Security, Economy and Education in Mauritius, August 1857

In August 1857, the British Empire was in the midst of an imperial crisis. The Indian Uprising caused panic across the governmental system, as it threw the vulnerability of British colonialism into stark relief.

This was no more evident than in Mauritius, which had become a formal colony of the British Empire through the Treaty of Paris in 1814, when it was ceded by the French (though the French language remained commonly spoken there). In Mauritius, the Governor led a legislative council in the construction of local policy. While the council had the power to pass laws, called ‘Ordinances,’ they were subject to the approval of the Home Government and had to adhere to imperial policy. Often, the creation of an Ordinance would involve a long, drawn-out, process of discussion and debate, between members of the colonial legislature, prominent colonial figures, the Governor, and the Colonial Office in London.

While the uprising in India persisted, the demand for labour in Mauritius had never been greater. High prices encouraged cultivation of sugar cane which, being grown on large-scale plantations, required increasing numbers of unskilled workers to tend to the fields. Plans to recruit immigrant labour to construct new roads and other public works in the Seychelles, only served to further exacerbate demand.[1] With a small ‘native’ population, these conditions opened up an avenue for a substantial rise in indentured labourers in the late 1850s and early 1860s, many originating in India.


The Futty Satam of Bombay carrying 300 Immigrants and Coolies, and dismantled in a hurricane, being towed to Mauritius (© National Maritime Museum) [2]

Bombay had only  recently, on 17 June 1857, reopened the channels for Indian emigration to Mauritius, to the considerable elation of the Mauritius landholders and the island’s Governor, James M. Higginson. The temporary embargo on the flow of labour from India had, in the meanwhile, inspired some fairly dramatic – and illegal – efforts to meet demand. In one instance (though likely not the only case), a group of enslaved people were purchased in Boyanna Bay, Madagascar. Upon boarding the English ship, the Joker, their owners declared the captives to be ‘free,’ before later selling them onward, in Mauritius, as indentured labourers. While frowned upon, the practice was common, and virtually impossible to prosecute under existing law in the colony, as in many cases such as this one, the slaves-cum-indentured-labourers were brought to Mauritius under old licenses which, while no longer issued, were still technically valid in 1857. The Governor bemoaned the escape of Captain Aps, commander of the Joker, from Mauritius, and stated  the intention to prosecute Aps should he return, yet also anticipated  “considerable difficulty in obtaining a conviction.”[3] On the part of the Colonial Office, the effort to curtail the flow of illegal indenture was limited to communication with the Admiralty and the Foreign Office, in order to clarify policy with regard to the ban on bringing emigrants from Madagascar and curtailing the use of old licenses.

Following the reopening of emigration from Bombay, it was chiefly Indian workers who began to flood into the colony, with demand for labourers largely trumping concerns regarding security during the Indian Rebellion. Ships carrying indentured labourers arrived in a steady stream, while colonial troops left the island in a similar exodus, bound for India. On the 10 August alone, six companies of the 33rd Regiment and one company of artillery left for Bombay, with further troops scheduled for despatch the following day.[4] Over the subsequent weeks, more troops departed, bound for Calcutta and Bombay. The governor acceded to all requests for troops received from India, while complaining of the vulnerable position in which Mauritius was left:

The detaching of a wing of the 4th Regiment will certainly leave Mauritius with a garrison reduced considerably below the strength that has been assigned for its requirements, and less than the position and importance of the Colony would entitle it to; but the urgency of the requisition and emergency of the service for which additional reinforcements were required at Bombay, appeared to the Major General and myself to justify our laying aside ordinary considerations.

It was therefore under heightened security considerations that the colonial government was faced with an influx of unskilled indentured labourers. Interestingly, it was also at this time that they began discussions for the implementation of a compulsory government education scheme.

Ordinance No.21 of 1857, “for rendering compulsory the education of children in the colony,” while being generally agreed upon in theory, was debated on virtually every detail in the colonial legislature, in the religious community, and in the Colonial Office in London. The exact nature of the instruction to be offered and the methods by which Indian children in particular would be exposed to British ideas were considered of great importance. While some members of the legislature thought that it might be prudent to trial an easier, voluntary, system first, the Governor and most members saw that if they were to attempt comprehensive education, it would have to be compulsory so as to combat both considerable resistance among the immigrant population, and concerns over class status among the more established inhabitants:

Now, whatever force this line of reasoning [in favour of a voluntary system] may be supposed to carry with it, as regards the creole population…more especially if the promised influence of the Roman Catholic Church be exerted in favour of state education, from which it has heretofore stood aloof, the argument is totally inapplicable to the immigrant population, whose reluctance to sending their children to Government Schools, as at present constituted, is notorious, and cannot be neutralised by those influences that may operate with the creole. By the last return, it is shown that only 51 immigrant children, throughout the island, were attending these schools, and 31 Indians born in the colony, and belonging to classes above that of the common labourer, and even admitting the necessity for compulsion was not equally imperative in both cases, the strong and patent objections to class legislation could not be overcome.

Exposure to European social and moral ideas was to be conducted in part through religious instruction. While all agreed on the importance of teaching Christian values, for the “moral benefit” it would afford to the newly arrived children of labourers, the emphasis that government schools would place on Protestant religion infuriated some members of the Roman Catholic clergy, who had already established schools in the colony.[5] Bishop Collier, leader of the Roman Catholic community in Mauritius, expressed his concerns that government inspectors would destroy all the Roman Catholic elementary schools in the colony, “by declaring that the instruction given in them is inferior than that given in Government schools and forcing accordingly all the children to attend the latter.”[6] He likely expressed concerns that students, in switching between government and Catholic schools, might receive conflicting religious instruction. In response, the Colonial Office concurred that the Ordinance ought to be amended so that “no child should be compelled to attend the government schools if already receiving regular instruction in some other school to be certified as efficient by the Anglican or Roman Catholic Bishop, or by the officiating minister of any other Christian body in the colony to which the school is attached.”[7] The Colonial Office thereby protected the semi-autonomy of the Roman Catholic schools, so long as “an opportunity will be afforded to Indian children to hear the word of God, without offending the religious prejudices of the Coolies” and they adhered to the requirements of government.

Ultimately, Christian education was deemed necessary as a means of adapting Indian children to British codes of morality and ethics. Parents of students were given the choice of exempting their children from religious instruction, but only if they should themselves pose an objection; without an explicit statement from the parents, in person, the child would be subject to an hour of Christian instruction per day.

The colonial government likewise determined that instruction should be given in the principal administrative language of Mauritius, French, rather than in an Indian  language or English. This deviated from the previous example set by the Roman Catholic schools, which had up until then often used the children’s vernacular tongue in the classroom. The provision was voted through by the general body of the colonial legislature, to the chagrin of Governor Higginson, who foresaw considerable resistance from the general community of labourers and difficulty in enforcing the policy. In fact, it was only through considerable coercion that he saw a mandatory requirement that children know French being practicable. The level of coercion necessary to impose such a measure likewise raised concerns in the Colonial Office, whose officials, in light of recent events in India, apprehended the possibility of arousing resentment in the population. Given the current state of affairs in India, and the diminution of the garrison held in Mauritius as a result, such resentment among a newly-arrived, unknown immigrant population was a troubling prospect.[8] Nevertheless, the measure passed. The choice was ultimately made to serve the dual purposes of ensuring that Indian labourers were steeped, from an early age, in the linguistic culture of the colony and, practically, that a sufficient pool of teachers, knowledgeable in that language, would be available.

The linguistic debate likewise demonstrates the close links between how the colonial government – and the Colonial Office – sought to protect social order and promote commercial development. Forcing children to learn the language of colonial government served a similar purpose of producing a cohesive, communicable, working class. Ordinance No.21 also included provisions designed to preserve the central reason for the children’s presence in Mauritius: to work. The final Ordinance required all children in the colony between the ages of 6 to 12 years, inclusive (6 to 10 years old for girls) to attend some kind of government-approved school for three hours per day.[9] Initially both girls and boys were to attend school for the same period of time, but it was later reduced for female children for reasons of morality,

To meet an objection of some weight, grounding on the unusually early physical development, and the precocity of the sexes so remarkable in Mauritius, and the consequent dangers to public moral that might arise from the intercourse between boys and girls of a ripe age.[10]

The school day was also fixed at three hours, as opposed to longer periods on alternate days, so as not to interfere with the great demand for child labour by employers. The role to be played by employers in ensuring compliance with the new ordinance was also a subject of concern. While employers were well-positioned to observe any instances of non-compliance, their strong presence among the unofficial council membership prevented any measures being added to the ordinance that would hold them liable:

I can see no reason, as observed by the late Sir William Molesworth, why persons who engage Indian parents should not be compelled to take care that the children of their labourers should attend Government Schools; and it was my desire and intention to have introduced an Article, enacting that the tuition fees should be deducted by employers from the wages paid to the parents, and rendering it illegal to employ any child within the specified ages who shall not, by regular attendance at school, be conforming to the law. As it appeared to me that by these means the chief incentive to contravention of the law would be supressed, and the inducement to parents to obey its provisions would be greater, than those operating for its evasion. But having ascertained that this proposition would be opposed, with strength and unanimity, by the unofficial side of the Council, I did not conceive it to be politic or expedient to press it.[11]

It was therefore, under these conditions, that a system of compulsory education was installed in Mauritius. A government initiative, designed to ensure all children – most especially immigrant labourers – were all provided with a uniform, government-approved programme, the final result offered a prescriptive combination of religion, literacy skills, and linguistic conformity. It represented the outcome  of debates with pre-existing education institutions and alternative Christian schools, while also indicating the ways in which various colonial government priorities intersected in the construction of imperial  policy. The compulsory education measure reflected a desire for social order, borne out of stability concerns during the Indian Uprising. Yet, it also points to a broader theme in imperial administration in this period: the extent to which the money-making machine of late-1850s empire, grounded in agriculture, trade, and the demand for labour, was prioritised, often placing social programmes at the service of this one, ultimate, goal.

Kate Boehme


[1] National Archives (NA). Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Report upon the condition and prospects of the Seychelles.” 10 July, 1857.
[2] National Maritime Museum. John Bechett Hodgson, “The Futty Satam,” c1851.
[3] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere,” 2 August, 1857.
[4] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857. “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere,” 10 August, 1857.
[5] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Draft Letter from Colonial Office to Governor William Stevenson,” 31 December, 1857.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere.” 4 September, 1857.
[9] NA. Mauritius Despatches: 1 August – 31 October 1857, “Letter from Governor James M. Higginson to Henry Labouchere,” 4 August, 1857.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.

Posted in 1857, Colonial Office, Education
One comment on “Security, Economy and Education in Mauritius, August 1857
  1. MD SAHIL says:

    Great Article! Thank u for sharing this article

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