Tribute to Philippe Bonâme

Training at tertiary level has for a great many years been a subject of interest to Mauritians. Already in the 1830s, Adrien d’Épinay mentioned the need for a university. In the sugar industry, which was the country’s main economic activity, attention was paid to training as early as 1884, when the Mauritian chemist Clare Bernard taught chemistry to a few students. In 1887 Léon Diard, a French chemist, followed on from Clare Bernard with courses to aspiring chemists at a time when the industry numbered 138 sugar factories, few of which produced more than 1,000 tonnes a year. The premature passing away of Léon Diard in 1891 put an end to the training.

Towards the end of the 19th century, competition from beet sugar, which was benefiting from subsidies in the UK, became a threat to cane sugar, and William (later Sir William) Newton, President of the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture, was sent to make representations on the matter to the Colonial Office in London. Newton was at the same time entrusted with the responsibility of finding a competent scientist to head the Station Agronomique, whose creation had been recommended by the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture in a report dated 8 May 1888. And so it was that Philippe Bonâme, an agricultural chemist, was recruited.

Philippe Bonâme was born at Badevel, in the department of Doubs, France, on 24 December 1851. At the age of 18, he attended the farm school of Malgrange and completed his studies in 1871 with a certificate and the medal of best student. He then went on to the ÉcoleNationaled’Agriculture of Grand-Jouan for further studies, upon completion of which he obtained the school’s diploma and, again, the medal of best student. He was then employed successively as lecturer in agriculture at the farm school of La Pilletière in the department of Sarthe and Professor of Agriculture at the farm school of Meurthe-et-Moselle in the period from 1873 to 1875 before joining the Station Agronomique de l’Est in Nancy, where he received further training in agricultural chemistry in the period from 1875 to 1877. At the age of 26, he was appointed Director of the Station Agronomique of Guadeloupe, where he devoted special attention to sugar cane. He came back to France in 1885 and joined an agricultural laboratory in Spain. He was sent on a mission to Russian Turkestan to assess the feasibility of sugar cane production in the country: he did not recommend it and the project was abandoned. He then went to Cuba for the French company Fives-Lille for the construction and operation of a cane sugar factory equipped with a diffuser.

Bonâme was chosen to head the Station Agronomique in 1893 for his experience in sugar cane agronomy, chemistry and technology. That experience made him not just a scientist, but one adept at multi-tasking. For 12 years, he thus carried out a great deal of experimental work practically alone and without technical assistance. After 12 years, he was provided with a freshly qualified chemistry graduate as an assistant.

At the time of Bonâme’s appointment, the Mauritius sugar industry had much need of chemists. So in June 1900, at Bonâme’s initiative, the Station Agronomique took on its first two students for training as sugar factory chemists. The enrolment of students by the Station Agronomique for training as sugar factory chemists was pursued until 1913 when the Station Agronomique was taken over by the Department of Agriculture, newly created with Frank A. Stockdale as Director and Philippe Bonâme as his deputy.

Bonâme returned to France soon after, in 1914. He was then already renowned for the quality of his work, which was considerable and authoritative. His research work was published in bulletins of the Station Agronomique of Pointe-à-Pitre initially and in 1885 as a book on sugar cane, a second edition of which was published later. His work in Mauritius was published in the Annual Reports and bulletins of the Station Agronomique.

According to Donald d’Emmerez de Charmoy, Bonâme was the pioneer of agricultural science in Mauritius. Not only did his achievements go beyond a series of experimentations whose results have enlightened the sugar industry and helped in the modernisation of agricultural production systems, but the most important of them was his contribution to agricultural training, of which he was the initiator.

Philippe Bonâme was of a shy disposition but he was joyful, full of spirit and charming with his friends and colleagues. It is unfortunate that he decided to leave Mauritius in 1914, for the sugar industry could have benefited more from his broad and deep knowledge of sugar cane. On his departure, a lunch was organised with all his former students. A photograph of the function has fortunately been kept and bears testimony to the full value of his contribution to the advancement of the island’s sugar cane industry.

Philippe Bonâme passed away on 8 December 1919 in the town of Mans (Sarthe), France.

As a tribute to his immense contribution to Mauritius, his name was engraved on the Liénard obelisk in the Pamplemousses Botanic Gardens on 16 June 1920. In 1960 the Board of Directors of the Mauritius Sugar Industry Research Institute (MSIRI) decided to name its lecture theatre after Philippe Bonâme and the Chairman of the Board, Sir Raymond Hein, Q.C., took the opportunity to pay homage to the man and his remarkable legacy.

In 2006, as Director of the MSIRI, I had the privilege of welcoming Ms SolangeKeschmannBonâme, great-grand-niece of Philippe Bonâme, when she came to Mauritius. She was moved when she visited Bonâme Hall and was apprised of her famous ancestor’s legacy.

In 1921, the Société des Chimistes de Maurice made a compilation of the publications of Philippe Bonâme, which numbered some thirty-five in terms of Annual Reports of the Station Agronomique and special reports on cane diseases, alternative crops, including cotton, tobacco, hevea, and leguminous species, sugar cane fuzz, varietal production, alcohol production, cane borers, fertilisers, cattle-feeding with molasses, and cane-burning.

The bibliography of Philippe Bonâme is really rich and remains a source of reference for all sugar cane researchers more than a century after the research work was carried out.

As a concluding note, it is interesting that the sugar cane producers of Mauritius have always had faith in the value of research in ensuring the progress and future of their industry. Thus Mauritius armed itself with its first structured research institution in 1893, more or less at the same time as Hawaii and Australia but well ahead of major producers such as South Africa, Brazil, India, and Thailand. The country’s investment in research, pursued with the creation of the Sugarcane Research Station in 1932 and the MSIRI in 1953, has proved over the years to be well worthwhile.

By Jean-Claude Autrey


1. L. Baissac (1920), Notes biographiques sur Philippe Bonâme
2. L. Baissac (1921), L’œuvre de Philippe Bonâme à l’Ile Maurice, Table Bibliographique et Analytique (Société des Chimistes), The General Printing &StationeryCy Ltd
3. A. d’Emmerez de Charmoy (1941), Philippe Bonâme (1851–1919),Dictionnaire de Biographie Mauricienne, Volume I