Select Page

When the Uranie arrived off Mauritius, Rose and Louis de Freycinet found an island that had, in the previous ten years, suffered many misfortunes. In the eyes of most of the inhabitants, the greatest of these had been its capture by the British in 1810. The terms under which the transfer of sovereignty took place were remarkably lenient and the first governor, Robert Farquhar, was an ardent Francophile, but there is no doubt that the new masters were widely resented.

The next disaster was a physical one. On 25 September 1816 a fire broke out in Port Louis and almost two-thirds of the town were destroyed, and many of its formerly wealthy citizens were bankrupted. Recovery had barely begun when, on March 1 1818, a cyclone passed close to the island, destroyed some of buildings that had been merely damaged by the fire and also many of those that were being rebuilt. Most of the ships in the harbour were either sunk or driven ashore. If the Uranie had managed to keep to its planned schedule, it might well have suffered the same fate.

There was, however, a slightly earlier event than either the fire or the storm that many considered a greater disaster. In November 1817 Governor Farquhar took leave of absence and left the island. in the hands of his temporary replacement, Gage John Hall, who was a man of very different type.

Gage Hall was a career army officer. He was commissioned as an ensign in 1783 and by 1801 had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, but it was not until 1813 that he became a major-general. That was rather slow promotion for high-ranking officers during the Napoleonic wars, but Hall had had a career break. He had spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Paris, and as a result of that he hated the French. Not perhaps the ideal person to govern a British possession still defiantly referred to by its inhabitants as the Ile de France.

The creoles of Mauritius found so much to dislike where Hall was concerned that it is hard to know where to start. As Rose de Freycinet testified, he was boorish and choleric by nature, although she noted also that his wife was charming and spoke excellent French (for her, seven years in Paris had evidetly been no trial at all). The main complaint against him, however, was that, in one respect at least, he did his job. He was very active in suppressing the slave trade, whereas Farquhar, himself a slave owner, had taken a very relaxed attitude to that part of his duties, and  this attitude that was shared by the Chief Justice, George Smith, also a Francophile and a slave owner. Clashes between Hall and Smith were inevitable, and by the time the Uranie arrived, the governor had succeeded in barring the judge from office. That the de Freycinets were Smith’s house guests during the whole of the more than two months they spent on Mauritius did not endear them to Hall, although early on there seemed to be a chance that they might be peace-makers, because when Rose visited him in his country retreat, he decorated her palanquin with flowers. When, however, because she was unwell, she failed to attend a ball given by Hall that was boycotted by the entire Francophone  population of the island and Louis, rather than go to it alone, went instead to a dinner hosted by Smith, any chance of any relations other than the necessary formal ones disappeared.

The upper half of the angry letter to the Times. Note the reference to John Purvis at the top of the second column

Mauritius did not have to suffer Hall for very long after the Uranie left on the 10th of July 1818. On the 10th of December in the same year he was replaced as temporary governor first by Sir John Dalrymple and later by Sir Ralph Darling, and on the 6th of July 1820 Farquhar returned. Where transfers of power are concerned, however, there is always a period in which there seems to be nobody actually in charge and plenty of people around to take advantage of the fact. On the 27th of December 1819 the Times published an indignant letter headed ‘SLAVE TRADE IN THE MAURITIUS’ from someone who signed himself simply as ‘AN ENEMY TO SLAVE DEALERS’. The breakdown of law and order during the change-over was well described:

The moment Major-General Hall quitted the colony, shoals of small craft were sent out for slaves to Madagascar, Mosambique, and elsewhere. They have gradually returned, and gone out again ; and it is admitted by every one here, that at no former period the slave-trade was so brisk as it is at this moment. At the lowest computation,the number slaves imported within the last month exceeds 700 ! And the persons directly engaged, or otherwise interested in this Inhuman traffic (which in fact comprises the whole population), have increased in activity and daring beyond any precedent. Not long ago a military guard, consisting of a corporal and four men, conveying to town 110 blacks seized by them, and who had just been landed, were ttacked on the road by a body of men, who rushed on them from a wood ; the greater number of the blacks were rescued, and only 24 remained in the possession of the soldiers ; in the scuffle one or two of the assailants were wounded, but as usual none of the offenders were discovered. The soldiers even were declared to have acted illegally in presuming to seize these blacks.

Amonst those identified by the writer of the letter (who made mention also of John Brett Purvis another minor character in the saga of the Uranie) as facilitating the slave trade whilst being officially tasked with suppressing it, was George Smith. He outlasted his enemy’s tenure of office, but not by a very great margin, because he died, in office, in 1823.