■ A national monument
The General Post Office was decreed a national monument in 1958 through Government Notice No.614 by Governor Sir Robert Scott based upon the recommendation of the Ancient Monuments Board. Almost three decades later, it was reconfirmed as a national monument through the National Monuments Act of 1985. More recently, the General Post Office was listed on the ?National Heritage of Mauritius? which is attached to the National Heritage Fund Act (No. 40) of 2003. The General Post Office consists of large stone blocks as well as of thick iron and wooden beams which are imbedded within the structure. The front part of the building has five arches and the words ?Post Office? are written in the Oxford style. The inscription of the date 1868 A.D. is also clearly seen. Between 1847 and 1870, the postal headquarters of British Mauritius was known as the Postmaster Building and was located in central Port Louis. In 1853, Reverend Patrick Beaton, a British missionary in Mauritius, mentioned that the Postmaster Building was situated on Government Street near Government House.
■ The historical aspect
In 1988, the Mauritius Institute published a book entitled National Monuments of Mauritius: Volume 1, Port Louis District which mentioned: ?The construction of the building which houses the General Post Office near the harbour, is believed to have started shortly after the English took possession of the island in 1810. It was completed in 1868 during the Governorship of Sir Henry Barkly (1863-1871)?. However, recent research at the Mauritius National Archives has established that the General Post Office was constructed between 1865 and 1870 and was inaugurated in December 1870 and certainly not in 1868. The construction of this national monument started in January 1865 under the supervision of Surveyor General Morrison. Around two years later, in January 1867, shortly after his arrival in Mauritius, Nicholas Pike, a famous American visitor, observed:
There is a new post office in the course of erection near the Customs House. It is to be hoped that the new light and airy place will give a proportionate impetus to the activity of the clerks on mail day.
By December 1868, more than seventy-five percent of the building was completed. Between January 1869 and December 1870, the roof, the exterior walls, and the front part of the edifice still had to be completed. The General Post Office of Mauritius was built at a cost of between 10,000 and 11,000 pounds. It should be noted that over a period of six years, the Surveyor General’s Office used between 80 to 100 workers for the construction of this particular structure. The overwhelming majority of these workers were Indian and non-Indian vagrants who were incarcerated at the Vagrant Depot of Grand River North West and convicts from the Port Louis Prisons. At the same time, apart from these workers, there were former Indian indentured labourers and creoles (mostly descendants of slaves) who were engaged on monthly contracts. Many among them were skilled craftsmen such as stone sculptors/stone cutters, carpenters, masons, and blacksmiths who earned high wages for their work. It is evident that these skilled and unskilled workers who, through the sweat of their brows, were the true builders of the Central Post Office.
■ The postal system
In December 1870, the General Post Office was officially inaugurated and became functional on 21st December of the same year. In October 1876, postal stamps were printed and issued for the first time there. A few months later, in April 1877, the Central Telegraph Office was transferred from Victoria Station to the Central Post Office. It is important to point out that some of the equipment which were used in the General Post Office during the late 19th and early 20th centuries are currently on exhibit at the Postal Museum. The General Post Office of Mauritius was modeled on public buildings which were being erected during the same period in Great Britain. At the same time, it is also an excellent example of traditional colonial architecture of the mid-Victorian Era which can still be seen in other former British colonies such as Sri Lanka, South Africa, Trinidad, and Guyana. During the early 1870s, it was at the Central Post Office that the establishment of the rural post offices was planned and implemented by the Postmaster General and his staff with the approval of the British governor and Council of Government. By 1875, around 33 post offices were set up in the eight rural districts of the island. Thus, the General Post Office building played a central role in the establishment of a modern colonial postal system in Mauritius.
■ The heritage aspect
The General Post Office represents one of the major attempts by the colony’s British government to modernise and centralize the Mauritian postal system. It has served as the country’s main post office as well as the office of the Postmaster General for more than a century. The design of the roof, the clock, and the exterior design, especially the five arches as well as the inscriptions, on the front part of the General Post Office are important examples of sophisticated craftsmanship which developed in British Mauritius during the mid-Victorian Era. There are other post offices which share a similar history with the General Post Office such as the Rose Hill Post Office and the old Souillac Post Office which were built more than a century ago through the labour of Mauritian workers. It must be remembered that the General Post Office was also built thanks to the labour of skilled and unskilled Mauritian workers, therefore it is a tangible symbol of our Mauritian cultural and architectural heritage. Indeed, it is a rare national monument and an architectural treasure of the Mauritian nation.
Ally Hossen ORJOON
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