Cry Freedom Rodrigues Island: Case for Self-Determination
Author(s): Alain L’…vÍque
Three hundred years ago, men and women in flesh and bone, were kidnapped from their villages in Guinea; trapped and captured like animals in Senegal; ripped from their families in Mozambique; herded aboard slave ships in Madagascar, and shipped across the Indian Ocean to this part of the World. Those who survived ended their days labouring like beasts of burden for foreign masters. They would never see Africa again. To the rest of the world, these unfortunate individuals lend a human face to the dark-end of a fading history; to us Rodriguans, they were much more – they were our great great grand fathers and mothers. To get to the inmost heart of our liberation struggle from Mauritius, it is sufficiently important to briefly revisit Rodrigues’ timeline. There are differing versions of history. We have the slave-driver’s version according to the slave-driver; we have the slave’s version according to the slave; we have the versions of those who see world conquest as Jus ad bellum (just cause for war) and the versions of those who do not. From this hazy distance, when we search for a truth buried somewhere in a dead past, among so many other diluted, distorted and deformed half-truths – we can only take a leap of faith.
The name Rodrigues was eponymously plucked from Diego Rodriguez, a Portuguese sailor whose brief visit in 1528 heralded the coming of the Europeans. There is some evidence that Chinese Mariners, Arab and Malay traders, and Pirates may have stumbled on the island as far back as the tenth century. No record of any indigenous population exists. By 1638, a council on nearby Reunion Island was already administering Rodrigues as a French possession. It remained a French colony until British troops stormed the island in 1809. It was then governed as a separate British territory until May 30, 1814, when its administration was transferred to Mauritius.
During the Second World War, 300 of our compatriots, my father among them, from our tiny active population, supported the British in Tobruk and El Alamein. Yet, in March 1968, we were bound to Mauritius against our will, and marooned in the colonially imposed `forced marriage’ of unitary rule. Having offloaded Mauritius, the British in Rodrigues simply packed their bags, shot their dogs, and took off.
In effect, we became the whipping boy, left behind at the mercy of new masters, to foot the bill for the transgressions of others.
Our history has been one long painful struggle against non-consensual governments: from French possession, French colony, English possession, dependency of the colony of Mauritius, `district’ of Mauritius, to Island region of Mauritius today. Neo-colonial labels replaced colonial tags; alien masters took over from foreign rulers, but for our people – the dysphoric cycle grinds on: Adieu l’esclavage – Bonjour l’esclavage (farewell slavery – good morning slavery.) Political Domination
By 1960, the decolonization of Mauritius and Rodrigues islands had already been decided. When subsequent negotiations and constitutional conferences were held in London and Mauritius in 1961, `65 and `67, Rodriguans were deliberately excluded. The pretext was that we did not have any political parties or organizations.
During that epoch, the ultraconservative Mauritian party, PMSD (Parti Mauritian `Social Democrat’), had been running a campaign of scaremongering, along ethnic lines in Rodrigues. Besides promises of freedom, its leader, Duval, had managed to convince our people that the Devil and his Dam would descend on Rodrigues after the British pulled out. Not surprisingly, in their first contact with the ballot box in 1967, an overwhelming ninety-eight percent of Rodriguans voted against being attached to Mauritius. Sadly, the express views of our people did not take precedence over the urgent conspiracy to annex our homeland.
Of note, in 1967, Rodriguans were not offered a choice between freedom and colonialism; we had to face the horns of this dilemma: British colonization or Mauritian occupation … a foreign ruler or an alien master. Not too dissimilar to Indochina’s quandary: Japanese occupation or French colonization.
Rodriguans did not wish to continue living under a British heel, anymore than we craved the prospect of living under a Mauritian one. And we certainly did not fancy the idea of uprooting our families, leaving the bones of ten generations of our ancestors buried in Rodrigues, to sail into exile in foreign lands. Nonetheless, in those blood-curdling days in Mauritius, people were dying in the streets; we feared being carved up next. The chilling reality of the times saw many discard their possessions, homes and lands, to escape to Canada, Australia, France, England, South Africa and other parts of the World. For some, this still cuts close to the bone. In 1968, before the ink was dry on a unilaterally drafted Independence constitution; baton-wielding police hoisted the Mauritian flag atop Port Mathurin under a cloud of tear-gas. Rodriguans became unwilling Mauritian citizens overnight. On occasions when our stout-hearted brothers and sisters resisted, British troops were summoned to put down our protest.
Admittedly, after the British left in 1968, our hands were not cut off. All the same, Rodrigues was reduced to a Mauritian fiefdom, where marginalization soon became institutionalized. We found ourselves with higher unemployment, higher cost of living, higher infant mortality, higher primary education drop-out rate and lower literacy and living standard than Mauritius. Discrimination, domination and exclusion became the norm. Today, force majeure continues to buttress the status quo.
In 1976, a separate ministry was set up to deal with Rodrigues’ specificities. So far, only a handful of `moderate’ Rodriguans, with their wings clipped, have ever been co-opted to this portfolio. What’s more, no Rodriguan has filled this post in the past ten years, and the likelihood of it ever being different, seems remote. Mauritian politicians arbitrarily choose the minister for Rodrigues and politically-appointed Mauritian bureaucrats govern Rodrigues by proxy – irrespective of our votes.
In 1991, when Rodriguans, had the temerity to demand more control over their own affairs, a token island Council was put in place to placate them. Fellow travellers and party hacks were handpicked and allowed to make recommendations on local matters. But, when the Council, though toothless, began to fuel nationalist pride among those with `ideas above their station’ – it was unceremoniously disbanded in 1996.
In 2001, following a long sustained struggle, the idea of Autonomy for the ethnically diverse people of Rodrigues, was first mooted. Finally, 170 years after the abolition of slavery, far reaching devolution from the centralized rigidities of Mauritian control came into sight … albeit briefly. In 2002, after much fanfare, after the spin-doctors had recited their precision-tooled sound bites, after the pig-headed and the big-headed had had their photo opportunities – `Autonomy’ arrived. The names were changed from Island Council to Regional Assembly and from Councillors to Commissioners. A few buildings were erected here and there, a few factotums got to fly to Mauritius, there to sit, silent and still, on government back-benches and a plague of introduced Chameleons overran Rodrigues. That was roughly the extent of it.
Mauritian ministers continued to micro-manage our affairs and we got to elect the lackeys who run their errands. The central government retained all legislative and executive powers and practically everything else. Eventually, even its rusted-on supporters had to concede that our promised `Autonomy’ was a dud.
When we peek one inch beyond the chic sophistry, we see one people still ruling another, not only without that other’s consent – but against its will. Loie sans partage (absolute rule) is alive and well in Rodrigues; it can be seen any day of the year, flexing its muscle and beating its chest in Port Mathurin.
At the risk of belabouring the obvious, one cannot consider limited administrative discretion to be Autonomy, anymore, than one can seriously consider a piglet to be an elephant.
The colonial legacy of authoritarian bureaucratic dictatorship was never dismantled in Rodrigues – it was reinforced. External bureaucratic-warlords command and our people obey without question. The chief of police, the judge, the minister for Rodrigues, all the principal heads of department, all the lawyers, all the policy makers, all those who actually govern Rodrigues – all come from Mauritius.
When our Creole language, in which is stored the experiences and struggles of our people, is spurned in our Assembly – when seventy percent of our people are disqualified from political office, because they do not speak a foreign language – when half-nourished, half-educated and half-free schoolchildren are forced to learn three languages – when there is a dearth of educational material on our African culture in a curriculum designed for us, by others – when our children mimic cultures, beliefs, languages and traditions dissimilar to their own, in order to validate their sense of self-worth – when our civil service which represents ninety percent of our educated, is effectively gagged from political discourse – when our people speak of Independence in tentative muffled whispers, for fear of government spies – when everything is controlled by external forces, there is no freedom … only domination. Constitutional guarantees of no ruling caste, of no second class citizens, of consent of the governed to govern, seem to apply to all, except in respect to Rodriguans.
The Rodriguan citizen is like a beleaguered character, hopelessly trapped inside an eternal nightmare of suppressed resentment, being forced to watch helplessly, as his culture crumbles into dust.
Mauritius speaks of human rights at the United Nations, pledges solidarity with SADC (Southern African Development Committee) and the African Union – yet retains its own Colonial Dominion. The double-edged morality is staggering.
Much water and much blood have flowed into the Indian Ocean, since our brothers and sisters in Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, Comoros, Africa, Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius were freed (at least in theory) from the wretched web of Colonialism. But for us Rodriguans, the on-going ignominy of Mauritian Occupation still haunts our daily lives.
In the 21st century, the island of Rodrigues, one of this regions’ last remaining manifestations of Colonialism has become the `sick man’ of the Indian Ocean, forever bonded to an artificial welfare drip, and still begging a foreign kleptocrat to let us go.
It is argued that because on May 30th 1814, Britain dubbed Rodrigues a dependency of the colony of Mauritius, and administered it as part of the island of Mauritius, it automatically became an integral and indivisible territory of Mauritius. Therefore, any dismemberment of territory before independence would have been illegal under international law.
If we follow this line of reasoning, then we also recognise that all colonially-imposed arrangements are forever binding on all future generations. And when this thinking is extended retrospectively, then, Mussolini’s 1936 laws could still be cited today, as justification to go on bedevilling the lives of Ethiopians, forever.
During Mad-Dog-Morgan’s governorship of Jamaica, looting and rape were the arrangements of the day. As one would reasonably expect, when Morgan the pirate left, his arrangements left with him. The British themselves snatched Rodrigues from the French at the point of a bayonet hooked-up to a gun; likewise, any arrangements they made during their rule became null and void – the very minute they left.
There was never any 11th Commandment, which accorded Britain divine-right to bequeath our lives, our lands and our country to Mauritius, for time without end. Our people were not Mauritius’ or anyone else’s private property. We were not cattle to be handed over from one master to another to another.
Unitary rule was part and parcel of British colonial policy. As a result, despite underlying divisions among different geographical ethnic groups, territories were artificially forced into a unitary state. For example, New Zealand was administered as a dependency of the colony of New South Wales; islands of the Caribbean were grouped together willy-nilly; Seychelles was administered as part of Mauritius; There were plans afoot to group all British East-African colonies under a federation. And it was only the selfless vetoes of India’s leaders that saved Burma from being administered as part of India. Unfortunately, Rodrigues did not have a Ghandi, or a Jinnah or a Nehru; we had Duval, demagoguery and double-cross a go-go.
The simple truth, however unpalatable, is when colonial rule ended in 1968, the island of Rodrigues had a population, and that island belonged to that population, and was not up for grabs.
On March 12th 1968, there should have been two proud islands, side by side, in free association, both celebrating their freedom. Alas, there was pride on one side of the Indian Ocean and humiliation on the other. On the gloomy anniversary of that miserable day, some Rodriguans still hold a minute’s silence … and remember.
The flaw in the dismemberment argument is that it is predicated on the false premise that Rodrigues was a legitimate territory of Mauritius prior to Independence. This was never the case. Mauritius never discovered a terra nullius Rodrigues; it never captured Rodrigues by conquest; the British never wrested Rodrigues from the French in 1814 simply to give it to Mauritius; Rodriguans never surrendered their individual sovereignty and their territorial integrity to a `Pax Mauritiana’ – Moreover, the Rodriguan nation never consented to be part of, or governed by Mauritius.
State sponsored propaganda, unremittingly repeated and embedded in school children as fact, is extremely difficult to unlearn. The untainted truth is Rodrigues was part of the British Empire until 1968; today, it is an annexed country under Occupation.
It is no more a territory of Mauritius, than Hercules is a son of Zeus.
Whether Britain gifted Rodrigues to Mauritius in 1968, as it gave Eritrea to Ethiopia or whether Mauritius opportunistically annexed it, is neither here nor there. Whatever deal, whatever collusion took place between Britain and its Mauritian colonial minister, without our consent was illegal and immoral. It was akin to a departing pirate rewarding his faithful slave, with a slave of his own.
It was the shameless advancement of one country’s territorial ambition at the expense of its neighbour. Mauritius added 130,000 miles of our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) to its territory, and our people lost their homeland and their dignity. The United Kingdom, Mauritius and the International community clearly understand this, as I do, as you do, as we all do … It was wrong then – It is wrong now!
In 1968, our economic or political unpreparedness should never have been used as an excuse to deny us our independence. Mauritius should have been granted its own independence separately, as Northern Rhodesia was. Rodrigues should have been placed under the guardianship of the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations, as a non-self-governing territory. A pan-African commission or UN special committee for self-determination could then have put together a long term plan for Independence.
Under a mutually agreed-upon constitution, with suitable opt-out clauses, we could even have remained in free association with Mauritius, rather than being perpetually entrapped in the existing abomination, euphemistically known as `Autonomy’.
If historical debts, legal or at least moral responsibilities, abrogated in 1968, are made good to some extent, past injustices can be belatedly rectified. We remain hopeful.
It is not our lot in life, to be perpetually governed by other people. We did not accept non-consensual rule from France; we did not accept it from Britain – we will never accept it from Mauritius.
Ethnic Dilution The majority of Mauritius’ 1.3 million population are descendants of Indian indentured labourers, mainly from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, brought by the British to meet labour shortages on Sugar cane plantations; whereas, ninety-five percent of Rodrigues’ forty thousand strong population are direct descendants of African slaves.
We are as distinct, as say Mexicans and Kenyans. This ethnic heterogeneity differentiates the one island from the other.
Rodriguans are not an indigenous group or an ethno-national minority seeking piecemeal internal self-rule; we are a separate people with a fervent aspiration to self-determine our future. Our case for full sovereignty is an exceptionally strong one. More to the point, we can never give up our homeland – our forefathers paid too dear a price for it!
Until recently, Rodrigues’ small maximum carrying capacity (approx.50,000) and its geographical isolation, have managed to preserve its cultural identity to some extent. However, the past few years have seen Mauritians, in ever-increasing numbers, being fast-tracked onto crown land in Rodrigues. If this trend (or government policy) continues, it is a mathematical certainty that it will dilute our ranks to a moribund minority. Much like mixing thirty bottles of beer with one bottle of lemonade – the lemonade disappears.
Once our culture, traditions, language, and way of life are gone; once we have lost our identity as a people; once our claim for sovereignty has been forever extinguished – we would have become a nation of semi-Slaves and half-repressed Serfs, stuck at the bottom-end of a Mauritian vertical class structure.
The once proud people of Rodrigues would have been reduced to a motley mob of untouchables, straw hats under the arm, bowing and scraping in the demimonde of Mauritian ghettos or eking out a living on the mountain ridges in Rodrigues. We could never again aspire to be anything more than just half a people; we would be forever playing catch-up to other cultures. As a people, we would be dead. For Rodriguans, this is an existential challenge. If we do not meet it, if we wait for the time that must come, we will surely follow the Dodo. This, I do not believe – I know.
The common Portuguese name Rodrigues (son of Rodrigo) was poorly chosen for us, by old masters, in evil times. Faced with being branded with it forever, even the brotherhood of Goblins, Gnomes and Gremlins would be reaching for the AK47. Seriously though, `Rodrigues’ is an old relic, fossilized in another era, clearly disconnected from and incompatible with the essence of our people. And not to mention, the blood-spattered images of Portugal’s brutal savagery in this region, which the name evokes – It is time for our generation to give it (Rodrigues) back to history.
We have lost a country – our body politic is being trampled underfoot; the stench of humiliation is everywhere; cultural oblivion looms large, and yet, we are still blighted by a small clique of bloated puppets and `well-assimilated’ latter-day Uncle Toms, wanting us to accept foreign domination.
Strangers overseas, who we do not vote for and cannot remove, design our electoral systems and electoral boundaries, decide our laws, taxation, tariffs, decide our health, education, foreign and economic policies. Strangers, decide our children’s future – Strangers decide – Strangers have been deciding for the best part of 300 years.
It is time – we decided! For, we too, have a brain and a backbone. Yes, it is true! We too, have dreams and hopes of our own. It is time to cut the neo-colonial umbilical cord sharply adrift, to take active steps to decrease dependence on others, to believe that if we reduce our wants and work hard, that self-reliance is possible and indeed desirable.
It is time to stop depending on built-in assumptions, on ideas and systems that have been partly responsible for our ongoing subordination. It is time to try other ideas, other approaches, perhaps invent new ones which better adapt to our circumstances. It is time to stop imitating others and trust in ourselves – for who we are, has worth.
Rodriguans are a resilient people. I say this, because contrary to popular belief, it is our people who have worked the land and fished the seas and kept farm animals and kept this small economy afloat – generation after generation. We have done it before, we are doing it now – we can do it better. Let’s not hesitate to continue drinking from the old well (the land and the sea), until the ghost of globalization arrives with the magic potion.
It is time to dump the usual too-poor, too-small, and not-yet-ready arguments. They are like bad records that have been played over and over again. They are intended to shackle rather than liberate. Fortunately, oppressed people the world over have ignored them, otherwise most islands in the Caribbean, Indian, Atlantic and Pacific, much of Africa and Asia, and possibly half the planet would still be under some form of colonial rule today. In any case, how large and how rich would a country need to be, for its people to qualify for their freedom? Moreover, who would decide? Our leaders must re-connect with the poor and dispossessed in this country, re-establish links with our ethnic kin in Africa, re-organize our people at the grassroots and demand that which was stolen from us in 1968 … our Country.
Let us not be discouraged by the indifference of a dog-eat-dog McWorld, let us not dither, let us steel our resolve and demand our Independence. Let us speak of it proudly in every home, in every church, in every bazaar, in every fishing-post, on every farm, on every street-corner, on every bus and wherever or whenever our people meet. Our task will not be without sacrifice, but if we turn our back on Independence now, we condemn our children to another 300 years of foreign domination. The alternative is simple: struggle or eternal subservience.
Our people have been the human Guinea pigs for some of the world’s most cold-blooded social experimentations. We have been at the painful-end of the whole monstrous gamut of Slavery, Colonialism, neo-Colonialism and `civilising missions’ of Missionaries. Despite the inhumanity, the degradation, the indignity; despite the loss of our grand African names, our sense of self, our traditional African clothing, our beliefs and our relationships with our kinfolk in Africa – we have already forgiven and moved on.
Perpetual domination is not a destination to where we want to lead our children, or as the late Pope John Paul II used to say to occupied people everywhere “you are not what they say you are; let me remind you who you really are …”
Our people have undergone a long-enough apprenticeship to be free. The time has come for us to climb out of the abyss of serfdom and view the world through our own eyes. As children of this flying planet, it is our incontrovertible right to self-determine our own future; let us exercise that right and reclaim our heritage in the human family. With this firm wish warming our hearts, with our heads held high – let us brace ourselves to face a hopeful future with fortitude.
Vive Rodrigues … Libre!