20 Sep 2013

Mauritius- a fascinating land of varied cultures

Last week on 14 September, Repin and I went to Mauritius - he for a business meeting and me, just for the fun of it.While preparing for the trip I realised that most of my pre-conceptions of this island were wrong. First I found out that it was closer to Africa than to any Asian continent so technically it is an African country. Historically the island had been in use by Arab traders for a long time, normally to rest and stock up on food after a long journey around the Cape of Good Hope. However there were no original inhabitants of the island unless one calls the dodo bird as a native. Then sometime in the 16th century the Dutch came and they too used the island as a resting place and to refuel. Like the Arabs, they did not settle on the island, although they did give it a name - Mauritzius, in honor of their stadholder, Prince Maurice Van Nassau. Unlike the Arabs though, the Dutch were held responsible for the extinction of the dodo, a bird that looks rather like a duck but much bigger in size than our present ducks and unique to Mauritius. The dodo was a flightless bird and could easily be trapped. So they were hunted down in large numbers to feed the Dutch soldiers and sailors who stopped here. By the time the French came in the 17th century, the dodo was already dead and gone, never again to reappear .

The French stayed for almost a 100 years, bringing settlers from France to open up the island. To encourage settlers to stay, they were offered parcels of land of about 90 hectares per family to open up the main crop of the island - sugar cane. The French  brought in slaves from Africa to work their plantations and renamed the island Isle De France. 

The last Europeans to come to Mauritius were the British who also had interests in the Indian Ocean.
In the 19th century the British made a number of attempts to take over the island but failed until in December 1810 they came again with 76 vessels armed with more than 20,000 soldiers. They took the French by surprise and conquered the island in one epic battle at sea.

The English took over the island officially after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Once again Isle de France became known as Mauritius and the British quickly began a policy of agriculture that would change the landscape of the island forever. They were more interested in exploiting Mauritius's agricultural potential and began planting sugar cane on a large scale. They abolished slavery  and freed all the slaves, most of whom had become entrenched on the island and even spoke a kind of pidgin French they called Creole. To help them work their plantations, the British used indentured workers whom they brought in from India and China, two large countries in which they were already deeply involved. They included workers from various parts of India - Bihar, Madras, Oudh and some even from the North west provinces. Thus it is that the people of Mauritius today consists of Indians, Africans, many of French-Mauritian descent, Arab Muslims and Chinese.

The language spoken today is still called Creole, and taught in schools as their mother tongue, while English is the language of instruction and commerce. The capital, Port Louis is a bustling metropolis with an intriguing combination of cultures, languages and religions. By the time Mauritius had gained its independence from the British in 1968, Mauritian Creole was recognised as the main  language which united these various ethnicities
La Bourddanais Park
and English became the official language in government and in commerce. All the various festivals are celebrated, just as in Malaysia. It is a fascinating country with splendid views wherever one turns, whether it is the sea, the hinterland or the rugged mountains.
Part of the Black River Gorge National Reserve

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