; de Smith 1968, 611). In October 10 000 in Port Louis workers were fired and they marched on Government House where their riotous actions were met with tear gas and mass arrests (Simmonds 1982, 186). These were followed by ten days of murderous communal riots in January 1968 between Muslims and Creoles, a state of emergency was declared on 22 January and British troops shipped in from Singapore to suppress the violence (Simmonds 1982, 186, 187; de Smith 1968, 613). At least 25 people were killed, hundreds were wounded and thousands driven from their homes; Muslims were alienated from the PMSD for several years thereafter (Simmonds 1982, 188; de Smith 1968, 613). It was against this sombre background that Mauritius attained independence from the United Kingdom on 12 March 1968 with Queen Elizabeth II as nominal head of state, Governor General Sir John Rennie acting on her behalf, and MLP leader Anerood Jugnauth as Prime Minister.

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