Cocos and Kangaroos

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Somduth Bhuckory

Another befitting heading of this article could be ‘Dodos and Kangaroos’ for we propose to deal with the impressions of two Australians of Mauritians. The two Australians are husband and wife. Leslie and Coralie Rees, and their impressions are to be found in their book ‘Westward From Cocos’. Some of the chapters are written by the husband and others by the wife.

Out of twenty-one chapters, four are on Mauritius. Their titles may give you some indication of their contents: Multi-chromatic Mauritius, — In search of Matthew Flinders, — And so the stag-hunt and Poets and Pique-Niques. The first and the last chapters are written by the wife and the two others by the husband. The book also contains some pictures of Mauritius.

The book-jacket informs us that the “experienced Australian husband-and-wife team… now describe a journey from Australia to Britain by way of the Cocos Islands, Mauritius, South Africa, Rhodesia, Portuguese, East Africa and the coast of Tanganyika and Kenya.” And both of them say this about the journey at the opening of the book: “The journey had the value of accenting and synthesizing for us some impressions of islands and countries of the southern Indian Ocean. That ocean, no less than the Pacific, washes the white sanded shores of Australia, and could bring with its waves and currents either the friendship or the enmity of foreign lands.” But the Australian couple has produced a book that will beget enmity rather than friendship. A good number of English and French writers have come and gone recently, and they have given us their impressions. Hardly has anyone succeeded in writing a satisfying book or an objective article. All of them have been biased to the extent of being disgusting.

When we took up ‘Westward From Cocos’ we were eager to find out in what a tone and in what a spirit the chapters on Mauritius have been written. Disappointment was again in store for us. We didn’t expect any deep learning from a book of travel but we didn’t expect superficial accounts of ramblings to contain so much stigma and so many unkind reflections.

* * *

From the Cocos Islands the writers landed at Plaisance Airport after covering 2672 miles of Indian Ocean — “the longest scheduled sea-hop in the world”. In the bus which was taking them to Park Hotel there was “a French businessman, with Mauritian interests”. He pointed out things to them. “It was the French Mauritians, he said, who lived in these gracious houses built on a French colonial pattern, yet so distinctly Mauritian… It was the Indian sugar-cane workers who were clustered in the hovels, dredging the dregs of poverty.”

And this is how they personally saw Multi-chromatic Mauritius: “The life certainly was full of coloured strands — the Indian women in their cochineal-dyed saris, the Creole women with a flare for turkey red. Skin tints ranged from pale coffee to blue-black, contrasted with the pink complexions of the ‘whites’.”

The day they reached Mauritius, a Franco-Mauritian invited them to the races. It was the golden Jubilee of the Jockey Club. He and his wife accompanied them. Then starts a reporting of intimate conversation which will make you think twice before you speak to a stranger. A member of the British garrison is reported as having expressed the attitude of the British towards Mauritius in these terms: “There’s nothing much to keep us here really — nothing to do but govern, and golf!”

The writers, it appears, were aware of “Hindu hegemony”. Sketching the history of Mauritius, they say after speaking of the abolition of slavery: “Labour was needed for the estates. And so the ‘Indian Invasion’ began — by invitation. Between 1840 and 1870 a couple of hundred thousand Indian labourers were imported on the indenture system.”

“The creoles in particular fascinated us.” That is how they start giving some of their impressions of creoles. They go on: “… the creoles, along with the coolie Indians, are a race of porters… it was clear that the creoles were, in spite of their depressed social and economic standing, a merry crew with a taste for mad behaviour, especially at their segas, or rumbustious nights of song and dance under the stars. The quantity of crude sugar-rum drunk by them governed the pace of these segas.”

How could the Indians escape their scathing comments? “They told us that the Indians were a different kettle of fish — or, should we say, dish of Bombay duck. The creoles were loyal to the British, who, after all, liberated their slave forefathers, and gave them a chance to take to the woods and Tamassa wine. The Indians were loyal only to Indians… The Indians were brought in as indentured labour to work the sugar-cane and stayed on to over-populate the country and attempt to dominate it politically.”

* * *

We have quoted rather profusely from the first chapter on Mauritius to show in what a vein the impressions have been given. After reading ‘Multi-chromatic Mauritius’ one accompanies a rather unsympathetic couple in their search of Mathew Flinders, a famous British explorer who was a captive in Mauritius during the last years of French occupation. By the time we reach the stag hunt and pique-niques we feel fed up.

What can be the general effect of such a book? It can only leave a distorted picture of Mauritius in the minds of foreigners. It doesn’t do justice to any community living in this island.

One of the most revolting things about the book is its indiscretion. Private conversations are recorded with the utmost relish and private parties are exposed without any reservation. Laying bare everything shows only a lack of good taste and decency.

One wonders why the Indian Invasion is made such a dominant theme: it occurs at the end of the fourth chapter on Mauritius as well as at the end of the book. “Many French-Mauritians, with a pessimistic eye on the dark population cloud spreading over the lovely island, were talking of removing their lives to the Union.” It’s of course the Union of South Africa that is meant. Having reached London Mr & Mrs Rees were caught in a reflective mood. “We mused on what part Mother India, sitting at the top of this ocean, eagerly and self-consciously parental about her myriad émigré people, was likely to play in either the assuaging of old hurts or the rasping-up of new ones”.

But it would be puerile to expect anything better from people who were convinced “that by far the most interesting way to encompass the island and its life was to travel with the French-Mauritian sugar scientists on their professional rounds.”

4th Year – No 139
Friday 5th April 1957

* Published in print edition on 6 March 2020

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