Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (SSR)
Mauritius celebrated 109th birthday of SSR.
In this context the Mahatma Gandhi Institute organised a memorial lecture to commemorate this event. This article is a humble contribution on my part to inform our readers of an important part in the life of that great personality who later became the father of the nation of Mauritius.
First Prime Minister of Mauritius
1. Birth and Childhood
The period during which Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was born was not a pleasant one. Mauritius was under British rule and French Barons dominated the scene. Indians and other communities were living in abject poverty. Some immigrants were brought to Mauritius from India during French rule. They were skill workers and artisans. But most of the Indians and Chinese came later were indentured labourers and a few came as traders. The Africans were brought here as slaves. They were dominated and treated like slaves and slavery was abolished in 1935.
Life of the indentured labourers was horrible. They had to toil night and day. Their lives were shortened with overwork. They had to wake up early every morning at four o’clock to work till very late in the evening.
Those who brought them on this island inflicted untold miseries on them. The children died young from diseases and lack of proper food. Almost all the men, women and children, young and old, had to toil in the scorching sun and heat in the fields. They lived in houses made of wood, straw and mud- a sort of small huts. They earned very little wages and had to struggle hard to maintain a family.
The white masters owned all the land and wealth of this country and the workers were kept in ignorance without any education. The land, sugar mills, banks, docks, big firms, the trade, all were in the hands of the whites. The planters were the French barons and they were the absolute masters. They controlled everything. They were themselves the lawyers, the magistrates, the judges, the doctors. They showed little respect for the Indian immigrants or their descendants.
The descendants of slaves and of Immigrants enjoyed no leisure. All weddings, festivals and ceremonies and other functions had to take place at night. Though everybody worked in the family, they did not earn enough. Wages were extremely low. Even the food ration of rice, dholl, salted fish and oil that were given to them were of bad quality. Their small huts were bare, without furniture. They slept on mats, cooked, ate and slept in the same dark huts, dimly-lit with an oil lamp. Conditions of living were intolerable.
These were the conditions when Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was born on 18 September 1900 in a small village in Belle Rive Sugar Estate. His father Moheeth Ramgoolam worked as indentured labourer and later rose to become a Sirdar (overseer) at La Queen Victoria Sugar Estate. When Moheeth got married to Basmati Ramchurn in 1898, he moved to Belle Rive S.E. Moheeth died young of pneumonia in 1907 and Basmati died two years later.
Later this child was called by the fond name of Kewal. Seewoosagur family lived in a hut among the estate houses. His father, Moheeth Ramgoolam was an Indian immigrant labourer. Seewoosagur grew up in the village of Belle Rive. Belle Rive village is situated at the feet of the Camisard mountain range approximately five miles away from Bel Air in the district of Flacq. This place is full of trees and forests. The Sugar Estate has planted clove and coffee in this region. Belle Rive had been part of Beau Champ Estate since 1885.
Moheeth Ramgoolam, came to Mauritius at the age of 18 in a ship called the Hindoostan in 1896. He had followed in the adventure of the other Indian immigrants. His elder brother, Ramlochurn, had left the home village of Hurgawo in Bihar in search of his fortune abroad. The immigrants were lured by all sorts of tales about life in Mauritius. Moheeth’s wife, Basmati Ramchurn, had two sons, Nuckchady Heeramun and Ramlall Ramchurn, by her first marriage. She was born in Mauritius.
At home, young Kewal was brought up in a family where he received all the love and affection. He grew up in a natural green environment, amidst plants, wild grass, flowers, trees, mountain and river. At the age of five, young Kewal was admitted to the local evening school of the locality, where children of the Hindu community learnt the vernacular language and glimpses of the Hindu culture.
This school is called the Baitka in the Mauritian Hindu term. The teacher (guruji) would teach prayers and songs. Sanskrit prayers and perennial values taken from sacred scriptures like the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Upanishads, and the Gita were also taught.
Many Indians avoided as much as possible the Roman Catholic schools. They feared that their children might slip into the grips of the Christians and would be converted into Christianity by the White masters.
But Kewal was not satisfied with a vernacular education only. He longed to have a taste of European education. So one fine morning, the small boy left in the company of his playmates to a school at a distance, just across the river, where a certain Madame Siris was the teacher. He did not inform his parents and his mother Basmati was very much worried. She searched for him everywhere in the neighbourhood but could not find him. She feared that young Kewal was lost somewhere. Her heart started beating very fast.
Then in the afternoon, she was surprised to see Kewal returning home from school, in the company of Madame Siris, who pleaded with Basmati to send Kewal to her school every day. Kewal had a very intense desire to learn.
The poor mother was relieved. She smiled and hugged her son. From that day Kewal went to the village school to learn the three R’s. Later, he joined the Bel Air Government school. He travelled by train every day to go to school and passed the Six Standard Examination without difficulty. During his school life he would also help his parents at home and in the fields and he accompanied his father Moheeth on the ox-cart in the neighbouring villages. He also went on errands for his mother.
As has been said earlier, the lives of labourers, particularly immigrant labourers, were horrifying. They died young, broken down with toil. Infant mortality rate was high. Basmati had lost two daughters. Kewal, the last child was lucky to be alive. There were many diseases. Diphtheria, anaemia, hookworm, malnutrition apart from occasional outbreaks of cholera played havoc among the peasant folks. There was no basic sanitation. The poor had to consume unhealthy water from rivers or from wells. Pure tap water was available only to be the privileged class inhabiting Plaines Wilhems. Medical and sanitary facilities were restricted to people living in the urban region only.
Kewal was still a child of seven living in Belle Rive, when his father Moheeth, died of pneumonia. He was brought up under the care of his step- brother Ramlall Ramchurn.
Ramlall Ramchurn, the step-brother of Kewal, was twenty-one years old when Moheeth passed away. He worked as tally-keeper (marqueur) at Belle Rive. His duty was to take the attendance of the workers, and record the number of cartloads of cane brought by them. He also enjoyed many privileges because he was trusted by the estate owners and he was an intelligent person in the village. He later became a small planter, with his property at Belle Rose, Clémencia.
Ramlall had great love and affection for his young brother Kewal. When he got married he took Kewal under his charge. When Kewal was twelve years old, he met with a very serious accident. His brother Ramlall was not at home and Kewal wanted to help the workers by removing the ox from the cowshed and harnessing it to the cart. He walked slowly into the dark, smelly shed, and moved courageously towards the ox. There were flies buzzing around everywhere. He took a rope to tie on the neck of the ox so that he could pull the animal to the cart. But he was not that lucky. The ox then moved its head to drive away the flies and in the process hit the small boy with its horn on the left eye.
At that time, Ramlall was not at home. He was out on his way to collect the wages of the workers and had gone to the Mauritius Commercial Bank which was in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. He also gave instruction to the workers to bring guano(fertilizer) to the field. And this instruction everybody at home had heard, including young Kewal. That was why he wanted to help the workers, but unfortunately that accident occurred. Kewal screamed in pain and soon his face was bathed in blood and he fainted. His sister-in-law came running and in panic asked the workers to go and fetch Ramlall who was still at the railway station at Rivière Sèche.
Ramlall was very upset. He brought Kewal for first care to the single-room hospital of Belle Rive Estate hospital where the dresser gave him some first aid treatment. He then took him to Beauchamp hospital where he stayed for four weeks. In spite of all the care and tenderness of Ramlall, he could not get any of the doctors in those harsh days to save Kewal’s eye. Medical facilities were very limited and mostly unavailable to the poor.
After this accident, Kewal was then admitted to a school in Curepipe. Ramlall knew the value of education. He wanted to give the best education to his brother, who was a very hardworking child. Ramlall sent his brother to attend scholarship class at the Curepipe Boy’s Government School. Kewal had an uncle living in Curepipe. His name was Harry Parsad Seewoodharry Buguth. He was a sworn land surveyor and Kewal stayed there at his place and attended the school. He later won a scholarship and joined the Royal College of Curepipe.
The Royal College was then the only State Secondary School in those days and very few children of Indian origin attended this school. Indians did not want their children to attend the missionary schools fearing that their children could get converted to Christianity.
The Royal College was a model of the English grammar school and it gave education and training to many of the future leaders, professionals and administrators of Mauritius.