HL Deb 19 April 1944 vol 131 cc453-78

LORD FARINGDON rose to call attention to conditions in Mauritius; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wonder whether there are not perhaps other members of your Lordships' House who have taken, as I have, an interest in Mauritius since a very early age. To me these small red dots in the middle of the ocean always seemed highly romantic. I have always longed, and I dare say some others of your Lordships also have longed, to know something about them and perhaps to visit them. To-day, with your Lordships' permission, I am going to draw your attention to conditions—not, alas, such ideally romantic conditions is one might wish—that exist in these islands. Mauritius was first discovered at the beginning of the sixteenth century by the Portuguese. It was colonized afterwards by the Dutch, deserted by them at the beginning of the eighteenth century, occupied by the French it 1715 and held by them until it was taken over by ourselves in 1810. From this historical background has emerged the peculiar society which exists to-day in Mauritius. The island is now, as indeed it has been since the earliest times, essentially a sugar-producing island. Originally the sugar was cultivated by slaves and in 1835, when the slaves were freed—there were 68,000 of them—the British Parliament paid (and I think it was a generous gesture of which we as Englishmen may justly be proud), a matter of £2,000,000 to the slave owners. From 1842 to 1922 there was a supply of indentured labour from India.

This background I mention because I think it does very largely account for the present social stratification of the island. Even now the landowning class in Mauritius are for the most part descendants of the original French settlers. French is the language of the country and the legal system is based largely upon the Code Napoléon. The island, which is volcanic, is 716 square miles in extent and has a population of something under half a million. Under the same administration are certain very small dependencies of which the principal is Rodrigues, a matter of 350 miles to the east, with a population of about 10,000. Rodrigues, I may say, is fortunate in one respect in that there is no malaria, because malaria, as I shall mention a little later, is one of the troubles and bugbears of Mauritius. There is in addition the island of Agalego, 580 miles to the north, and the Chagos Archipelago, nearly 1,200 miles to the north-east, both with a population of about 450. Then there is Peros Banhos island, 32 miles north of Diego Garcia, the principal island in the Archipelago, with a population of about 330, and the Solomon and six other small islands with a population of about 250.

They are extremely small communities, and I have given your Lordships the distances in order to make clear the extremely scattered nature of this administrative unit and in order that I may not seem to be unduly critical of what are obviously very great difficulties in the way of administration. Nevertheless it does seem deplorable that on these small islands, with the exception of Rodrigues, there is, for example, no school at all. I suggest that something should be done for these small communities in the way of education. Something, I feel, might be done when one considers that some of these islands are oil-producing and are apparently to all intents and purposes run by the oil companies. It seems to me there might well be some revenue from these companies which might be used for the benefit of the inhabitants. Your Lordships will probably have seen Major Orde Browne's report on labour conditions in Mauritius. Those of you who have read it will agree that it is a masterly document. From it I have obtained a great part of the information, which I shall mention. Major Orde Browne mentions in connexion with the dependencies the desirability of the appointment of a labour officer who could visit them more frequently, and of the regularization of labour contracts, which he suggests should be drawn up and signed before a magistrate. He also suggests that there may be some fisheries in the neighbourhood of these islands capable of development which might supply Mauritius itself.

To come to the principal island, this is, it seems to me, a quite classical case of the single-crop Colony. Like other Colonies dependent on one crop only, and that an export crop, it has suffered and is suffering all the disadvantages which are entailed by such an economic situation, disadvantages arising from market conditions and more especially difficulties consequent upon war conditions. Your Lordships will appreciate how almost exclusively is Mauritius a sugar-producing island when I mention that of 180,000 acres, roughly, of cultivated land, 150,000 acres are devoted to the cultivation of sugar, and another 20,000 acres to the cultivation of the aloe in connexion with which there is, I understand, a very useful local industry which manufactures sacks and sacking of finer quality than sisal and, probably, as good as jute. None the less, when you add these two together and find there is a matter of only 11,000 cultivated acres not occupied by these two crops, your Lordships will appreciate how extraordinarily one-sided is the economy of the island. Clearly, one of the most essential things in Mauritius must be the encouragement of a subsistence agriculture. The population for the most part is Indian. As I have said, the total population is something under half a million. Of those considerably more than half are Indian—I think the number is about 268,000—and their diet has been predominantly, as you would expect amongst Indians, rice, all of which has had to be imported. One of the difficulties of introducing subsistence agriculture in Mauritius would, of course, be the difficulty of persuading any people so notorious for their conservatism in matters of diet as Indians to vary their diet.

That, I think, is another reason for deploring lack of education in the island. There is no compulsory education. There are only a matter of 40,000 elementary school children, and some 2,000 get a secondary education. This, I suggest, is particularly unfortunate since surely it would be possible in the schools to encourage that consumption of locally grown foods which seems in Mauritius to be so highly desirable. Incidentally, this imported diet of rice, to which I have alluded, is now practically unobtainable, and one understands that its lack has had a most deplorable effect upon health. Major Orde Browne describes the population as a "poorly-paid, under-nourished, sickly population." He points to the prevalence of malaria, hookworm and dysentery, this last disease being, probably, an indication of tainted water supplies. There are, in addition, deficiency diseases, though fortunately it appears that pellagra and beriberi are comparatively rare. There is, however, a surprisingly high number of avitaminosis cases. These would indicate a shortage of vitamins A and B in the diet of the people. Major Orde Browne has calculated that owing to under-nourishment and a generally poor state of health the Mauritian worker cannot be expected, and indeed is unable, to do more work than a six-hour day on five days a week, and the situation is underlined when one finds that prisoners serving sentences put on weight and improve in health.

As I have said, rice, the staple diet of the Indian population, is now almost unobtainable. Milk and meat are extremely scarce, and play a very small part in the diet of the majority of the people. In the past, part of the wages of workers on the estates used to be paid in food. This system has now been discontinued. It is not a system which personally I should recommend to your Lordships, but unfortunately in this island so poor are the people that it was undoubtedly advantageous that they should receive one or two square meals. When I add that the rise in prices has been colossal—the prices of flour, beans and fat have all risen from 100 to 200 per cent. and clothing has risen even more, although wages have risen only 32 per cent.—your Lordships will appreciate that the situation of the population is indeed a hard and a sad one. I have already said that one of the big difficulties is the difficulty experienced in persuading the population to try alternative foods, and I would like, if I may, to commend the attempts that are being made by the Government at the present time to popularize unfamiliar foodstuffs. Nevertheless, what is undoubtedly essential is an enthusiastic and far-reaching policy to encourage a subsistence agriculture. I am given to understand that maize, soya, fruit and vegetables can all be very well and easily cultivated. There are, moreover, fisheries, and it would be most advantageous if these were encouraged. I understand that in one particular respect they have been rather ingeniously encouraged in that boys who are juvenile delinquents are being taught in the reformatory, or approved school, to make fishing nets and how to equip themselves as fishermen.

As I say, wages have only risen 32 per cent. although there have been these enormous rises in the cost of foodstuffs. As is to be expected in an economy of this sort, wages vary considerably from one time of the year to another. In the inter-cropping period wages average something like 66 cents. In the cropping period they are about 1 rupee 25 cents. Under the Minimum Wage Ordinance of 1941 a minimum wage of 18 to 20 rupees a month was laid down. It has been calculated that the minimum cost of living for a man with a wife and two children amounts to 35 rupees a month. A labourer working twenty-two days a month can expect to earn, during a cropping month, about 27 rupees 50 cents, and outside the cropping season about 14 rupees. From this you will see that a family such as I have described must be going extremely short of the essential foods. It is true that wages have risen but they have risen less than prices. The Wages Board has raised wages from 27 to 30 per cent. but only for the benefit of those workers working under monthly agreements. The rise does not affect day workers. A bonus is paid only to men who work six days a week, and as I have already said, Major Orde Browne has stated that the Mauritian worker is incapable of working six days a week owing to lack of stamina.

There moreover, expressed in the island considerable fear that there may be a tendency on the part of employers to discharge their monthly labour and re-engage it on a daily basis so as to avoid increases of wages. It is to be hoped that no such inhumane action will be taken; but I am afraid that in the case of certain employers in Mauritius their past record does not make one very hopeful. There is in addition considerable seasonal unemployment, although no figures exist. There is also considerable under-employment, of which an example is the case of the workers in the railway workshops, who are employed only on half time, and have been so employed for a number of years. Unfortunately, there is also an excessive use of the system of apprenticeship, under which apprentices are paid very low sums during the period of their apprenticeship, which is frequently extended for excessively long periods, at the end of which the apprentice is discharged and no work is available for him.

In such poverty-stricken conditions, housing might well be expected to be of poor quality, and of poor quality it undoubtedly is. A great deal of it is inherited from the earlier period of indentured labour, and consists on the estates of what are called godowns in India—I do not know whether that is the name for them in Mauritius. These are long, barrack-like buildings. Major Orde Browne records that they are for the most part weatherproof and in good condition, but quite unsuitable for habitation by families, being originally intended for indentured labourers. There is, moreover, considerable overcrowding, again owing to poverty.

I come now to a point which is of particular interest to those of us on these Benches, and that is the position of the trade unions in Mauritius. The position is definitely a very curious one. Industrial associations (as they are called in Mauritius) can be formed only in certain stated trades. Other trades may under the Ordinance be added, but unless they are so added combination is forbidden to persons employed in them. A by-product of this legislation is the fact that industrial associations have thrust upon them, regardless of the desires of the people in them, an occupational form of unionism. Moreover, a great disadvantage, and a disadvantage which I very much hope that the noble Duke, when he replies, will be able to tell me will be removed, is that it is forbidden to have as members of unions any people who are not regularly and normally engaged in the industry or occupation represented by the association. The result of this, as your Lordships will realize, is that it is impossible for the unions to employ an official; and clearly that makes the efficient and competent running of the unions very difficult. There are legislative provisions for compulsory arbitration which insists that strikes shall not take place until a conciliation board has considered the dispute for at least ten days or has declared before the end of that period that it cannot reach a settlement.

Finally, the legislation in the island does not comply with the terms of the Colonial Welfare and Development Act, and, as a result, the island is unable to benefit from the money made available by this Act. In March of last year the Secretary of State said that he would consult the Governor on this matter. I hope, it now being more than a year later, that the noble Duke will be able to tell me the result of that consultation. I would add that Major Orde Browne remarks that although the employers informed him that the members of the unions were illiterate, did not understand their business and were wholly incompetent, he himself, having attended some of their meetings, was favourably impressed; he says that the business appeared to be carried on efficiently and expeditiously.

There are most unfortunate accounts of victimization. Victimization is always a most difficult thing to pin down; an unscrupulous employer or administrator can always make up excuses—inefficiency, absenteeism or whatever it may be—to account for the discharge of any employee. However, the protests of the unionists seem to me to be borne out by the history of a dockers' strike which occurred in September, 1938, when, although no violence had occurred nor apparently was to be expected, the police and military were called out, the leader of the dockers was banished to Rodrigues, two other leaders were banished to remote parts of the island, and three hundred strikers were imprisoned for a week. The history of this strike makes upon me at any rate a rather deplorable impression; it looks as though the forces of the State were too readily at the beck and call of the employers.

After the strike there followed the suppression of the Labour Party, and this is a matter on which, as your Lordships will understand, we on these Benches feel very strongly. The law in Mauritius apparently entailed the registration of the Labour Party there as a friendly society, and inevitably its activities were thereby curtailed. However, after the strike the Procureur-General, apparently on his own authority, demanded that certain moneys should be returned which had been expended by the officials. As I understand it, there is no suggestion that this money had been improperly expended—that is to say, embezzled or stolen by the officials. It had been used for the purposes of the party, but not, it may be, in accordance with the law governing friendly societies. In any case the demand of the Procureur-General was definitely illegal, and was ignored by the Party. The next episode was the dissolution of the Party by order of the Governor. I am glad to say that the Party has now been reformed, but again it suffers from the difficulty that it is forbidden by law to have any paid officials. This makes the collection of clues and the general organization of the Party extremely difficult, particularly in view of the repeated accounts of victimization.

After the strike the Labour Department was overhauled and considerably strengthened, and conciliation board machinery was set up. Unfortunately the improvements hoped for from this reform do not seem to have been realized, since very serious disturbances occurred in September of last year, affecting four estates in the north of the island. The police fired upon the crowd, three persons being killed and three wounded, and in a baton charge afterwards thirteen civilians were injured and seventeen of the police. A commission of inquiry has been sitting, but no report has yet, so far as I am aware, been made available in this country. The noble Duke nods; I do not know whether he means that it is available or that he will make it so, but no doubt he will tell me. I am not going into details about this disturbance, since we have not the report and have only a rather curtailed record of some of the evidence. I would mention, however, one thing which strikes me at any rate as very curious in connexion with this evidence. I may have a false impression owing to the fact that it is not a complete record of the evidence which has been received, but it would appear that a con siderable amount of the evidence was taken in camera, and on me at any rate that makes an unfortunate impression. Mr. Twining, who is an ex-Director of Labour in the island, at the inquiry apparently attributed the disturbances to the owners' refusal to recognize the industrial association and to hunger in the northern area. I would add incidentally that I personally was somewhat perturbed by the evidence given by the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr. Allan Bell, but, as I say, I have not the full report of the Commission and I do not wish to go into details; indeed I do not think it would be fair to do so.

I would however, with your Lordships' permission, like to read one piece of evidence which I received, not because I intend to discuss it in relation to the inquiry or to the disturbances, but because it gives a very moving description at first hand of conditions in the island. It was given by Mr. Mohunpassad, who is the assistant secretary of the Association Industrielle de Rivière du Rempart. It is rather long, but I would like to read it because there is nothing I could say which would gave so clear a picture of the conditions throughout the island. This gentlemcn stated that all the inspectors of labour he knew, and he knew most of them, had little interest in workers' conditions. During the meeting of the Board of Conciliation on wages on the estates of Belle Vue House and Solitude [two estates affected by the disturbances] an agreement was reached. He and the other workers' representative, M. Rommarriz, had not wished to sign it. The Director of Labour, however, said that they had to sign it, without consulting the workers whom they represented, although they had asked permission to make such a consultation. The demands of the workers were for Rs.40 and 45 for the two grades of labourers respectively for an eight-hour day, and the workers instructed their representatives not to accept less.

As I have already given you some of the cost-of-living figures of the island, I do not think you will feel that the request of the workers was very excessive. The Board had not made the full grant, and the agreement had been signed by the workers' representatives because the Director of Labour ordered them to. It was under constraint that the agreement had been signed. A number of grievances still exist on St. Antoine estate. The labourers were cheated in the weighing of their day's work—complaints on this ground had been made to the Inspector of Labour but nothing had been done. Further, the labourers were supposed to work eight hours a day; but they had been made to work twelve hours. But they were not paid extra money, as recommended by the Minimum Wages Board. That, too, has been reported to the Labour Inspector several times, but nothing had been done, although white workers were compensated for extra time. The foremen abused their position, employing labourers on their own land. Some workers kept cattle. The owners did not give food or straw for sheds for them, but took the manure without paying. There was no water supply in the labourers' camp on the St. Antoine estate, although on Labourdonnais there were four or five sources. The skilled workers were given land to cultivate, but the labourers were not. Your Lordships will realize how extremely important is the giving of land for cultivation to labourers earning such low rates of pay.

The statement continued: Conditions in the hospital on St. Antoine were bad: there was no medical material. Labourers were given nothing to eat in hospital, and had to have food brought them from home. They had no bed clothes, lights were put out at 7 p.m. and they had to remain in darkness. Those who were ill had no ration allowance. The doctor never came to the labourers' camp, but was at the hospital for two hours during the week. Most workers went to their own doctors—usually for dysentery. As I have said, dysentery is presumably an indication of tainted water supply. Rations supplied for the labourers for a week were only sufficient for two days. It was in consequence necessary to buy food on the black market. Complaint had been made to the police regarding the black market, but they answered that they too were dependent on it and could do nothing. I have read that evidence at length because I think that it does describe an extremely distressing condition among labourers in this island.

I come finally to the political aspect of the problem in Mauritius. The qualifications of voters are that they should be males, 21 years of age, of British nationality, and have had three years' residence in the Colony. In addition, they must have one of the six following property qualifications. They must own property worth Rs.300 per annum; they must pay Rs.25 rent a month; they must own Rs.3,000 worth of movable property, or alternatively a voter must be the husband of a woman or the eldest son of a widow who has such property; they must have a salary of Rs.600 per annum, or alternatively Rs.50 a month; and finally, they must be men who pay Rs.200 licence duty. I would particularly draw attention to the qualification relating to Rs.600 per annum salary. Unfortunately it has been held that wages are not salary, and the result has been that even the most skilled and best-paid artisans are not eligible to be voters. It was calculated in 1941, on the basis of the 1936 register, that the white electors were increasing and the non-whites were decreasing. Out of nearly 500,000 population there are 9,456 voters. Of 10,000 whites, 2,500, or 25 per cent., are voters; out of 111,000 coloured people 3,900 are voters, that is 3.6 per cent.; and out of 270,000 Indians 2,716, or about 1 per cent., are voters.

In these circumstances your Lordships will not be surprised that there has been considerable agitation in the island for the revision of the electoral qualification. Indeed this matter has been under Governmental consideration for a very long time. The noble Earl, Lord Dufferin, in 1938 stated that reform was under consideration. In 1939 Sir Thomas Inskip stated that only informal discussions had taken place. However, in 1940 the Governor stated that the individuals elected were not representative of the community, and urged that the existing Council should be prolonged for another three years in order that the elections might take place when the Constitution had been reformed and a new register had been drawn up. Unfortunately since then nothing has been done, and I hope that the noble Duke will be able to tell us something about this matter. A year ago the present Secretary of State stated that he was looking into the matter, and in July last year he said that Sir Cosmo Parkinson would discuss the matter with the Governor during his projected visit to Mauritius. I hope that His Majesty's Government may to-day be able to tell us that they have come to definite decisions with regard to this political situation.

I have tried to outline what seems to me a distressing situation which exists in this Colony. I hope that His Majesty's Government will be able to tell us to-day that they have got plans for a reform of the Constitution, and I hope too that they will tell us what they intend to do with reference to the Orde Browne recommendations, in particular those affecting child welfare and child labour. Major Orde Browne recommended, for example, that children should not be employed until they are over 12 years of age, instead of 10, as they now are. He recommended also the provision of school meals and the increase of educational facilities generally; and made other proposals with regard to apprenticeship, pensions, insurance schemes and workmen's compensation. I hope very much that His Majesty's Government will be able to outline a policy which will bring relief to this romantically placed but distressful island. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, the opening words of the noble Lord's speech struck a very responsive note in my own heart. I have always longed to go to Mauritius, but as there is no immediate prospect of my going there, I sincerely hope the day will come when the noble Lord opposite may occupy the position of Under-Secretary of State, which I do now, and himself have the opportunity of going there and doing a good deal of good for the Colony. Your Lordships will agree that we are in the noble Lord's debt, and the island of Mauritius is in his debt, for raising this Motion to-day. Mauritius is one of the most interesting and also one of the most remote of our Colonies. It lies some 2,300 miles from Cape Town, some 2,000 miles from the southernmost point of India, and some 11,000 miles from here. It is in keeping with the French tradition of the island that its internal communications are very good. It has a network of first-class roads—really good macadamised tarmac roads—and some 120 miles of State-owned and operated railway, which is not too bad for a very remote island about the size of Surrey. On the other hand the external communications are, unhappily, very bad indeed. The island is difficult of access, and it is not altogether surprising that social and political progress should have been slower than it has been in the industrial north of this country.

I hope your Lordships will not think I am being unduly long if I give some details to amplify those given by the noble Lord of the history of the island, for it is hardly possible to understand its present-day problems and conditions without that historical background. It was, in the early days, entirely uninhabited. It was known to, and used by, the early Portuguese navigator-s as a port of call, but it was not inhabited permanently until the Dutch established a settlement there in 1638. The Dutch have an almost uniformly good record as colonists, but in Mauritius they were less fortunate. They exploited the valuable resources of the island—at that time consisting largely of ebony—but they did not do much else. As I say, the Dutch have been almost universally good colonists, but they were not so happy in Mauritius. Their various settlements failed, and they abandoned the island in 1710. In 1715 the French formally took possession, and in 1721 they sent out their first party of settlers. Then came a period of great expansion in the life of the Colony. Some of the early French Governors were men of very great energy End remarkable qualities, and it is to them that the Colony owes its sugar industry and the introduction of nutmegs, cloves, and other plants which have been of great commercial value. On the whole the French have a good record in the island.

During the days of the Napoleonic wars, a powerful French Fleet based on Mauritius became a really serious threat to our communications with India, and after an unsuccessful attempt to take the island in 1809 a really strong attack, based both upon India and upon South Africa, was made and the island passed into our possession. The naval battles of 1809 were distinguished by very great gallantry on both, sides. We earned the respect of the French and they earned our respect, and when we finally took the island over it was included in the Articles of Capitulation that the laws, religion, and customs of the inhabitants were to be guaranteed. Thus it comes about that to-clay both the criminal law and the civil law of Mauritius, are based upon the Code Napoleon, and in the Council of Government the French and English languages are used at pleasure. The law has been slightly modified by various Colonial Ordnances, but it still remains the fact that it is largely based on the Code Napoleon. Then the emancipation of the slaves in 1835 brought about another very far-reaching change in the island. The newly-created class of free men refused to work on the plantations which were, in their minds, associated with slavery, and the sugar industry, which is the main industry of the island, was threatened with ruin. As a result, after protracted negotiations with the Government of India, indentured labour from India was imported on a very considerable scale. The result is that of the present population of some 400,000, some 270,000—the noble Lord mentioned 268,000, but we need not quarrel about the difference—are Indians, not now indentured, of course, but with a history of indenture behind them.

The island has been subject to various disasters. It lies in the track of cyclones, to which I shall refer later because it has a very vital bearing on the island's history and economy. Port Louis, the principal town, has been twice almost totally destroyed by fire; and far the worst disaster which ever struck the island was in 1866 when malaria was introduced, a terribly bad form of malaria. During one year, 1867, more than 31,000 persons—nearly half of them in Port Louis—died of malaria, which has been a terrible scourge ever since. The noble Lord referred to dysentery. Dysentery is a menace, but although I have not first-hand evidence, I am disinclined to agree with his proposition that it is due to tainted water supplies. I say that because I suffered very severely from dysentery myself in the Gallipoli campaign during the last war when there was no water except what we could drink from a petrol tin which contained rather more than one-half petrol, judging by the taste. In my view dysentery is fly-blown and dust-blown as well as being caused by impure water supplies. The water supplies of Mauritius are good and untainted. I agree that the health conditions of the island are deplorable, and I shall say later how the present Governor is b tackling, these difficulties resolutely and manfully.

I hope I have not wearied your Lordships with this background of past history, but it is necessary to understand it if we are going to consider the present problems and conditions. Here you have a heterogeneous population consisting in part of 270,000 Indians, some 10,000 persons many of them of pure, and others of almost pure French descent, some 100,000 Creoles of mostly African descent, some of them a mixture of French and descendants of the emancipated slaves, and some ro,000 Chinese. This very mixed population has been subject to the most violent vicissitudes. It was estimated in the years of prosperity, the years of very high prices of sugar which followed the last war, that the value of the Mauritius sugar crop amounted to 250,000,000 rupees. In other years the island has been reduced to the direst want, and subventions from the Treasury amounting to many lakhs or even crores of rupees have been necessary.

The noble Lord was good enough to indicate to me some of the points he intended to bring forward and I am much in his debt for that. He made the particular point that the cultivation of subsistence crops should be encouraged and that this would greatly improve the economic situation of the island. He also pointed out that it was undesirable that the Colony should depend so largely on one single export crop and he produced very forceful and cogent arguments in support of his view. The island has gone some considerable distance in the direction hoped for by the noble Lord. Early in July, 1942, the Governor was told that owing to the shipping situation imported supplies could no longer be relied upon, and that as a necessary precaution against the uncertain outlook the time had come for the Colony to make itself independent of imports of essential food supplies and that he himself therefore should adopt whatever method seemed best to him for this purpose, including the turning over to other crops of sugar areas. The measures which the Governor took resulted in, roughly, 16½ per cent. of the land under sugar, or approximately 36,000 acres, being turned over to food crops. In addition, some 1,500 acres of vacant land were cleared and planted. Your Lordships will be aware that Mauritius is a hilly island and that the area of marginal land is not very large. In that respect it rather resembles England. Farmers in England in the higher lands where rainfall is high complain sometimes of the harvesting weather and of the uncertainty which results from their being compelled to plough up marginal land. You have marginal land in Mauritius which in normal times would not be worth cultivating. Some additional land was taken in, but these efforts did not succeed in making the island entirely self-supporting and early last year very substantial further measures were under consideration.

Incidentally I might say that early last year was the time when I joined the Colonial Office and on a first examination of the problems confronting the island, I entirely shared the views on the island's agriculture which have been expressed by the noble Lord this afternoon. It seemed to me then, as indeed it seems to me now, that sugar occupies in the Tropics very much the same position that coal occupies in our own more temperate climate. It is the main staple crop and source of wealth. It tends to concentrate labour which thus becomes dependent upon world prices to a far greater extent than are the subsistence farmers. In too many cases this leads to industrial unrest. In the case of sugar as in that of coal you get in very many cases the same phenomenon of the employees maintaining that they are not being paid a living wage, and the employers saying that the unrest is due to irresponsible and imported agitators, and that in any case they cannot pay higher wages unless they receive a higher price for their products. I see the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, looking at me. He will be familiar with this phenomenon. Sugar during the harvesting time also resembles coal in this respect, that any hitch in the smooth working of the industry causes wholesale dislocation. Just as in the case of coal a shortage of tubs or the absence of quite a limited number of key-men may cause a widespread loss of production, so in the case of sugar it is essential that every stage of production and export should go ahead smoothly. The precise moment for cutting the crop must be chosen when the cane is at its highest stage of sugar content; cutting, milling, packing and transport of the sugar must all proceed with the utmost regularity, and delay at any point may result in wholesale blocking of the whole system.

It seemed to me when I first examined this problem that it was wholly to the good that subsistence agriculture should be encouraged so far as possible. I thought this would have the double result of freeing labour from the absolute necessity of working on the sugar plantations and of making the island largely independent of imported foodstuffs. But, as so often happens in matters of this kind, a great number of unsuspected snags began to emerge. The first is the one to which I have already referred—namely, that Mauritius is subject to periodical cyclones. Sugar cane is relatively immune to these cyclones. The growing sugar cane suffers during cyclone periods but it does not suffer irretrievably, whereas food crops, especially maize and manioc, in the case of a severe cyclone are liable to entire destruction. Even very low growing crops like sweet potatoes are subject to entire destruction. The further turning over of high elms land to food crops, which, as I told your Lordships, was under contemplation list year, would thus have exposed the island to the certainty of losing the sugar crop from some of its best and most productive land and to the risk of getting nothing whatever in its stead.

There is another factor, to which also the noble Lord referred, and I should like to congratulate him on his very extensive knowledge of the island. We have to remember that the Indian population like rice and is extremely reluctant to take to any other form of provender as a staple or indeed as a substitute. I believe it is a fact that the use of other products might have a very substantial bearing on the health of the population, but the fact remains that these people are intensely conservative in their ways. They will have rice if they can possibly get it and will return to rice as soon as it becomes available to them. Another reason is that the island is essentially sugar-minded. It is ideally suited by soil and climate for the production of sugar. It has the right soil, it has the right climate, it has the knowledge, the skill, the tradition and the machinery. Its capital is invested in sugar machinery, and its prosperity has been built up on sugar. This last factor, and the three other things I have mentioned, have made it difficulty to turn the island over from sugar production to subsistence farming. This factor—the sugar mindedness of the island—is perhaps an imponderable factor but is one which I believe cannot be neglected.

I hope I have not left your Lordships with the impression that nothing has been done. A good deal has been done and is being done. I think I can fairly say that the Government of Mauritius has throughout this period of crisis shown a very commendable willingness to re-orientate the agriculture of the Colony in the manner pest calculated to serve war-time needs. But while the steps taken have ensured the Colony a considerable measure of self-sufficiency, it has not been, and I think it will not be, possible to attain complete independence of imported staple foodstuffs, partly because it is felt that the Colony can best serve the supply problem by continuing to produce sugar, for which it is ideally fitted, but also because there is a risk that should a cyclone visit the island an important production of sugar might be lost while the supply of staple foodstuffs would be completely wiped out without in any way contributing to the needs of the Colony.

It is a very lamentable and tragic coincidence that after I reached that point in the preparation in my speech we received telegrams at the Colonial Office announcing that a cyclone has hit the island. The first telegram said that the centre of the cyclone had passed over the neighbouring French island of Reunion, causing much damage of which full particulars are not yet known. The speed of the wind attained something over coo miles. The edge of the cyclone hit Mauritius this week and the present assessment of damage is that of the sugar cane crop 60 to 15 per cent. has been lost and of the maize crop 60 to 70 per cent. has been lost. And this, my Lords, is the edge of a cyclone! The damage to buildings has been slight and I am thankful to say there has been no loss of life. When a cyclone really hits the island the loss may be considerable. That to some extent answers the point about subsistence crops. There is grave risk that should a cyclone visit the island the whole crop would be lost. Effort and money put into growing the crop would go for nothing. That accounts a good deal for the reluctance to leave the main staple crop, which enjoys a very large measure of immunity against cyclones.

The noble Lord went on to refer to labour conditions and to the strikes and riots which unhappily occurred last year. He asked particularly when a report of the findings of the Committee of Inquiry may be expected. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been in communication with the Governor on this point and has been informed that the Governor hopes to have the report of the Commission by the end of April. The Governor will send it forthwith to my right honourable friend and it is with him that responsibility for publication rests. I am not in a position to indicate a precise date, but I can assure the noble Lord that he will not have very long to wait. Pending the receipt of that report the noble Lord will scarcely wish me to go into the subject now. I am fully prepared to do so when I have full information, and I would suggest that the noble Lord should keep in touch with me because I think it is desirable that we should debate the question when we are in possession of all the facts.

In regard to labour conditions generally, the noble Lord will be aware that the report of my right honourable friend's Labour Adviser on labour conditions in Mauritius was presented to Parliament as late as last year. I have not much to add to what was said in the Report, except to say that his recommendations, I think without exception, are being carried out. A Labour Advisory Board has been established and on it Government, employers and workmen are represented. As part of the Labour Advisory Board there will be a Wages Board which will be an accessible body in perpetual session to which representations may be made by laborers, employers and the Labour Department. The Board will be empowered to make recommendations for minimum wages, for time and piece work, for overtime and for working hours. In addition the Governor is hoping in collaboration with my right honourable friend to secure the services and the visit of a trade union expert from this country to advise the Labour Department. The Governor is also contemplating the establishment of Labour Courts so as to provide machinery for the prompt hearing of complaints, thus avoiding unnecessary intervention by the police in industrial matters and as far as possible disposing of disputes without actual litigation.

The noble Lord referred specifically to the question of victimization and I would like at this point to deal with the question of the legality of industrial associations or trade unions. It is true that the old code of Mauritius did forbid trade unions, but the position is in process of reform at the moment. Industrial association for all trades is not yet legal, but the law is being amended at this moment, and within a measurable time Mauritius will conform to the rest of the Colonial Empire in that matter. The question of victimization, as the noble Lord indicated he knew very clearly, is an immensely difficult one. The principal plantation owners and managers, many of whom are men of broad views and cosmopolitan experience, fully realize the necessity of development of trade unionism and the organization of labour on sound lines, but it is almost inevitable that there should be found some, especially among subordinate staff, who cling to outworn methods and obsolete prejudices even though they may be genuinely solicitous of the practical welfare of the workpeople, just as slave owners in the past may well have maintained that they were really the fathers of their people. Such men are prone to regard any movement towards organization as subversive and obnoxious.

I think it cannot be denied that cases have occurred where any employee who openly identified himself with organization or association might be penalized. The danger of such a tendency was foreseen before the drafting of the Industrial Association Ordinance and Section 25 of that Ordinance does provide protection against victimization. But a provision of that kind, however excellent in itself, is bound to fall short of its good intention. To obtain definite proof to the satisfaction of a Court that an employee has been discharged solely on account of his organizing activities is extremely difficult, if not impossible. An unscrupulous defence can always maintain that the dismissal was due to other causes such as irregular habits, idleness, inefficiency, insolence or anything else. The practice of victimization is, in fact, one with which it is difficult to deal by means of legislation. It is difficult to introduce legislation to deal with people whom one side call blacklegs and the other side call loyalists. The most hopeful prospect would appear to be the inculcation by the progressive element among the employers of a more enlightened outlook. Increasing experience will show, as it has done in this country, the immensely valuable contribution organized labour is capable of making.

The noble Lord concluded his speech with a plea for constitutional reform. In particular he asked, if I understood him aright, for something like adult suffrage. Probably he attached more importance to that part of his speech than any other, weighty though the subjects which he raised are. I am not able now to give him a final answer. It will be within the knowledge of your Lordships that Sir Cosmo Parkinson, that distinguished civil servant, has very recently been in the Colony for the specific purpose, among others, of discussing this matter on behalf of my right honourable friend with the Governor. My right honourable friend is now awaiting the Governor's recommendations. Until those recommendations are in the hands of the Secretary of State and hale been considered with all the care which the importance of the subject demands it is clearly impossible for me to make any pronouncement. That is another reason why I hope the noble Lord will return to the subject after a reasonable interval, because things are moving, and moving very fast, with regard to Mauritius. I can, however, assure the noble Lord that all he has said this afternoon will be very carefully borne it mind when the Governor's recommendations, now on their way, are under consideration.

I cannot promise him that the introduction of adult suffrage, or anything like it, is likely to follow immediately. Mauritius, as I have endeavoured to indicate to your Lordships earlier in my speech, presents very special problems, problems of a communal nature. You have the people of European descent speaking one language, the Creoles a patois derived from that language and varying to some extent in different parts of the island, the Indians another, which again varies to some extent, and the Chinese yet another. In Mauritius there is no such question as arises in some other Colonies of securing the rights of the original inhabitants of the land, the indigenous population, where it may be thought that these are threatened by subsequent white settlement. Here there is no indigenous population at all—the first arrivals were French settlers, I suppose—and the problem is quite different. It is to find some form of representation which will do justice to all the heterogeneous sections of the population. An advance towards a larger measure of democracy is our goal; that I can say without any hesitation at all. But it is a goal which must be reached, as it has been reached in this country, by stages, and the first of those stages must be a far-reaching reform of the educational system.

The noble Lord referred to that, and he will, I think, be glad to hear the concluding words of my speech. I am happy to be able to end it with an extremely good report of the educational progress which is being made. My right honourable friend's Education Adviser has returned, in the course of the last few days, from a visit to the island bringing with him extremely encouraging news. A new Educational Ordinance has already been passed, and a training centre for teachers has been established in temporary premises. It is hoped to build a permanent establishment as soon as the material becomes available, but the training centre i now actually in operation. The educational code which, owing to the diversity of languages spoken in the island and for various other reasons, presents considerable difficulties, is still under consideration and is being worked out with really genuine enthusiasm for the improvement of education and with a very large measure of agreement among the various sections of the community concerned. I have been very much cheered by what I have heard of the progress made. I think that your Lordships will also be glad to hear that comprehensive schemes for the improvement of health conditions—largely in relation to hookworm and dysentery—and the improvement of malaria control, malaria being the main curse of the island, are now in the Governor's hands and under active consideration, and that he proposes this year to introduce legislation to reduce excessive alcoholism which has been one of the great problems of the island.

The noble Lord referred to fisheries. I think it will be within his knowledge that very recently—I do not remember whether it was this year or last year—the Colonial Fisheries Advisory Board has been set up, and we do hope to improve the fisheries. With regard to the question of the cultivation of the flax to which he referred, and the problem of the outlying dependencies, these, too, are matters which will be borne very carefully in mind. The noble Lord referred to the dependencies producing oil, but I know he must be aware that the oil they produce is not oil in the ordinary sense in which we use the word. It is purely vegetable, and it is produced in what are, relatively, very tiny quantities. But I would not for a moment minimize the importance of the dependencies. All these problems are under consideration and I can tell your Lordships that we have quite recently made great strides in many fields, particularly in education, which, to my mind, is the foundation without which you cannot build. Far-reaching developments are under way about which I shall be in a position to say a great deal more in a few weeks time than I can now. What I have said, I hope, has been enough to indicate that in the last three or four years Mauritius has made great progress—progress which I think is unparalleled in the previous history of the island.


My Lords, before the noble Lord who moved this Motion replies, may I intervene to ask how often, on the average, do the cyclonic disturbances, to which reference has been made, strike Mauritius? Do they occur every two or three years, every five or six years, or at longer intervals?


I think they are quite unpredictable. It may be that the island will be struck by cyclones twice in two years, and it may be that it will go unscathed for seven or eight years. But the fact remains that the possibility of a cyclone is always in the background, the people always have it in mind, and the result is that they tend to dislike growing crops which are liable to entire destruction if a cyclone does strike the island.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Duke most enthusiastically for the very full reply which he has given, and for what I consider to be, on the whole, its very satisfactory nature. In particular, I should like to mention my satisfaction—a satisfaction which, I know, is shared by my noble friends on these Benches—with regard to what the noble Duke said on the subject of education. He did not indicate—and I imagine that this is a matter which must wait on the training of teachers—whether elementary education, at any rate, is to be made compulsory. I hope that any educational scheme which is adopted will include a great deal of what I may call practical rather than academic training. Nothing I feel could be more necessary for the improvement of conditions in Mauritius than practical training.

I welcome the noble Duke's statement about the encouragement of subsistence crops, and I do, of course, appreciate the difficulty presented in consequence of the danger of cyclones. But it would seem to me that, at any rate in war-time, that is a risk which would have to be taken, and, after all, it is not such a big risk. At a time like this the sugar crop has a prospect of a good market, but if there is a shortage of shipping to bring food to Mauritius I take it that there is a shortage of shipping to take sugar away. Therefore, the alternative is not quite between complete loss of a subsistence crop and partial loss of the sugar Crop. At the moment, I take it, it would be almost a total gain to grow almost any subsistence crop at all.

I welcome, too, his remarks about the Governor's influence in the discouragement of victimization. As I said earlier, and as he has emphasized, it is a very difficult matter on which to put one's finger. His remarks about the Governor's influence, however, encourage me to believe that the necessary steps are being taken to remove the possibility of the State forces being used against the workers, as appeared to have been done in the case of the dockers' strike in 1938. Finally, I found his remarks about constitutional reform only partly encouraging. I do very much hope that I did not draw a correct inference from what he said when it seemed to me that he was contemplating the setting up of communal electorates of some kind. These communal electorates have proved stumbling-blocks in the way of constitutional reform in other parts of the Empire. They gave rise to trouble, and as far as I know there has never been any suggestion of communal differences or difficulties in Mauritius. I sincerely hope that His Majesty's Government in any reforms which they introduce will provide no grounds for the growth of communal feeling. I should again like to thank the noble Duke for his very full and on the whole very encouraging reply. I thank him also for his good wishes, and I hope that they indicate a willingness to change sides in this House! I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed, as one not having any special knowledge of Mauritius, but representing on this occasion, I believe, the feeling of the general body of this House, to express appreciation of the discussion which has taken place. The noble Lord who introduced this Motion made a remarkably comprehensive and well-informed speech and rendered a great a service to the Colonial Empire in general by bringing the matter before your Lordships, while the noble Duke, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, gave us an exceedingly interesting, thorough, sympathetic and encouraging add 7eSS to close the debate. The inhabitants of the Colony of Mauritius may feel that, small as is their population in comparison with the vastness of the British Empire and remote as is their geographical situation, their progress and welfare are not matters of indifference to this House of Parliament.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.