Language Problem and Compulsory Education – A Historical Background

3rd Year – No 74

Friday 6th January 1956

• The further he went West, the more convinced he felt that the wise men came from the East.

— S. Smith

Language Problem and Compulsory Education – A Historical Background

— D. Napal BA (Hons)

Mr James Higginson was one of those rare governors of Mauritius who were well disposed towards Indian Immigrants. He was the first governor to think seriously of the education of the children of labourers. When he said that education is “the best prevention of crime and the surest guarantee of social order”, he knew how lack of education was at the root of many hardships to which the poor Indian Immigrant was subject.

The necessity of imparting instruction to the children of Indian Immigrants was repeatedly stressed upon by successive Secretaries of State but nothing concrete was done until 1852 when a sum of £200 was granted for an experimental school for Indian children on an estate in Savanne. This school unfortunately did not prosper. Only a few weeks after his being installed as Governor of Mauritius, Higginson began to give attention to the question of the education of the children of the working classes. On the 22nd March 1854, he recommended to the Council of Government the proposal of the Mauritius Church Association to establish a school in Port Louis for elementary education in English and Tamil. That association also contemplated the idea of training teachers to be employed in schools to establish on estates in rural districts. Rev Hardy, a missionary with great experience in southern India, was to be of great help in ensuring the success of this scheme.

On the 25th April 1855, the Council of Government submitted its report on this question of education. It showed that out of a total of 23,500 Creole children, 3850 were receiving an elementary education while 1649 were receiving some sort of higher education. As for the Indian children, they were 5500 in number, none of whom was receiving any education.

The immediate result of this report was that in 1856 an Ordinance was passed authorizing, “the payment out of the colonial treasury of any sum not exceeding £75 per annum, a contribution towards the maintenance of each and every school set apart for imparting elementary education to the poorer classes: provided (inter alia) that an equivalent amount be raised by voluntary contribution and applied to the annual support of the school”.

The committee appointed to study the question recommended that education should be made compulsory and that the number of schools should be increased. But the most delicate problem was the language problem. Was English, French or an Indian dialect to be the medium of instruction? This was a question upon which there was diversity of opinions. The Governor expressed the views that there should be separate schools for Creole and for Indian children for the reason that the Indian children could not be taught in any other language than the vernacular with which they were familiar.

The Committee, on its part, was all for a fusion of the immigrant population with the other inhabitants, in order that in the future there would come into existence a resident agricultural population. The Committee also differed from the official suggestion that native teachers should be brought from India for the education of the children of the Indian Immigrants. The Committee insisted that French should be the medium of instruction. We ask ourselves whether the Coloured element, not to speak of Indians who were at the mercy of their employers, was represented in the Committee. The Governor finally gave up his own opinions on this matter and did not oppose the proposal of the Committee.

As a result Ordinance No. 21 of 1857 was passed. It made education compulsory for all boys between the ages of six and ten. These children were to pay a sum not exceeding six pence per month each. The employers were to be responsible for the payment of the fees of the children who were employed by them. Attendance at school was to be three hours daily for five days of the week, if residing within one and a half miles from a school. French was to be the medium of instruction but English also was to be taught. Persons keeping children from school were to be fined a sum not exceeding £5 for the first offence and were liable to a fine and imprisonment for repeated offences.

Unfortunately the Ordinance was never put into vigour. Opposition came from an unexpected quarter. The Board of Directors of the East India Company were in favour of compulsory education but they would not admit of French being forced upon the children of the Immigrants. In the face of the opposition of the Board of Directors, the Secretary of State for India suggested that the instruction of Indian children should be optional.

The result of all this was that the education of the Immigrants’ children was sorely neglected. This is evidently shown on reading the Census of the year 1871 when out of a total of 21,035 boys and 18,077 girls, only 794 boys and 35 girls were attending school. What is more disquieting is that all these children who were attending school were not children dwelling on sugar estates. If we are to trust the return furnished by Mr Comber Browne, the Inspector of Government Schools to the Royal Commissioners, out of 836 pupils on roll only 236 were children of residents on the sugar estates.

One truth emerges plainly from this: the planters were indifferent to the education of the children of their workers or at least they did not encourage education. Many of them, according to the Report of the Royal Commission of 1872, must have endorsed the views of the proprietor of Black River, Mr Mitchell, who is reported to have said that he was thankful that there was no school on his estate as he was of opinion that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.

Compulsory education was never introduced. The greatest obstacle was the problem of language. A problem which remains to be solved even today. In this matter the Commissioners of 1872 expressed the opinion that if not vernacular the language which should be made the medium of instruction should be English for the reason that “in default of being able to educate the Indians in their own language, the next best course is, we think, to educate them in the language of the Empire of which they are the subjects.”

They also recommended compulsory education stressing upon the fact that the education of the Indians can be successfully undertaken by the government. They felt certain that compulsory education would do much to reduce lawlessness and crime and that the planters would amply be repaid in advocating such a system.

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