1810 and all that

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

The controversy over the commemoration or celebration of the 1810 naval war between the French and the British has toned down but the issue deserves all due attention.

Most Mauritians who have been to school are likely to remember the significant dates that mark the history of the island though they might have a vague memory of dates and names. But they do know about the turning point in the history of Ile de France when the British took the island over from the French. The French-style ‘Roulotte de la Culture’ headed by a woman seems eager to enlighten the public on Mauritian history and bring some ‘culture’ to overworked citizens grappling with the economic woes engendered by the ultra-liberal economic policy in everyday life.

The event is no trivial matter and the public is not a flock of sheep that will meekly follow the authorities in whatever decision they take in the name of the people and present it as a big deal. The government shrugs off criticism claiming to view history as a whole. Fine. Was the British ambassador also invited to the event? If it was just a commemoration, there should be no polemic. Unlike the people, including the intellectuals, in the French Dom-Tom islands who have a big identity problem, Mauritians as a politically emancipated people are broad-minded and have adopted a pragmatic approach to history. The Dutch, the British and the French have been free to set up whatever memorial they think fit in the island, and even the Arabs are catching up by lavishly funding places recalling their past presence. Port Louis will soon have its own Dina. Mauritians of French descent were free to commemorate their passage from St Malo to Port-Louis some years ago. A memorial at Vieux Grand Port with all the details and names would be of historical interest to the locals and to foreigners as well.

But it did look like a celebration. How do we explain that children were disguised as soldiers and reported to rejoice on the outcome of the war seeing it as a big game of winners and losers? Which Mauritians in their right mind would send their children to be disguised as French and British soldiers? No one denies historical facts but the public cannot be requested to participate in random commemoration of past events especially when these events involved warring countries fighting for their own political and commercial interests. The average Mauritian knows more or less for how long and why the French and the British fought each other for centuries in Europe and later in Africa and in India. Knowing your history and transmitting it to your children is important and there is nothing wrong about hanging an engraving of the battle on the wall in your house. But for a people who have been displaced and colonized, it is shocking and undignified to celebrate the colonizers’ war.

If the French find any ‘gloire’ in it, let them celebrate it. By the way, they lost most of the wars they fought in the world. They are the only nation that commemorates even lost battles! In 1999, Chirac and his ministers solemnly observed a few minutes’ silence in front of the memorial of Dien Bien Phu, a battle they lost against the Viet Minhs in 1954. The French General committed suicide so humiliated he was by the guerilla warfare of the Viets whose resistance he underestimated.

History is not an abstract subject made of dates and figures. History is about people, the society they lived in, the economic conditions, their memory and sufferings, their culture and their evolution throughout centuries. Historians hurried to publish press articles giving details on names, dates and figures. They forgot other facets of the history of Ile de France in 1810. How many slaves were toiling in the sugarcane fields and the houses of the plantocracy while the soldiers were battling against the British? What was the total population of planters and slaves in that year? What kind of medicine was used to cure diseases in those days?

In case the good people forget, it is also ‘pedagogical’ to remind the younger generation of slave ships, work conditions of the planters and slaves, the names of the Madagascan princes and African chieftains captured and deported to Ile de France, the dates of the different rebellions, the scientific researches in Botany not to mention the names of famous botanists such as Pierre Poivre, the first builders and those who built with their bare hands. Should villages, streets and towns still bear the names given by the powerful and victorious or should the first rebels be also remembered today? Should the arrival of the first slave ship be commemorated?

Good news if the Ministers care about educating the public on their history and present it as one history. One historian raised the question of what would have happened if the British had not come. It is a legitimate question but it is not history. We can freely speculate on hypothetical ‘ifs’. The interesting point is: why were Indians sent to Mauritius? Apart from a few merchants and convicts, most of them were labourers. The ‘roulotte de la culture’, backed by the government and using public funds, should enlighten the good people on how our ancestors in Bihar were forced to abandon their diversified agriculture by the British Raj and grow poppies to serve the infamous opium trade with China, and how they were impoverished and embarked on a rural exodus to Calcutta and lured to Mauritius. A free distribution of a copy of ‘Sea of Poppies’ by Amitav Gosh in school libraries would be a good idea.

1810 in all its different facets, not a partial and fragmented view. 1810, The Year of Love based on the medical treatment of the two captains side by side in the same hospital smacks of Hindu humanism rounding off harsh reality into sublime values but this is fiction. As far as battles and armed conflicts are concerned, the next question is: Is there any political will to educate the younger generation on modern history? In this respect, what about 1967? How and why did it happen? How did it start and end?

Currently, 1967 is collective amnesia. The authorities underestimate the intelligence and rationalism of the average Mauritian to face historical facts in all its complexity. The excuse of ‘fragile harmony’ and ‘social peace’ are no longer valid. Not only economic progress but the intellectual advancement of the people should also be part of the ambition of intellectuals, public and private institutions. For Mauritians to improve intellectually in a free democratic environment, they should not be treated like children and second-class citizens.

* Published in print edition on 6 August 2010

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