Dev Virahsawmy

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Whither Mauritius?

Dev Virahsawmy

What is Mauritius? An exotic touristic destination? Yes, but much more. A small island state, which is thriving in the midst of general economic downturn? Yes, but much more. What is it then?

The Making of a Creole Island

It is a Creole Island as defined by Professor Megan Vaughan in her book Creating the Creole Island: Slavery in Eighteenth Century Mauritius (Duke University Press, 2004). By ‘creole’ she means that the island, without natives, has been “the product of multiple influences, multiple sources, which to differing degrees merge, take root, and ‘naturalize’ on this new soil.”

It has been frequently hypothesized that Mauritius was first discovered by the Arabs, who named the island Dina Arobi. The first historical evidence of the existence of an island now known as Mauritius is on a map produced by the Italian cartographer Alberto Cantino in 1502. It is sure that Mauritius was visited by the Portuguese between 1507 and 1513. The Portuguese took no interest in this isolated island, however. Their main African base was in Mozambique, and therefore the Portuguese navigators preferred to use the Mozambique Channel to go to India. The Comoros at the north proved to be a more practical port of call. Thus no permanent colony was established on the island by the Portuguese.

Dutch colonization started in 1638 and ended in 1710, with a brief interruption between 1658 and 1666. Agriculture was organised with the introduction and cultivation of tobacco, indigo, maize and sugar cane. Hunting was also possible with the introduction of deer from Java. Ebony trees were hewed down for export.

Numerous governors were appointed, but continuous hardships such as cyclones, droughts, pest infestations, lack of food and illnesses finally took their toll, and the island was definitively abandoned in 1710. In the meantime they had decimated the local dodo and giant tortoise population for food and had introduced competing species and pests, sometimes involuntarily. According to certain historians dodo flesh was not really appreciated. The bird became extinct because it laid its egg on the ground and rats from Dutch ships found a ready supply of good food.

After the departure of the Dutch in 1710, Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel, while on the route to India, landed in Mauritius in September 1715 and claimed the island for France. He named Mauritius ‘Ile de France’. However it was only in 1721 that the French started their occupation of the island. But real progress on their settlement started only as from 1735 with the arrival of the most illustrious of French Governors, Bertrand François Mahé de Labourdonnais. Under Mahé de Labourdonnais, Port Louis on the northwest coast became the principal harbour of the island. With the help of slaves, sugar cane cultivation became a full-blown success. Roads (linking Port Louis to other parts of the island), barracks, office buildings, mansions and houses were built rapidly in order to accommodate the growing prosperity of the island.

The French cleared the indigenous forests to make way for intensive cultivation of sugarcane, brought in slaves mainly from Mozambique and Madagascar. In December 1810 the British landed on the north of Ile de France and captured the island from the French after a fierce battle. The British brought in indentured labourers from India. These successive waves of immigration transformed the flora and fauna of the island making the island a typical Creole island, as defined above. Today it is known as a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual country.

The Star and Key

Mauritius is also known as the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean because before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, ships from Europe had to round the Cape of Good Hope on their way to India and upon entering the Indian Ocean needed a port of call for fresh water, food and repairs. The island could offer that.

The strategic location of Ile de France in the Indian Ocean was a real asset to the French. History has it that during the Napoleonic wars Ile de France was used as a base from where French corsairs mounted successful raids on British commercial ships sailing between Europe and the East. According to historians, “The Napoleonic period was a period of bitter rivalry between French and English forces to control the Indian Peninsula. Ile de France had a strategic position because of its good labour. It was the port of call of the French naval forces fighting the British in the Indian Ocean. (…) Moreover almost everything could be obtained from Ile de France. Merchant ships therefore stopped going to India, which proved detrimental to trade in India.” The island had become a trading post.

The British took over the island in 1810. The strategic and commercial importance of Mauritius declined dramatically in 1869 when the Suez Canal, The Highway to India”, was opened. Mauritius remained a British colony until independence in 1968. Is it still the star and key?

After a short period of hard times due to high birth rate and dependence on one cash crop (sugar), the economy was diversified and some prosperity was experienced through tourism and manufacturing. Further innovations and the development of new fields of activities such as the seafood hub, financial services, freeport and offshore activities, and ICT have helped Mauritius to move from a low income economy to a middle-income one. Its ambition now is to move further up and it will succeed because it is still the star and key. A suitable time zone has enabled the development of new ICT businesses. While western capitalism is facing serious difficulties, BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are offering Mauritius new development possibilities. Three of these countries are ‘neighbours’. They are South Africa, India and China with whom we have more than just business ties. As a consequence, that little dot on the Indian Ocean map has become the hyphen which connects Africa and Asia making of Mauritius the Africa-Asia connection. And that is good for those interested in doing business with both Africa and Asia.

The New Culture

But geography is only one side of the picture. We need to understand the place of nurture as opposed to nature to get the full picture. A mixed economy blended with social-democratic policies, the firm belief that market forces should not be allowed to dictate everything, an unswerving faith in a welfare state have also helped to chart a course where prosperity and general happiness are not at loggerheads. When Kovils, Shivalas, Mosques, Churches, Pagodas and Temples stand side by side in mutual respect some kind of tolerance is generated because the foundation of cultural dialogue has been laid.

Most interesting in the culture field is the language situation. A dozen languages from different lands have survived and a new one has developed and now has its roots deep into the heart of the republic. It is our National Language, Mauritian, also known as Mauritian Creole. For those who don’t know it, a creole language is one which is born out of the contact, clash and collision of two or more languages. In its initial stage it is called a pidgin, a very simple mode of communication. With time it grows into a creole when it becomes the mother tongue of a new generation. This is the story of Mauritian, the active first language of 90% of citizens of the republic and the second language of the remaining 10%. A creole language as national language of a creole republic? Could it be otherwise?

But the scene is much more exciting. The official language of the Republic of Mauritius is English and English is also a creole language. What a strange coincidence! The creole republic has a creole language as national language and another creole language, English, as official language and this language is in turn a quasi-universal language. This quasi-universal language is now an important communication and development tool for all countries mentioned above (i.e. South Africa, India and China). Experimentation has shown that the right pedagogy known as grammar-translation can facilitate acquisition of English if the initial learning is carried out in the mother tongue of the child.

Little Mauritius has something to teach the world. We are slowly developing a natural and dynamic bilingualism which consists of two creole languages (Mauritian and English). What was thought a curse is in fact a blessing. Can we be a beacon in the dark? Literacy in the modern world is fundamental for general growth and individual development. Our success in this field will help other nations.

It could be construed that the picture I’m painting is too idyllic. Mea culpa! There are problems. There are hiccups in the inter-ethnic relationship and that is normal for life is a contradiction. The literacy rate leaves much to be desired for history has bequeathed us a complex linguistic reality which prevents us from having a coherent language policy which could yield better results. Democratic changes are slow to work. And worse O worse! Global warming and climate change will eventually play havoc if we are not careful.

With rising sea level, tourism will be the hardest hit; with the economic downturn in the west both tourism and the textile and garment industry will suffer. And we need the income from these activities to import food. This is our Achilles’ heel. We depend on foreign markets for almost 80% of foods consumed in the republic and yet a high degree of food security can be achieved if judicious and bold decisions are taken. The country’s government has a good plan to help us attain sustainable development but unfortunately it is perceived as goverment’s business when it should be everybody’s business. It is called MID (Maurice Ile Durable). It should become our survival kit, not a way to greater wealth for a few. The Republic of Mauritius can become the lighthouse in rough sea and bad weather if the right policies are adopted.

The Way Ahead

Long-term development should be planned along different lines. A small island state has become a vast maritime republic. Mauritius has one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world. It now has a total area of 2.3 million square kilometres over which it can exercise various economic rights. This is more than one thousand and one hundred times larger than our landmass – an area bigger than that of the combined land area of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and UK. This will transform our sense of our own geography and constraints. What does this mean for our future development? A lot if we do not, out of sheer mental lethargy, smother our imaginative and creative powers. A change in outlook and mindset will open up new horizons and offer rewards unimagined before.

The development of a seafaring and maritime culture is the order of the day. As a first major step, the sea is not to be perceived as the dumping ground of human and industrial waste. Policy makers and the people of the republic will have to go back to the drawing board to chart a new course. Besides universal literacy in at least two languages (Morisien and English), marine sciences and technology must become top priorities. In passing I would like to emphasise that bilingual literacy is not a luxury but, besides yielding improved communicative powers, it contributes to better health. According to recent research, bilingualism and the habit of regular reading do help to ward off that curse called Alzheimer.

To successfully explore, judiciously exploit and effectively protect our maritime resources we will have to strengthen ties of friendship and cooperation with South Africa, India and China. It’s a win-win partnership.

The future is not bleak if we have the will to do what is right. For too long we have been blind to the mess resulting from our greed. Our planet is in danger and things will deteriorate if we do not change course. A new thinking heart and fresh thinking based on solidarity and sharing will help us out of the morass. It can no more be business as usual.

I would like to end this overview with a prayer found in my latest creation, a rewriting of Romeo and Juliet as “Ramdeo ek Ziliet”, written in the national language of the Maritime Republic of Mauritius in which Friar Lawrence is replaced by Sheik Sufi who says his prayer thus:

(First in the national language)

O Bondie Lamour-Pardon

dir tou bann zenerasion

toulezour met dan later

enn lagren ousa enn plant

pou dir nou Mama-Papa

ki nou bien sagren erer

ki finn fer zoli zarden

vinn dezer ek simitier.

(Now in English, the official language)

God of Love and Mercy

tell the people of the world

to put a seed in the soil

every day or plant a tree

as a way of saying to Mother-Father

we’re sorry, really sorry

to have turned a garden

into a desert, a graveyard.

Dev Virahsawmy

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