A young French lawyer, Celicourt Antelme, was presenting a case in the Court of Assizes, Port Louis, on 14th July 1847. The case was about “replacing French with English as the official language of the Court in Mauritius.” The hearing went on till midnight. The date of 15th July came and the Court ruled in favour of English language. To many, that day announced the death of French language in Mauritius. Today, after 172 years, French language is still alive and doing well in the country. Creole language, which has borrowed heavily from French, is also thriving as the main vehicle of communication.
There are many stories going around among historians regarding that epic night when this important judgment came.
Historians say that when the British took over Mauritius from the French in year 1810, they thought of running the island their way. But they were facing lot of hardships due to language barriers. The 19th century official documents and even the travelogues by British visitors contained many comments on the paradoxical situation of Mauritius as a British colony. There was hardly any person who spoke English or even understood it.
In the 8th July edition of Le Cerneen newspaper, it was noted that of the 150,000 souls in Mauritius (not including those of English origin), only 500 people knew English language.
There is one more interesting story that goes something like this: Once a judge ordered an usher in court to “bring me the record.” The usher bowed, went out and came back with a rope (la corde). This incident was published in a newspaper with the heading “Progress of English language in the courts.” During that time, the British were trying hard to establish English language in Mauritius. They started with the courts.
The Order in Council of 5th October, 1836, allowed the Court of Appeal to draft its own Rules of Court, which was done on 12th August, 1837, with the judges advancing to stipulate that as of 1st January 1839, no lawyer or solicitor would be allowed to plead unless he had sufficient knowledge of the English language.
Today, you may see the name of the young French lawyer Celicourt Antelme put up in several places: ‘Sir Celicourt Antelme Street’ and ‘Celicourt Building’ in Port Louis as well as in Curepipe. He was conducting his own campaign for a maintenance of French language in all institutions during those years.
History says on the night of 15th July, when the verdict came in favour of English language, Antelme paused dramatically during his concluding remark and switched from French language into English, which was greeted by loud and prolonged applause from the people present, mostly British. But this verdict saw protests from the French communities in the country. They were unhappy, especially because of the date chosen for the verdict night: 14th July, which is also the National Day of France.
Despite being a British colony for more than 150 years, English never became the first language in Mauritius. There have been a lot of research conducted on the subject by numerous experts all around the world. What I personally feel is that the French colonisers were actually the first one to set up a government and ruled over this island with structure, whereas for the Dutch and Portuguese, Mauritius was little more than an outpost, which these nations hoped to exploit for resources. While the French were the first major developer for this island’s future identity, they were also the plantation owners where the major population of slaves and then Indian indentured labourers worked. It is obvious that the French had already set up communication channels in the island. The language of African slaves was mixed with French, which gave birth to Mauritian Creole, at first called a ‘pidgin’.
Today, there are more than 10 languages which are heard regularly on the island but one language that connects everybody is definitely Creole.
French is getting tough competition from English because of more English speaking expat workers and officers, especially CEOs, working and living in Mauritius than the French nowadays.
In a multilingual country like Mauritius, today, many parents are speaking in English with their kids. We can see history repeating itself and we are the spectators as well as the participants in this history. Let’s see if French can stand the changes of globalization.
According to Mauritius Statistics in census of 1962 (last census before Independence), the French speakers were 53,367 whereas English speakers were 1,824 out of 681,619 of total population. In the last conducted census of 2011, the French speakers were 51,214 whereas English speakers increased by 5,573 (resident population by language usually spoken at home). It means English is entering Mauritian homes.
Turning back the pages of history, one finds that each population, each century, possessed its own language conflicts. The extent to which we deny language dominance definitely affects the nation, its people, its culture and ultimately its future. Can Mauritius turn into an English speaking nation? Maybe, but Mauritian Creole is always going to remain the mother tongue of the island while English may definitely become the language of communication outdoors. There is definitely a wind of change.
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