This November the Bible Society of Mauritius will be celebrating its bicentenary. So to say, this institution is as old as the Mauritius Turf Club which has celebrated its 200 years lately. Time now to go down memory lane for the epic history of an organization that started as an auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society. On November 11, 1812 a committee under the chairmanship of the Civil Chaplain, Rev. H. Shepherd, decided upon the formation of a Bible Society of the Islands of Mauritius, Bourbon and Dependencies,”pursuant to the plan of the British and Foreign Bible Society, established in London.” The Governor, His Excellency General Warde, became the first President of the Society. However, due credit must be given to the first British Governor of Mauritius, Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar, under whose chairmanship “the first General Meeting was held on November 3rd 1812”. The Society functioned for about twelve years, and finally collapsed in 1825 from lack of support. The bad economic conditions of the island, epidemics and so on made it impossible to maintain the work satisfactorily.
The Society did not completely disappear for faithful individuals kept in touch with London and continued to distribute Scriptures. Amongst them were Rev. Jean Lebrun and his son as well as Rev. L. Banks, Colonial Chaplain. On May 25, 1852 the Society was revived as an Auxiliary of the BFBS (British and Foreign Bible Societies). On 20 June 1852, Rev. Patrick Beaton wrote to the BFBS referring to the formation of the Auxiliary at a meeting held on May 23, 1852.
Uninterrupted existence from 1852 to date
From this date the Auxiliary continued to function with varying success, in spite of natural catastrophes such as cyclones, fire and flood, epidemics and fluctuation of the island’s economy. Scriptures were taken to all the communities in Mauritius as well as to the surrounding islands namely Reunion, Rodrigues and the Seychelles. Scriptures were available in English, French, German, Hindi, Chinese, Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil and Telugu. They were sold below cost because of low income of so many purchasers.
Some great names in Mauritian Church History are connected with that of the Auxiliary. Rev. Jean Lebrun, first L.M.S. Missionary to Mauritius, Rev. S. Anderson who translated the Gospels into Creole, Archdeacon Henry Buswell, Rev. George Murdoch and others are mentioned in the minutes of proceedings of the Auxiliary. In 1950, Rev. Victor Butt, missionary with the Intercessor Fellowship took over the responsibility of the Auxiliary in Mauritius and with the help of one or two members, they kept the flame alive. The depot in Port Louis, the capital, was transferred from being just a shelf or two in a shop to a small premise.
150th anniversary of the BFBS celebrated in Mauritius
In 1954, a public meeting was held to commemorate 150 years of the British and Foreign Bible Society and from that date an Annual Meeting, a Children’s rally and an Annual Meeting of all Protestant Clergy and missionaries figured in the program. In 1959, when Rev. V. Butt left Mauritius, a new committee was formed. The following year, the Committee decided to ask the BFBS for a full-time agent. Mr. David Cohen came to Mauritius in August 1963 and he worked under the direction of the Bible Society of Kenya. From this time, the work developed into a lively organization still supported entirely by Protestant Christians.
The first Bible House was opened in Rose-Hill in November 1966. The Society changed its name to « The Bible Society in Mauritius » in 1968 when it became a National Office of the United Bible Societies – the movement founded in 1946 which groups the 141 Bible Societies around the world – shortly after Independence Day, March 12, 1968. Mr. Norman Hunter replaced Rev. David Cohen as Executive Secretary in 1970.
The powerful Catholic Church joins the bandwagon
With the decisions promulgated after Vatican II, the sales of Scriptures to Roman Catholic Christians, increased considerably. The Roman Catholic Church was invited to send representatives to sit on the Executive Committee. Some Roman Catholic priests and lay people are now active members of the Society. The collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Bible strengthened as years went by. The first publication, especially for the Roman Catholic Church, was a Gospel of Luke in « Français Courant » printed in 1974. Twenty thousand printed copies then followed. Moreover, links with the Churches in Réunion, where more than 90% of the population is Roman Catholic have been established and strengthened since 1968.
In November 1974, Mr. Roger Murat, the first Mauritian, was appointed Executive Secretary. He had been Rector of one of the most prestigious secondary schools and an active member the Diocesan Council of the Anglican Church. Miss Violet Minton replaced him in November of 1977. The latter had been a member of BFBS Auxiliary since 1950 and was elected to the first Executive Committee. She had served in various capacities on this committee and finally became Chairperson in 1975. Miss Minton’s term of office ended on 31st October 1979. Since then, Mauritians have occupied the post of Executive Secretary.
From the 1980s down to the new millenium
As from 1 November 1979, Mr. James Li Hing took over but as he was called to take new responsibilities at the United Bible Societies Africa Regional Centre in 1980, Mr. Jean-Alain Moussié replaced him in May 1980. In September 1980, the Bible Society of Mauritius was accepted in the United Bible Societies family as an Associate Member and became a Full Member eight years later. Since 1986, Mr. Marc Etive, following Mr. Moussie’s nomination at the Africa Regional Service Centre, fills the post of Executive Secretary now restyle as Executive Director.
Thanks to the support of the British & Foreign Bible Society and the German Bible Society, the Bible Society acquired a property in Eau Coulee in 1995, where it set up its headquarters. The development of the Mauritian economy has enabled the Bible Society to further develop its activities, fundraising in particular. In 1996, an Information & Fundraising department was created. In addition, at the time the government gave incentives to printing plants for investment in equipments, the Bible Society seized this opportunity to offer its services as a Production Centre to the Africa Region in view of allowing Bible Societies in this area have Scriptures at lower cost. Consequently, a Production Department was established in 1998 but was closed in 2005.
Translation is crucial in the life of a Bible Society to accomplish its mission of putting God’s Word in a comprehensible language. Following requests from several Churches to have Scriptures translated into Creole, the Bible Society launched an interdenominational translation project of the New Testament into Creole in year 2000. Thus, in December 2002, the Gospel of St Mark, Levanzil Mark in Creole was launched at the Municipality of Port-Louis.
Last but not least, the “Bible Society Resource Centre” was jointly inaugurated by the Secretary General of the United Bible Societies, Reverend Miller Milloy, and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Mauritius, Dr Navinchandra Ramgoolam, at Trou-aux-Biches.
Today, the principal Christian denominations (including the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II, as previously only the Protestant denominations were present on the Executive Committee of the Bible Society) collaborate fully with the Bible Society in its distribution program of the Word of God in Mauritius, Rodrigues, and Réunion. As regards the Seychelles, since its recognition as National Office in November 2004, the Bible Society of Mauritius is no more responsible for the work there.