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Friday, 28 December 2012 11:58

Sir John Pope Hennessy - 1883- 1889

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Sir John Pope Hennessy has played a very important part in the constitutional development of the island.
It was for the first time that the country got an elective legislative council. To recall the council was composed of ex-officio members and nominated ones chosen mostly from the big planters and merchants.

However they did not influence decisions or policy government took or adopted. The planters were not at all happy since foreigners and aliens with no interest in the economic life of the island presided over its destiny. They did however acquiesce to the government’s decision so far as nothing was done or undertaken to impair their interests.
The 1870s and 80s witnessed events that did not favour the planters. First the commission of enquiry of 1872 did take them to task and made recommendations that eroded some of their powers that remained as a bone through their throat. Next the early 80s saw the enactment of the forest laws that did not please them at all and acted as a lever for constitutional refroms.

There was a short interlude during which Sir Napier Broome administered the island till the arrival of Sir John Pope Hennessy in June 1883. An Ordinance was submitted to the legislature on the reforestation of the island, drawn up from the recommendations of a specialist, Mr Thompson, who had been sent for this purpose some years before. One of the clauses of the new law stipulated that mountain and river reserves, hitherto composed of strips of land 50 feet wide would in future be extended to 150 feet wide, without any compensation to land owners.

The nominated unofficial members protested vehemently against this arbitrary measure, regarding private property, which together with some other very nasty doings of Mr Broome and his entourage, triggered a movement that all classes joined .They made a petition that they sent to her Majesty the Queen asking for a modification of the Government Council by the introduction of elected members who should have a better say in the day to day running of the country’s affairs. Mr Broome according to historians in transmitting the petition to the Secretary of State strongly recommended its rejection and so the matter was frozen for some time.

The new governor on assuming office expressed his surprise at the planters being deliberately ignored of matters pertaining to their interests and being refused higher posts in the Civil Service. He openly asserted to be friendly to them and helped them. This attitude is attributed to his being a catholic and an Irishman.

The Irish at that time were fighting for independence under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell and he was associated with them. Having made sure that the wishes for reform emanated from the people themselves he took up the matter himself, recommended it to the new Secretary of State, Lord Derby of whose liberal views he was well aware. The requests of Mauritius received warm support and was approved contrary to all expectations, creating however discontent among the English community in the island.  

The governor’s attitude angered many and was compared to ‘an angry boil on the body of the empire’. They resented the fact that a monopoly retained so long has now been forfeited. The planters strove to have the measure repealed, in which they managed a further change in the colonial office. Nevertheless the main demand that is election of members remained untouched and most of the privileges accorded were now encroached upon or diverted from their original intent. The Mauritians were left no option and willy nilly they had o accept what was proposed on October 25, 1885.

The first elections were held on in January 1886 and as a result gave rise to acute party feeling. The reformists did not agree on certain points and therefore parted company according to principles and tendencies and two distinct groups the conservative and the so called democrats were born. The members belonging to the latter party, four in all, were convinced by the anti reformists to oppose the governor who was charged with allegations that proved entirely groundless. They accused him of siding with the fenians in Ireland and fighting for Home Rule and making it an auxiliary to problems in Mauritius…

The political strife continued. The opposition was ensured by the Colonial secretary himself on the ground that the governor was mentally deranged.

Sir Hercules Robinson, Commissioner general of the Cape  of  Good Hope was chose for that that unpleasant and dirty work and following a sham inquiry that lasted a few days, availed himself his commission and  suddenly suspended Sir John. He himself then assumed governorship which two days later he handed over to Major general and returned to South Africa.

Sir John left Mauritius in the following March determined to defend himself before the Secretary of State of the aspersion cast upon his character and clear himself of all balme. Sir William Newton, an admirer of the governor reached London before him armed with a petition on the governor’s behalf.

He demanded the Privy Council that Sir John be reinstalled in his post. Even his detractors could do nothing, commenting that he was given excess of power. Sir John was reinstated and his return was celebrated by a popular manifestation and in the end he left the island ‘peace and honour’.
Jwala Kallee

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