This year marks the 64th anniversary of the Belle Vue Harel massacre, which took place on 27th September 1943. During this terrible event, four sugarcane workers, including Anjalay Coopen, were killed and became the martyrs of the Mauritian working class movement. Anjalay Coopen, an important historical figure of early modern Mauritius, has become a tangible and iconic symbol of the Mauritian people?s struggle for their human rights against British colonial tyranny and sugar planters in the 1940s.
■ Prelude to the Massacre
On 13th September 1943, a major strike began at Belle Vue Harel Sugar Estate, lasting for several days. Just like on other sugar estates throughout the island, the labourers demanded a wage increase and better conditions. Their interests were represented by Hurryparsad Ramnarain and Sharma Jugdambee on the Conciliation Board. On 17th September, at a meeting of the Conciliation Board, the Labour Department, which supported the interests of Mauritian sugar planters, put some pressure on the two labour representatives to sign an accord to put an end to the labour dispute.
Unfortunately, without consulting the workers, Ramnarain and Jugdambee accepted the proposals of the Belle Vue Harel owners who had the backing of the Labour Department. Fortunately, the striking labourers of Belle Vue Harel were wise and dignified enough to reject the agreement and decided to continue with their work stoppage. On Friday 24th September, the sugar estate owners announced that workers who would not abide by the agreement and end their strike should leave the sugar estate by Wednesday 29th September.
With each passing day, the situation became tense as the owners of that sugar estate, the Department of Labour and the local police were bent on ending the strike by whatever means. Despite the deadline, the labourers of Belle Vue Harel continued their strike. On Monday 27th September, the workers organized a baitka in the estate camp itself.
■ Slaughter of the innocent
Early on that same morning, Constable Thacanamootoo of the police Criminal Investigation Division (CID) was sent to the camp to find out what the striking labourers were doing. He was recognized as a police informant and beaten by a worker. The injured policeman returned to the estate manager?s office and waited for his superior officer to arrive.
More than an hour later, Allan Bell, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, showed up with a police detachment. He was informed of what had happened to Thancanamootoo and decided to arrest the constable?s assailant. On his way to the sugar estate camp, Bell was joined by Mr. Fondaumière, the Assistant Superintendent of Police, who had just arrived from Line Barracks with a police detachment. They proceeded with more than three dozen men to the camp, where they encountered a crowd of some 300 men, women, and children armed with sticks and stones.
The police ordered them to disperse, which they refused. Thacanamootoo?s assailant was spotted and as the police arrested him, the crowd became hostile and threw their sticks and stones at the policemen. The labourers advanced towards the police officers who were almost surrounded by the hostile crowd. In panic, the police fired 16 shots at the striking workers, which left three dead, five with bullet wounds and 12 slightly injured. The three dead were Soondrum Pavatdan, better known as Anjalay Coopen, Kistnasamy Mooneesamy, and Moonsamy Moonien. Nine days later, a fourth labourer, Marday Panapen died in Civil Hospital in Port Louis as a result of his bullet wounds. Even after the shooting, many protesting labourers stood their ground as an act of determined resistance against their tormentors.
As a last effort, one police officer threw a powerful tear gas grenade at the labourers, which dispersed them. However, the panic-stricken policemen, under the command of DCP Allan Bell, regrouped and beat a hasty retreat to the sugar factory of Belle Vue Harel. Thus, between 10 o?clock and 11 o?clock on Monday 27th September 1943, when the hour of truth came, the soldiers of the Mauritian labour movement fought against their oppressors and triumphed, though it cost some of them their lives.
■ Anjalay Coopen?s martyrdom
27th September 1943 is a date, which shall forever live in infamy and a day of noble sacrifices in the annals of early modern Mauritius. This was the day when four previously unknown labourers became a powerful source of inspiration to more than three generations of Mauritians. Almost seven decades later, the martyrdom of Anjalay remains a strong symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, which brave Mauritian workers made during the early history of the Mauritian labour movement.
Anjalay Coopen was born in 1911 in Rivière du Rempart district. Her death was registered on 28th September 1943 at Civil Hospital in Port Louis. She was 32 years old and lived in the estate camp of Belle Vue Harel Sugar Estate. Anjalay worked in the ?petite bande? in the sugarcane fields and was pregnant at the time of her death. In September 2003, a monument was unveiled in Cottage, on the spot where Anjalay and her fallen comrades were cremated. Four years later, on 29th August 2007, her statue was unveiled in the yard of the new Human Rights Centre of Mauritius, near the Supreme Court in Port Louis. After all, she is a tangible symbol of the struggle of Mauritian workers during the 1930s and 1940s for their human rights.