The 1999 Mauritian Riots took place across the whole country, following the death of seggae artist Kaya in police custody.
The riots, the largest to take place in the history of the island, lasted around 4 days between 21st-25th February in 1999. Hundreds were injured, and there was mass looting and damage to property.
What began as protests to show discontent towards the authorities later revealed deeper, underlying ethnic tensions.
WHO WAS KAYA AND WHAT WAS ‘MALAISE CREOLE’?
Kaya (born Joesph Réginald Topize) was a Mauritian musician, famous for pioneering the ‘seggae’ genre.
Kaya identified as a Rastafarian and was heavily influenced by Jamaican Reggae (his stage name was inspired by Bob Marley’s best-selling album, Kaya) but reggae itself did not completely fit his personal reality as a Mauritian artist. He began to fuse reggae with local Mauritian sega, creating a new form of Mauritian music called ‘seggae’. His songs focussed on Mauritian expression, roots, culture, and society.
He was from the predominately Creole area of Roche Bois, and vocal about Creole rights, during a time where Malaise Creole was rife.
After independence from British colonisation in 1968, Mauritius faced a period of economic growth, which profited some ethnic groups more than others. This created disparities in economic wealth- especially for Creoles, who remained one of the most disadvantages communities on the island, creating a feeling known as ‘Malaise Creole’.
Kaya speaks about this in some of his songs, such as Mo tizil.
Some anthropologists maintain that Malaise Creole is a post-colonial trauma. Creoles are predominately descendants of African and Malgasy slaves, who suffered physical and psychological violence. In modern Mauritius, this persists in the form of poverty, social issues, and political marginalisation, which are attributed to Malaise Creole.
WHAT PROMPTED THE RIOTS?
On 18th February 1999, a rally in Rose-Hill was held calling for the decriminalisation of marijuana. Kaya was arrested for smoking cannabis and held in police custody for 3 days, where he later died under suspicious circumstances.
An autopsy revealed that Kaya had suffered a fractured skull, leading the public to believe he was murdered by police brutality. The police denied these allegations, saying he died after ‘throwing himself at the walls of his police cell due to drug withdrawal’ and that he was responsible for his own death.
Upon news of Kaya’s death, riots against police began in his hometown of Roche Bois but these quickly spread across the island.
ESCALATING ETHNIC TENSIONS
The riots lasted 4 days, where over 2,000 protestors looted and vandalised shops, buildings, and vehicles. The island drew to a standstill as hundreds were injured, and 250 prisoners were released by rioters.
Misinformation and a lack of response by the government and authorities exacerbated tensions. Rumours of non-Creoles attacking Creole homes before they could be attacked, and vice-versa led to conflicts in certain villages. 5 people died as Creole homes in Goodlands and Triolet were attacked, looted and burnt, with residents forced to flee for their lives.
On 24th February, following Kaya’s funeral and after a delayed plea from a government minister, the riots began to calm.
AFTERMATH AND LEGACY
In March 1999, on the one month anniversary of the riots, a peaceful gathering was organised to try recover a sense of national unity. The government also set up a Trust Fund for the Integration of Vulnerable Groups to fund projects for people in poorer parts of the country, to help them better integrate into society.
Kaya is still prominent in Mauritian music today, and some of his famous songs include Simer Lalimyer, Racine Pe Brile, and Chant l’amour. A monument of two crossed guitars is dedicated to him in his hometown of Roche Bois. ‘Seggae’ has since been adopted as a genre by many modern Mauritian musicians.
Creole ethnic groups still remain one of the most disadvantaged on the island to date.
10 AUG 1980 - 21 FEB 1999
Boswell, R. (2006). Le Malaise Creole: Ethnic Identity in Mauritius. United Kingdom: Berghahn Books.
Maurer, S. (2014). Post-Colonialism: The So-Called Malaise Creole in Mauritius. Antrocom. 10. 87-97.
Miles, F.S.W (1999), The Creole Malaise in Mauritius. African Affairs Vol. 98, No. 391 (Apr., 1999), pp. 211-228