Darwin’s Visit to Mauritius
Mauritius Times – 60 Years
By D. Napal
Our island can boast of the visit of some of the world’s celebrities — writers, artists, statesmen and scientists. One such man, Charles Darwin — no mean name — came to our shores on the 29th of April 1836 and stayed here till the 9th of May of the same year.
He accompanied Captain Robert-Fity-Roy on a voyage of surveying in HMS Beagle. Fity-Roy wanted to have on board a naturalist who would collect useful information. Darwin was the man fated for this task. He did it, keeping the collection of his materials in what was later published as Darwin’s diary of HMS Beagle. But he also wanted to gather knowledge which “would ultimately confute the geological sceptics who impugned the strict and literal truth of every statement contained in the Bible”.At the time Darwin undertook the voyage, his ambition was to become a parson and lead a quiet life. Little he knew then that he would lead the strongest attack against dogmas and orthodoxy by advocating his theory of evolution.
Paleontology stamps of Mauritius. Pic – Paleophilatelie.eu
Let us, however, return to Darwin’s stay in our island. He was a great observer. He noted the beauty of the sceneries, and described in his diary the wooded mountains in the centre of the island whose summits were “jagged by the sharpest points”. He added almost as a poet: “Masses of white clouds were collected around these pinnacles, as if merely for the sake of pleasing the stranger’s eye.”
Darwin, as other visitors before him, noted the French character of the Island in spite of its being under British rule. He went in company of Captain Lloyd to Rivière Noire to examine “some rocks of elevated coral”. Captain Lloyd possessed an elephant and Darwin enjoyed a ride “in true Indian fashion”. “The circumstances which surprised me most,” he said, “was the perfect noiseless step the whole ride on so wonderful an animal was extremely interesting. This elephant is the only one at present on the island; but it is said that others will be sent for.”
On May 1st Darwin ascended the Pouce mountain and from its summit had “an excellent view over this great mass of volcanic matter”. He observed that almost half of the island was still in an uncultivated state, that the island when thickly peopled would assume great importance. He gathered that the island’s export of sugar had increased after the British conquest. He added: “One great cause of this prosperity is due to the excellent roads and means of communication throughout the island. At the present day in the neighbouring island of Bourbon under the French government, the roads are in the same miserable order as they were only a few years past in this place.”
Here is a glowing tribute to those Indian convicts who built or repaired the roads of the island. Darwin had the occasion to observe some of these convicts and what he writes on them should serve as a useful piece of documentation on the history of Indians in Mauritius. He wrote:
“Convicts from India are banished here for life; of them at present there are about 800 who are employed in various public works. Before seeing these people, I had no idea that the inhabitants of India were such noble looking men; their skin is extremely dark and many of the older men had large mustachios and beards of a snow white colour; this, together with the fire of their expressions, gave to them an aspect quite imposing. The greater number have been banished for murder and the worst crimes; others for causes which can scarcely be considered as moral faults, such as for not obeying, from superstitious motives, the English Government. I saw one man of high caste, who had been banished because he would not bear witness against his neighbour who had committed some offence.”
Darwin came to the island at a time when slavery had just been abolished and the planters were turning their eyes towards India for labour. Darwin noted this and wrote:
“Besides such prisoners, large numbers of free people are yearly imported from India; for the planters feared that the negroes, when emancipated, would not work: from these causes the Indian population is very considerable.”
He had the opportunity of talking to some planters about the problems raised by the abolition of slavery. He was surprised how little they cared about the subject. “They were feeling confident, he said, “in a resource in the countless population of India, the result of the emancipation was here much less regarded than in the West Indies.”
5th Year No 206
Friday 18th July, 1958
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 30 September 2022
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