Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (1900–1985) was of Indian heritage and grew up on the island nation of Mauritius when it was still a colony of Great Britain. With a struggle that began in 1936, Ramgoolam took the helm of his country's struggle for independence in 1959. When Mauritius won its freedom, it won a president in Ramgoolam whose first interests would always lie in his homeland.
Son of Immigrants
Ramgoolam was born in the Mauritian town of Belle Rive in the Flacq District, on September 18, 1900. His father was an Indian immigrant who worked as a laborer. His parents affectionately called him by the name, "Kewal." Just as he began his education at the local school where Hindu children were taught their language and culture, his father died. He was seven years old. His early schooling included the Roman Catholic assisted school and then the Bel Air government school where he passed the sixth standard recognition of the completion of the first level of school. He was 12 when a serious accident cost him his left eye an accident that nonetheless did not deter him from continuing his education. He went on to the Curepipe Boys Government School and to the junior Cambridge school at the Royal College of Curepipe. While there he studied science and passed his senior examination for Cambridge. Between the time he left for England for medical studies, he worked as a civil servant for a year.
Ramgoolam set sail for London when he was 21 with plans to study medicine at University College. His first six months there were spent at the Indian Student's Association, an organization that provided support for Indian students who had come to England from abroad. While at India House he came into contact with the Indian leaders of the early twentieth century: Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Lalla Lajpat Raid, and the writer Rabindranath Tagore. Ramgoolam also became a founding member of the Indian Student's Central Association that was located at Knightsbridge in West London. Even though he was a serious student, he continued his political activities on a very intense level. By 1924 he was the president of the London branch of the Indian National Congress. The British Labor Party had come into power under Ramsay MacDonalad as Prime Minister. The political climate of the times encouraged him to join the Fabian Society, a group that promoted the ideas of Fabian Socialism. According to its official website in January 2004, "The Fabian Society had been founded in England in 1884 as a socialist society committed to gradual rather than revolutionary social reform." The name of the group comes from the Roman general Quintus Fabius who was known for the strategy of delaying battle until exactly what he deemed to be the perfect moment. Among the early members of the Fabian Society were the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and, writer, H. G. Wells. The 1920s in England were a period of a changing landscape recovering from the ravages of World War I, and emerging as a nation as one increasingly eager to enter a modern world where class distinction mattered less, and everyone could partake of the opportunities once enjoyed only by the upper classes.
Ramgoolam was feasting on the ideas that he learned with the Fabian Society, as well as the other political and literary groups he had joined. He was involved in the heart of political life, learning the methods of Parliamentary Democracy. And all of this knowledge was being stored in his mind, as he waited patiently to begin to translate it into the freedom for his own people. When he finished his studies in 1935, he was eager to return to Mauritius. He wanted for his people all the things other free people enjoyed: decent housing, electricity, running water, and the opportunity to establish a democratic form of government so that they could exercise their power in making their own decisions. A lot of work would be necessary before his dream could be realized. In Mauritius, still under British colonial rule, wages were not equitable, there were no pensions or workers' benefits, no health care benefits, no paid leave, and no holiday pay. Until the local people had the right to vote, however, there would be no way to fight for better living conditions. With his help, the Mauritius Labor Party was founded in 1936. By the next year, even through the years of World War II, the party organized worker protests and strikes. In 1937, the right to vote was granted to those over 21 who could sign their names.
Mauritius had been under French control since 1715, five years after the Dutch, who had originally settled the island for the Netherlands and who had named it for their ruler at the time, Maurice, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau. The Dutch left African slaves, Javan deer, wild boar, tobacco, and sugar cane on the small island. The dodo bird became extinct during their stay of little more than 100 years. Following the Battle of Vieux Grand Port, the British won over Mauritius from the French, and with the Treaty of Paris in 1814 was officially deeded ownership to the islands Ile de France, Rodrigues, and the Seychelles. The French-speaking Mauritians were allowed to retain their language. When the British freed the slaves in 1835, they fled to the cities, leaving a gap in the work force on the plantations. Workers from China and especially India were brought in to fill that gap, thus changing the face of the small colony once again, setting the stage for a gradual evolution of culture. When Mahatma Gandhi visited in 1901, he was able to support a greater voice for the Indians who were generally the lowest wage earners by that time. When Ramgoolam successfully organized his people under the banner of the Labor Party, membership increased dramatically, and the party began to grow. He had brought the ideals of his Fabian Socialists to Mauritius.
Slow and Steady
In 1953 Ramgoolam's followers took over the leadership of the Labor Party and won the elections to the Legislative Council. From 1940 until 1953, Ramgoolam had presided as Municipal Councillor, a post he held again in 1956 when he was named Deputy Mayor of Port Louis. In 1950 he rose to the mayor's position. During the time from 1948 until 1959, he also served as a member of the Legislative Council for Pamplemousse-Riviere du Rempart; and then, for Triolet, in 1959; and, for Pamplemousses Triolet from 1967 until his party was defeated, and he stepped down from the Prime Minister's office in 1982. Other government positions Ramgoolam held included that of Ministerial Secretary to the Treasury, 1958; Leader of the House, 1960 onward; Minister of Finance, 1960–68, and Chief Minister from 1961–65. When Mauritius gained independence from England in 1968, Ramgoolam was immediately elevated to the role of Prime Minister. When his party left office, he held the honored yet primarily ceremonial position of Governor General from 1983 until his death in December 1985.
During his years in public service, particularly those as Prime Minister after independence was realized, Ramgoolam created the dreams he had dreamed for his people as a young man. With the University of Mauritius, he offered universal education; he opened hospitals, created village councils; built housing for workers; and instituted old age pensions, along with family allowances, and widows' pensions and a national pension plan. Workers also began to enjoy the benefits of workers in other democratic countries from electricity in their homes to trade unions that moderated wages and employee benefits such as sick leave and holiday pay. He helped oversee the building of banks, hotels, industries, and an airport, that would come to bear his name, honoring him even in death. In an obituary of Ramgoolam for the New York Times, reporter John T. McQuiston discussed how the end of his power came to be. He noted that, "Sir Seewoosagur's difficulties with the electorate grew as the economy of Mauritius fell sharply into decline. By 1981, the buying power of the Mauritian rupee had eroded by two devaluations in two years and it became difficult to arrange commercial credit with Western banks." The support he relied on from the rural Hindi population was overwhelmed by a landslide of the left. They took every seat in Parliament. At the time, even the United States was concerned by the election outcome. The island of Diego Garcia, a British-owned island that was claimed by Mauritius, was home to the United States military presence there. During the campaign they had been vocal in their opposition to it.
Ramgoolam had married his wife Sushil in 1939. Their two children were Navin and Sunita. He and his wife moved into the official residence at Le Chateau de Reduit when he became Governor General. It was there that he passed away on Sunday, December 15, 1985. Thousands of mourners came to honor their fallen hero. At his death, the tiny island, which was slightly smaller than Rhode Island, was home to 850,000 people. He was cremated according to Hindi custom, and his ashes were scattered into the Ganges River in India, considered sacred by all Hindi people.
In his lifetime he was presented with many honors that included being Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1965. In 2000 Mauritians honored Ramgoolam with a celebration of his birth centenary. He continued to be honored on stamps in death as he had been in life, with his image on the stamp that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Mauritius Independence on March 12, 1998. In his death, as in his life, he was a national hero to his people—a man of slow and deliberate determination who spoke gently and accomplished the move of his tiny nation into the modern world.
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Europe Intelligence Wire, Financial Times Ltd., October 8, 2002.
New York Times, December 17, 1985.
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