“How can our youths not know who the great men were?”

‘What we have achieved in our small “island in the sun” is due to great men leading by example’

Encounter: Prof Serge Rivière

“We must cultivate our garden’, not mine, not yours but ours, that is our society”

‘Our world has certainly improved since the 18th century and even since I returned to my homeland in 2008, but what of our civic values?’

* ‘The omission of History from the syllabus is a serious error of judgement in Mauritius’

Professor Serge Rivière has had a long and distinguished academic career, after his studies in Scotland, teaching French and Latin and researching several subjects before he came back to settle in Mauritius. He has been passionate about the French thinker Voltaire since his student days. Prof Rivière has just published his 39th book – ‘True Friendship knows no bounds’ (published by BM Book Centre) – a collection of the extensive correspondence of Matthew Flinders, celebrated navigator, hydrographer, and cartographer in the 1800s with Thomi Pitot during the time that Flinders was imprisoned here and thereafter. The letters exchanged between the two reveal a great deal about the culture and socio-economic activities of our society just before and just after the take-over by the British in December 1803 – an important era in the history of Mauritius.

* The launch of your latest book, ‘True Friendship knows no bounds’ brings to light the extensive correspondence of Matthew Flinders, celebrated navigator, hydrographer, and cartographer in the 1800s with Thomi Pitot during the time that Flinders was imprisoned here on orders of French Captain-General Decaen and after his release. Why is it important to tell that story and what’s its relevance in present times?

I have always been of the view – for the last fifty years since I first started researching the Enlightenment and Voltaire Historian for my doctorate – that we can learn valuable lessons from History. Lord Bolingbroke declared in an axiom oft repeated by Voltaire: “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” By looking back at the history of Humanity, given that human nature has not changed since times immemorial, we can shed light on the present and consequently on the future.

It was Dr Samuel Johnson who wrote: “The future is purchased by the present.” It is a source of great sadness to many that we have omitted History as a separate subject from the SC and HSC syllabus, and as a result there has been a significant loss of “cultural memory” and decline in “mores” in Mauritius. Therefore, my task as a Cultural Historian is from time to time to recall important landmarks of the past and show how we can learn from these lessons to improve our individual and common civic values.

The extensive correspondence of Matthew Flinders and Thomi Pitot demonstrates that true friendship can and should bypass national, communal, political, and military differences and prejudices. Imagine today if we were to discover letters exchanged by a Ukrainian and a Russian soldier, or for that matter a Palestinian from Gaza and an Israelite friend. Would this not fill us with a sense of optimism about the future, and inspire in us a sense of human nature being essentially “good” as opposed to our proneness to war and conflict?

Our world is a cruel one; news channels report that over 6000 children and nearly 4000 women have been killed in Gaza; we despair that since World War I (1914-1918), nations have been at each other’s throats for supremacy in Europe, not counting Vietnam and in Africa and Asia. What Voltaire named ironically through a masterly oxymoron a “boucherie héroïque” (heroic butchery) continues to plague humanity, and values and humanism are conveniently forgotten, mainly in the name of self-defence. But we are all accountable for this as we sit on the fence and let things be, as Austrians had watched helplessly as the tanks of Hitler rolled into Vienna or the Ukrainians when the soldiers of Putin invaded their fatherland.

Yet, as I said, there is hope if we trust in the cycles of History, but for that we must learn about the past, and the story of two a Frenchman and an English naval officer who overlooked all national and political differences in the name of friendship defined by Matthew Flinders as the “communion of mind, the similarity of sentiments and of taste, and that jumping together of the heart upon occasions that call forth the feeling of humanity” (Letter to Pitot of 20 September 1805 – Letter 12 in the book).

Is this not in the very spirit of being a “citizen of the world” rather than in the spirit of chauvinism, putting America, Russia, France, UK, EU first, as we have seen in Trumpism and Putinism and chauvinism?

Once again, Flinders is our guide here: “Oh, now I wish that all Frenchmen [and] Englishmen had the same feelings for one another as you and I, then, peace would prevail in Europe, and we would not have any debates other than on friendship, the Arts and Sciences.” (Letter in French under the guidance of Delphine D’Arifat, 4 February 1808, Letter 46).

* Matthew Flinders was unfairly accused of being a British spy by Captain-General Decaen and was imprisoned for seven years. He was no doubt a celebrated navigator, hydrographer and cartographer and he gave Australia its name in his ‘Voyage to Terra Australis’ (1814), but there does not seem to be anything significant as regards Findler’s enrichment of this country’s history. Isn’t that correct?

Mauritian History is like a rich tapestry of colonial and post-colonial history, which explains why we became the Rainbow Nation. The ‘Codes Noirs’, (which I have published in 2009) and the history and impact of the arrival of indentured labourers, which I was so happy to help diffuse as editor in ‘Engaze’ (3 vols. in 2013), are only part of the picture.

The first two decades of the 19th century are most important to understand the development of the society and economy of Isle de France/Mauritius first under Decaen and then under Governor Farquhar. In my latest book, I try to present what Thomi Pitot and Flinders communicated to each other about the culture and socio-economic activities of our society just before and just after the take-over by the British in December 1803. First a Francophobe because of the “tyranny of Decaen” and then through a process of acculturation facilitated by Pitot, Chazal, Froberville, the d’Arifat family, and many others, Flinders is an astute observer of what was going on in the colony.

When Flinders eventually returned to London after being imprisoned seven years, Thomi Pitot kept him informed and updated on the Battle of Grand-Port (September 1810) and the capture of Isle de France which Thomi witnessed on the ground having taken part in the defence under Decaen alongside Edouard, his brother, a celebrated artist. So, we find in two letters which shed light on highly significant historical tuning points in the History of Mauritius as observed at first hand and narrated in a style that would make a modern Mauritian reporter proud! (Letters 54 and 54).

Such comments, narrations and observations add considerably to our knowledge of the History of Mauritius. Pitot evokes the tense atmosphere as well as the mood of suspicion among “colons”, so that we can relive this crucial decade after the fall of Isle de France. Remember that the letters were not meant to be published; they are frank, factual, and complete accounts through the prism of two men: one a patriot and cultured citizen of Isle de France, and the other branded “a prisoner of the State”.

In the passage devoted to his departure from the island, Flinders eulogised the people of Mauritius in his ‘Voyage to Terra Australis’ (July 1814):

“On bidding adieu to Mauritius, it is but justice to declare that during my long residence in the island, as a marked object of suspicion to the government, the kind attention of the inhabitants who could have access to me was invariable; never, in any place, or amongst any people, have I seen more hospitality and attention to strangers – more sensibility to the misfortunes of others, of whatever nation, than here – than I have myself experienced in Mauritius.”

Alas, Flinders was never to go to sea again. Struggling with financial problems arising from the high costs of residing in London from 1810, onwards and coping with increasing physical pain, Flinders continued to devote all his physical and mental energy to the completion of his great narrative ‘A Voyage to Terra Australia’. We owe a debt of gratitude to Flinders for literally having put Mauritius on the map, for having given its name to Australia, for the invaluable scientific work and explorations of the Australian coasts in 1799-1803, for which I keep discovering new monuments.

In Mauritius, there are two monuments to Flinders: one at la Marie erected in 1942 (in a poor state of repair) and the other unveiled in 2003 as part of the wisely organized Encounter Mauritius. Because he was detained for seven years, Flinders’ brilliant career as a navigator and cartographer – the best in his day – came to an abrupt and a premature end. The book is, accordingly for me and perhaps a few Mauritians, I trust, a “devoir de mémoire”. It is by way of a gesture of “reconciliation” from a Mauritian to Flinders for his ill-deserved misfortunes and the injustice which he suffered here.

* You said at the launch of the book that “our teachers at RCC never spoke to us of Flinders – not even during our History classes when we used the ‘Short History of Mauritius’ written by Auguste Toussaint and PJ Barnwell. Our teachers focused instead on the French and the Industrial Revolutions, Napoleon I and Bismarck”. Those latter History topics and more contain teachable lessons for all of us. But isn’t it a pity that History is barely to be found in schools’ curriculum today?

I have often said it in public before; I shall add merely that the omission of History from the syllabus is a serious error of judgement in Mauritius.

Of course, there is History as part of Social Studies and there are monuments all around us, for example the statues at the Place d’Armes. But we need to guide our youngsters in an appreciation of the past and great men of the past, just as in South Africa, Nelson Mandela is a role model of reconciliation and Gandhi is a light to guide us through a darkening universe.

Thomas Carlyle wrote that great men were the signposts to the future. We should explain to our youths how important SSR and Navin Ramgoolam, SAJ, the MMM of the 1970s and the leaders of the past Labour Party, notably Maurice Curé, Gaētan Duval, Sookdeo Bissondoyal and Razack Mohamed, Guy Rozemont and Emmanuel Anquetil, in no particular order of importance, have been to the socio-economic and democratic development of our nation.

Being a good patriot is not incompatible with being a “citizen of the world”; I pride myself in being both, and what we have achieved in our small “island in the sun” is due to great men leading by example. I find particular affinities between Flinders and Nelson Mandela. How can our youths not know who the great men were? 

* In the United States of America, teaching about slavery and the experiences of other minorities was the cause of more disputes. It would seem we also in Mauritius have not been able to agree with the teaching of our common history or that what is being taught might not be adequate. What are your views on this matter?

In 2009, I published a complex and highly researched and well-illustrated book ‘Codes Noirs et autres documents concernant l’esclavage (1671-1762)’ (Shafick Osman edition), to present the only copy in the Indian Ocean of the Code of Bourbon and Isle de France to be found at the Carnegie Library, Curepipe.

I transcribed and annotated this essential document for the History of Mauritius. Being myself descended from slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique as well as settlers from Brittany, I wrote with passion about the shocking contradiction of the proclaimed values of the “siècle des lumières” and the horrors of slavery. Unfortunately, this luxury edition is not readily available in bookshops nowadays, but it can be found in libraries (the BN, Carnegie and municipal libraries). The teaching of History, as the teaching of any subject-matter, depends on the relevance of the topic and the passion with which it is taught. I am glad that the Museum dedicated to slavery is coming to fruition, but I have not been asked to contribute to it and its contents. This I am willing to do unreservedly. But where I can, I try to help.

In ‘True Friendship’, there is a moving episode when Flinders decides not to send back a tired slave who had walked to La Marie from Port Louis and let him sleep the night. This small detail tells us a lot about the humanity and humanism of Matthew Flinders who is so loved in Australia that there are monuments wherever you go; let us hope that my humble book will make him better known in Mauritius. Teachers mould students’ souls: my love of Literature and History came from a small spark lit in my heart by Messrs Bullen, Koenig, Espitalier-Noël, Lamy, Rassou, Thibault, and many other talented educators at RCC and, of course by Voltaire and Thucydides.

* You also mentioned in your speech that “in a cruel world today, torn apart by military conflicts, for example in Ukraine and Gaza… it is reassuring to look back to History.” What does the rear-view mirror tell you about what’s happening in the world today?

If I were a pessimist like Martin in ‘Candide’, I would say: Do you think that Man has changed? Or “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” But I remain doggedly an optimist and a pragmatist who believes that “we must cultivate our garden”, not mine, not yours but ours, that is our society.

Our world has certainly improved since the 18th century and even since I returned to my homeland in 2008; technological progress and the metro are big improvements, but what of our civic values? Are these being taught enough in schools and tertiary establishments? Perhaps not.

On the world scene, there has recently been a proposal to release a number of hostages in Gaza and there are negotiations going on. But of course, one hears little of the Russia-Ukraine war in Mauritius, except perhaps on DSTV. Local politics reigns supreme on MBC’s JT; but to each man/woman his/her taste. I prefer to think of bigger issues through the perspective of History and thereby assess the progress made by nations. The UN does its best but are we not all accountable?

I heard a splendid speech recently from the National Winner of the English-SpeakingUnion’s Public Speaking Competition (from my old school RCC) who represented Mauritius at the International Finals in London in May. My heart overflowed with pride and hope that our future was in good hands, if all our youths think like this young man.

As a laureate in 1966, I could never have made such a speech in English and I was far too Francophone and absorbed in Greek, Latin, French and English Literatures to take note of international affairs which we became acquainted with only through the BBC World Service. Here we now have a young generation able to argue for universal accountability à la Rousseau. So, since 1966, things have certainly moved on through exposure to social media and TV and growing knowledge. We are in good hands, but only so long as we continue to open their eyes and hearts to past role models such as Plato, Aristotle, Gandhi, and Mandela, Pitot and Flinders.

Where are the great men and women of today? This is a worrying void but then there are Greta Thunberg, and Nobel Prize winner for Peace, Narges Mohammadi. So perhaps a new generation of leaders is emerging, and so it will be in Mauritius. May be one day we shall have another Nobel Prize Winner for Literature to follow in the footsteps of Jean Marie Gustave Leclézio.

* Thomi Pitot, on the other hand, was nominated by General Decaen to form part of the island’s Conseil Colonial, and Secretary of the Conseil de Commune by Governor Farquhar when the island came under British rule. Wikipedia informs us that due to his collaborative approach, he was dubbed the “Béranger de l’île Maurice”. Any similarity with any character in today’s Mauritius may be purely coincidental, but would you know the justification for that nickname?

In point of fact, the Béranger to whom Pitot was compared was the “chansonnier” Pierre Jean de Béranger, famous for his bucolic songs during the Napoleonic era (1780-1857). Thomi Pitot was himself a master at scripting songs and poems for special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. I have included some examples of his poetry at the back of the book; Jacques Mallac, his colleague at the Table Ovale, wrote in his Obituary: “Thomi Pitot, remplid’instruction, doué d’un jugementdélicat, bon prosateur, poèteagréable.”(True Friendship, p. 219)

It would be inappropriate and out of character for me who claims to be apolitical, to dare to compare our respected Paul Bérenger to Thomi Pitot, but both are “bons prosateurs”, “bons discoureurs”, amateurs of local History and both have left their indelible mark on our country as leaders of the intelligentsia in their own right. Thomi was regarded by all Creoles, in the sense of being born on Isle de France, as their natural leader, and Governor Farquhar regarded him highly and worthy of being the Secretary of the “Conseil de Commune” from 1817 onwards.

The first British Governor attended his funeral at Pamplemousses Cemetery personally. Thomi Pitot was mourned by the entire population of Mauritius in 1821; like Flinders, Thomi had been incarcerated in the Bastille in 1796 before his return to Isle de France in 1797. So, he sympathised with Flinders at the Jardin Despeaux. May be, all those incarcerated, including Mr Bérenger, in the 1970s would discover that they have something in common with Pitot and Flinders. I can only recommend that they peruse the book before writing their memoirs or autobiographies.

In an important statement on Pitot, Matthew Flinders wrote in a letter of 1805: “He has proved himself a true friend to Humanity.” Justifiably so, for through his support, both moral and financial, Pitot ensured the psychological and physical well-being and survival of a great cartographer, hydrographer and scientist who was thus able to complete his magnum opus –‘A Voyage to Terra Australis’, thereby giving its name to Australia. This work contains scientific information of great importance on the geological and volcanic nature of Mauritius, but also on the flora and fauna, not to mention our economy and society in the 1800s.

Alas, the good die young; Flinders passed away at the age of 40, almost “a skeleton” of a painful disease of the bladder which started on Isle de France, and Pitot seven years later at 41: “Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. We will remember them.” (Ode “For the Fallen”, by English poet and writer Laurence Binyon). Had Thomi Pitot not been Flinders’ friend, he would still deserve a place in Mauritian History for his political role under Farquhar and his invaluable part in setting up the Table Ovale and the Société d’émulation intellectuelle.

As for the relevance of the friendship between the two correspondents to our society today, allow me to reflect that my friends from RCC in 1958 are still today there for me. May I humbly quote for the sake of our political representatives and all my compatriots what the Patriarch of Ferney, Voltaire, wrote in his Prayer to God at the end of the “Treatise on Tolerance” (1763):

“May all men remember that they are brothers! May they abhor the tyranny wielded over souls, as they ever execrate the violent theft of the fruits of hard work and peaceful industry! If the scourge of war is inevitable, let us not hate each other, let us not tear each other apart when we are at peace. Let us spend the brief moment of our existence blessing, together and in a thousand different languages, from Siam to California, your goodness in bestowing on us this moment.”

And so, say all of us!

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 24 November 2023

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