“Only in Mauritius, did I experience the feeling of being whole

In Scotland, I had been 75% myself; in Australia 80% myself and in Ireland, no more that 70% myself”

Prof Serge Rivière

* ‘Are we working towards preparing a new generation of leaders who will ensure the socio-economic and political regeneration of our country?’

* ‘“The future belongs to the young” in Mauritius, but our young people do not seem willing to come home…’

Professor Serge Rivière was a laureate of RCC in 1965, and 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, where he feels ‘whole.’ He has been passionate about the French thinker Voltaire since his student days. This comes through amply in his interview, but he also shares his insightful views on education, culture and intercultural relations and his hopes for the country’s future. Prof Rivière has just published his academic memoirs entitled Travels with Voltaire that covers his fifty-year career and in which he narrates and reviews his academic, research and community activities at James Cook University, as well as the investigations and research that went towards 36 books published to date.

* Your academic memoirs (Travels with Voltaire: Academic Memoirs), which, we understand, retrace your career and the research that has gone into the publication of the 36 books you have published so far will be coming out soon. Did you mean it to be an extension of the teaching you have been involved in these last 50 years or is it one more conversation, mostly inspirational, with the younger generation?

My first book came out in Queensland, Australia, in 1988 and concerned Utopias and Utopianism. Since then, research, administrative duties and teaching have occupied me in various universities: the University of Mauritius (2003-2005), University of Limerick (1996-2008), and once I came back to Mauritius, at MGI, the Université des Mascareignes and the Open University.

From the very start in February 1966, two days after winning what was then named the ‘English Scholarship’, with my friend Dan Callikan, on the Arts side (both of us on the Arts side were from RCC), I was asked by Lucien Pouzet to take up a teaching position at Curepipe College in February 1966.

As soon as I stepped into that classroom for a Latin class, I realised that I had found my true vocation; for over 50 years, I have been on a mission: to change the “common way of thinking” (as the philosopher Denis Diderot once wrote), but among young people, to entrust to them the task of consolidating and reforming society, wherever I travelled – be it in Canada, Scotland, Europe, Australia, Ireland and Mauritius – by instilling civic and humanitarian values in my students through reflection on Literature and Culture.

So, yes, teaching was my first love, and the vocation of a teacher is as close as one can get to that of a dedicated priest who seeks to “make a difference”.

However, at the University of Aberdeen in 1966, when I started my tertiary studies in French and English, I discovered in myself the researcher, and I embarked on a quest of other cultures through reading, archival work and writing out conference papers which presented the results of my investigations. This passion for knowledge (libido sciendi) had, in fact, always been there at RCC in the 1960s.

Travels with Voltaire is, indeed, an extension of my teaching over the last 50 years, as I invite my readers, young and less young, to reflect on life, through such messages as “Tolerance”, Intercultural Fusion, Education as opposed to Instruction, being open to the Culture of Others and the importance of preparing our youths to be the leaders of tomorrow.

In the book, I often address the reader directly through such expressions as “Dear Reader”. In the end, the writer of an autobiography can only speak intimately to the one person who peruses his book; hence, my book is, in many places, a private conversation with that person.

* besides your books on the enlightenment, cultural history, travel literature, it seems you have ‘travelled’ with Voltaire — the French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher famous for his wit as well as his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state— ever since Cyclone Carol in February 1960, and he seems to have remained your constant companion to this day. What is it that’s so fascinating about Voltaire?

Thank you for asking about Voltaire, the patriarch of the French, if not the European, Enlightenment, at least from the 1740s to his death in 1778. I became fascinated, in the first instance, by Voltaire’s elegant style and the art of the raconteur, in his Contes, especially Candide (1759). But at Aberdeen University in 1967, whenever I had time, I read his biographies written by such great scholars as Theodore Besterman, René Pomeau, André Maurois and Jean Orieux. I was also captivated by Voltaire’s plays, such as Zaïre, in the style of Jean Racine, to whom we had been introduced by our inspired and inspirational French teacher, Daniel Koenig at RCC in the 1960s. I saw Racine’s Mithridate on RCC’s stage, with Karl Mülnier in the main role, and theatre became, and has been, another passion of mine to this day.

But Voltaire was more than a raconteur, an essayist and a dramatist; he embodied total commitment to a cause and lived in self-imposed exile, as I did, for nearly 50 years, because he believed in the values of humanism, tolerance, truth and justice. I subsequently discovered that he was a social historian; he composed a history that stretched from Charlemagne to the 18th century (Essay on Manners,1753), in which he wrote: “History is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.”

How could one resist such a clear, logical and erudite thinker who gave us as many well-known sayings as Shakespeare: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, he once wrote to fellow-philosopher and the author of De l’Esprit, Helvétius, in 1759.

There is so much that our parliamentarians and Speakers could learn from Voltaire’s wit, intelligence and tolerance; perhaps it is time to shout out: “Au secours Voltaire!” Thus, early on, I became a disciple of the great man; I did a doctorate on the Siècle de Louis XIV (1752) in the 1970s and have devoted close to 50 years of my life to this slippery and protean, yet pragmatic, philosophe.

* Besides your books in French and English, there is a long list of refereed articles in international journals on, besides Voltaire, Australian, German and Irish history, travel literature, Mauritian history and Francophone literature, and the writings and biographies of great men, the Irish Presence in Isle de France/Mauritius, and on the ‘Codes Noirs’ dealing with slavery. What would you say have been the most intellectually stimulating?

During my term of office as a Lecturer in French at James Cook University of North Queensland (1986-1996), I pressed on with my research on Voltaire thanks to a well-stocked library which contained the Complete Works (often referred to as Kehl, 1784-89).I was able to publish a number of articles on Voltaire Historian in the prestigious Studies on Voltaire (Oxford, The Voltaire Foundation).

But Dame Fortune plays an important part in the life and career of a researcher. Having travelled from Mauritius to Scotland, to Canada, back to Scotland, and thence to Australia, I became a lover of travel and made my way down the East Coast of Australia to the National Library of Australia in Canberra. It ranks as one of the very best libraries in the world, and it was there that I discovered “Travel Literature” as a genre in 1989 – a most stimulating area of research for me at the time.

I began transcribing, editing and analysing the travel logs of French explorers to the Pacific who stopped in Mauritius and reached Port Jackson (Sydney) on their circumnavigations of the globe. During one such research trips in 1992, I came across the Journal of Madame Rose de Saulces de Freycinet (1817-1820). It was love at first sight and I shall refer your readers to my Academic Memoirs for further details on Rose.

Subsequently, I visited the Baron de Freycinet in 1994 near Bordeaux. The following morning, nursing a severe headache after quite a few brandies, he allowed me to make photocopies of Rose de Freycinet’s corrected Journal (though not the original) and her correspondence. He was fond of Mauritius where he had sojourned previously in the 1960s and had taken part in a hunt; hence his generous hospitality.

My book, A Woman of Courage: The Journal of Rose de Freycinet […] became in 1996 a bestseller in Australia, and a second edition appeared in 2003. My passion for Rose was all-consuming and has lasted since 1994; recently in 2018, I was invited by University of Western Australia (UWA) and the Maritime Museum of WA in Freemantle to give a public lecture, as part of an exhibition on “Return to Australia, Freycinet, 1818”; following the lecture, part of my duties was to lead a guided tour of the exhibition – this was the first time ever that I had been cast in the role of a tour guide¸ and perhaps the last!

Travel literature has enabled me to appreciate better the development of small island states in the Pacific, publish more than twelve books and allowed me to teach Cultural Studies. As Voltaire once said, again in Candide: “Il est certain qu’il faut voyager.”

* What’s also interesting is that you had been chief editor of the report of the truth and Justice Commission. How did you live that experience? Was it painful and liberating in some way?

Having spent two happy years (2009-2011) at the Institut Cardinal Jean Margéot, which I helped to set up at the request of the Diocese, I was invited by the Commissioners of the Truth and Justice Commission to edit and verify the English text of the Report about to be printed. This was an arduous task which took nine months, but which taught me a lot about the history of indentured labour and slavery in Mauritius. I contributed my own Report on the ‘Coloured Population’ which became a small part of the massive Report.

On the whole, I was an observer and a bystander, as I watched many anxious individuals waiting to make their case in front of a benevolent and sympathetic Commission. I read the full Report in awe of the hard work and important research that had gone into it. Yet, today, the nation is entitled to ask the million-dollar question: When will the recommendations be implemented? After so much effort and at such expense, as well as the involvement of so many, is it to remain in a drawer somewhere? Is ‘Reconciliation’ a vain word?

On a personal level, what my work for the Commission did was to rekindle my passion for research; a new area of enquiry led to a critical re-edition of the Code Noir ou Recueil des Règlements rendus jusqu’à présent (Paris: Prault, 1767), a very rare document, which was found in the Adrien d’Epinay Collection of the Carnegie Library (Codes Noirs, Osman 2009). The researcher was back on track and on home soil.

* Do you think we have made progress in terms of improving the lives of all those affected by that painful and complicated history?

In my Introduction to Codes Noirs, I raise a question about the “silence” of such philosophers as Voltaire and Diderot onslavery. Moreover, the book contains a chronology of slavery from 1441 to 2006, compiled with the help of James Stevens Augustin, Librarian at the Evêché of Port-Louis at the time of publication in 2009.

I leave it to readers of Codes Noirs and Academic Memoirs to seek out the main conclusions of my presentation in the introduction and editorial notes. This book chiefly aims to make more accessible to a general public a document which is vital to the understanding of the most horrific blot on the history of man in a small island, where the beauty of nature decried the “cruelty of Man to Man”, as the poet William Blake (1757-1827) exclaimed in ‘A Divine Image’ (1794): “Cruelty has a human heart […]”

Shall we ever make reparations to those descendants of slaves who lost so much? The recent disappearance of standard-bearers for Reconciliation such as the Late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the passing of time must not deter us from one of the main objectives of the Truth and Justice Commission: “To determine appropriate reparative measures to be extended to descendants of slaves and indentured labourers […]”

I shall only quote a contemporary writer admired by Voltaire, Alexander Pope: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (Essay on Man, 1733)

* You have seen places, it would also seem, having as a young undergraduate and postgraduate studentstudiedat and later worked as an academic in various universities in Canada, Scotland, Australia, Ireland and parts of the EU. Has travelling changed your perspective – the way you view the world, the way you view others, how you approach life — as well as about your home country?

As I have said earlier, “Travel broadens the mind”. I left Mauritius on a French paquebot, a naïve Candide, the first in a large family to venture abroad. During the journey, of course, there was a culture shock which put to the test my self-esteem and resilience, not just because of sea-sickness, but French sailors came back at Aden with flesh wounds as there was, so we were told, a civil war raging.

Any journey is also one of introspection; I missed my family a lot for 30 days; in Aberdeen on the first Christmas (1966), I shed many tears, but I grew stronger and my passion for learning saved me from utter desolation. I discovered that I was able to attune to other cultures.

Like so many travellers since Herodotus in the Mediterranean (circa 460-445 BC) or Marco Polo in the 13th century, in my more modest travels, I have been attracted by the concept of how one mediates between things “familiar” and things “foreign”, as one encounters the culture and traditions of the “Other”. I gradually became, like Voltaire exiled from France, a “citizen of the world”.

It is in this mediation with other cultures that the real process of learning occurs, and this learning for me will not end, so long as I am able to teach, interact with, and listen to, students or speakers at conferences, academic or otherwise. But it requires a certain degree of humility as the chief prerequisite; one should never say: I know it all; rather like Montaigne and Voltaire, one should always be willing to admit: “Que sais-je?”

As one travels, one learns about other cultures, one’s own and oneself.

* With an impressive CV in light of your academic qualifications and having spent the better part of your career in prestigious universities, you could have chosen to settle down in one of the developed countries in the West like so many thousands of the Diaspora have done in countless countries all over the world. What pulled you back to mauritius?

It was a rational decision on my part at the age of 60; I wanted my son to grow up on the island where his father had passed from childhood to adulthood, and I aimed earnestly to give back to my country the values (academic or cultural) and the knowledge which I had acquired in Scotland, several countries of the EU, Canada, Australia and Ireland.

Moreover, like Robert Edward Hart, I wanted to develop a sense of true appartenance. I always felt that in Scotland, I had been 75% myself; in Australia 80% myself and in Ireland, when all is said and done, no more that 70% myself, if one can measure ‘belonging’ to a nation or community in this way. Only in Mauritius, during my visits in 2003-2005, 2006 and 2007, did I experience the feeling of being whole.

Robert Edward Hart had written: “Ici je suis moi-même.” This has proved to be so very true in my case.

* You have been away for a long time, more than 40 years or so, from home. We all are aware about the gains, mostly economic achieved during that time, but what struck you about the country when you came back in terms of losses?

When I returned to Mauritius, I was humble enough to start learning again, for Mauritius had evolved greatly in some respects since Independence, which I missed by months (I visited in July-August 1968).

Had my native land changed? Undoubtedly; there were major developments in terms of infrastructures, roads, hotels, buildings at Ebène, for example. Had the people changed? Yes; there had been a large exodus of the “Gens de Couleur” in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as others, such as the young generation of gifted and brilliant Chinese students, two of whom were laureates on the Science side in 1965 and had sailed with me in 1966, and the quaint and colourful “boutiques chinoises” had closed or were in the process of closing down. [J.F. Guimbeau and I wanted to pay homage to the Chinese Shopkeepers in Boutiques chinoises de l’Ile Maurice (2018).]

Was the architectural landscape evolving for the better? As a member of SOS Patrimoine since 2008, I can only deplore the needless sacrifice of old venerable buildings such as La School and urge the Government to preserve our cultural heritage. Yet, we need to proceed as fast as possible to preserve our written heritage, with the new building that will house the National Library and Archives at Réduit/Moka and bring to fruition the vital project of the Musée de l’Esclavage.

Another vital question is: Are we working towards preparing a new generation of leaders who will ensure the socio-economic and political regeneration of our beloved country, and how this is to be done? Obviously, through the updating and revamping of our education system, through a real reform, not just the creation of mixed Academies that prolong the elitist concept of Instruction (so says a laureate in 1965), rather than Education in the broadest sense possible.

Again, I stress that “the future belongs to the young” in Mauritius, but our young people do not seem willing to come home after their studies abroad – I did so after 42 years! Ensuring jobs for highly-qualified engineers and doctors or educators or scientists, such as epidemiologists, would be an essential pre-condition for the return of our prodigal sons and daughters.

So, my vision of Mauritius on my return in 2008, was, and remains, that we need to put people first and protect our beautiful natural God-given environment; pulling down trees and replacing them with concrete in the name of progress is certainly not “Nature to advantage dressed” (Alexander Pope), but Nature defaced.

* What would you say you would expect more – and less – of from the people and the politicians?

Priding myself in being apolitical, or simply “a philosophe ignorant”, I would not be as bold as to give advice either to my compatriots or to well-versed and long-standing politicians. Rather, once again when all else fails, I shall resort to quoting Voltaire who, in his Treatise on Tolerance (1763), rather surprisingly, inserted as his conclusion a « Prayer to God »; the last paragraph reads in translation:

“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.” (https://books.openedition.org/obp/2951?lang=en)

I have always set great store by this plea for tolerance, mutual respect between nations, among people and political parties within nations. The words of the Apostle of Tolerance ring so true especially today 259 years later, and I can only hope that, on our small island in the sun, we shall pay heed!

* Published in print edition on 31 December 2021

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