Dr Jimmy Harmon is member of the 1st February Diocesan Committee of the Catholic Church. He is an Independent researcher and Country Expert for Mauritius and Seychelles in the Vitality Democracy Project of the University of Gothenburg. In his encounter with News on Sunday, he shares the importance of having a museum “not to show artifacts of the period of slavery but as a memorial.”
The theme of celebrations marking this year’s Abolition of Slavery is “Don’t forget your past so as to better construct your future.” This year’s celebrations coincide with the 50th anniversary of Independence of Mauritius, thus giving the event a twofold importance for Mauritians.
Is it going to create a ‘sursaut’ among descendants of former slaves?
Harmon answers: ‘The ‘sursaut’ is not on 1st February only. It has been there for a long time. We can date it back to the 1990s with the emergence of an Afro-Kreol movement claiming the Afro-Malagasy roots and recognition of its cultural identity. It is during this period that the mushrooming of Kreol movements started. Basically, three important events have triggered this ‘sursaut’, namely the statement on ‘malaise créole’ by the Catholic priest Roger Cerveaux in 1993, which led the Catholic church to recognise the Creoles as a distinct cultural group, February 1999 riots following the death of Kaya, the Rastafarian singer and the listing of Le Morne on UNESCO World Tangible Heritage in 2008. So 1st February is highly symbolical for slave descendants and particularly for the Creoles of Mauritius.
What is the use of celebrations if it does not create the will for a new order among these people, that is to search for a strong identity and pride of place in our society?
The search for a strong identity and pride of place in our society is in progress. Although people of African-Malagasy origins represent 25% of the population, the system excludes them and renders them invisible. As soon as you land at the SSR Airport going through control and check, you will not see anyone of them. That’s why we can often hear foreign delegations asking ‘where are the Africans?’ Although I reckon the Creole minority community is internally beset with lots of problems, yet the resilience of the maroons keeps us going on.
What is on the agenda of national institutions involved in the welfare of the descendants of former slaves?
National institutions are doing a lot to improve the welfare of the disadvantaged people. I think it is not assistance as such which will improve the lot of the slave descents. Neither reprimanding them that they are not making enough efforts. For a group to move up the social ladder, it needs to have a significant middle class. The first step for that is more Creoles must be in the government but as you know, this seems to be impossible. The mechanism of exclusion is subtle. When you control the system, you can even refer to rules and regulations to appear objective.
When will the Diocese make its mea culpa as to its relations with former slaves, religious teachings and rituals?
It’s good to put on record that on 1st February 2006 during a mass celebrated at Vieux Grand Port, Cardinal Piat, in the presence of the French Minister Christine Taubira, who was Chief Guest for the State celebrations, asked officially for Church pardon and acknowledged the historical mistake of the Church for condoning slavery. He also added that he himself is a descendant of a family of slave masters. In fact, since more than twenty years now, a mass is celebrated on 1st February. It is preceded by contact with the community, creating greater awareness about the history and legacy of slavery.
Do you think it is still worth celebrating the day marking the end of slavery? Doesn’t it remind us of painful memories instead of showing the progress achieved?
Yes, it is worth celebrating. The United Nations has declared 2005 to 2014 as the UN Decade of People of African Descent with the theme ‘Recognition, Justice and Development’. Abolition of slavery is high on the agenda of this UN Decade. It all depends what you make of these painful memories. That’s why our struggle is now about the opening of a slave museum which the government, after its announcement since April 2016, has taken the commitment to bring to completion, thus coinciding with the 50th anniversary of our independence.
How was your meeting with Taubira?
Meeting Taubira was great. She was not yet Minister, just a member of the French National Assembly. But she was already known worldwide for the legislation making slavery a crime against humanity in France and which is named after her, La Loi Taubira (2001).
The Truth and Justice Commission published its report some time back. What about the implementation of its recommendations?
An Interministerial Committee was set up by this government and presided by former Deputy Prime Minister Xavier Duval to implement the recommendations. We have not heard much about the outcome. The Act of the Nelson Mandela Centre Trust Fund has even been amended so that it can raise funds for slave descendants. But, as you know, the Centre has never got the support of its parent Ministry.
What do you intend to do with the Slave Museum?
We are still waiting for concrete action by this government. The UNESCO Slave Route Committee has given full support to the Museum project. This will be the main struggle of the 1st February Committee. We have launched a two year sensitization campaign and we will intensify it until the Museum is open.
But I should add that the museum will be more of a memorial rather than what we do usually see in the museums already in existence in Mauritius.
What is your reading of the images shown on television about refugees?
When I see my brothers and sisters in such a situation during the cyclone or after a heavy rainfall, I get emotionally drained and a strong feeling of revolt arises in me when I watch TV news.
The Catholic Diocese held a press conference on Wednesday 24th January to talk about celebrations marking the abolition of slavery as it coincides with the 50th anniversary of our independence.
The 1st February Diocesan Committee presided by Father Maurice Labour, who had with him Dr Jimmy Harmon and Father Alain Romaine, told the press on the important need to have the Slave Museum open as soon as possible at the old Military Hospital, near the Aapravasi Ghat, as a concrete memorial for descendants of slaves and where Mauritians and foreigners may have an idea of what happened really during that particular era in the history of humanity.
They said: ‘We remain positive as to the implementation of the project as government named Jean Francois Chaumiere as chairman of the Nelson Mandela Cultural centre.”