Port Louis and Its Past

As Port Louis celebrates the 50th anniversary of its elevation to the status of a city, it will evoke ambivalent feelings in many of those who just go there to work or among those who have spent long years living or working there. To have been born in Port Louis is a privilege and a boon. It inspires deep loyalties and the spell it casts is not lightly broken. There is always something special about the City, which no other town can ever expect to attain. After all it had been for many long years the only town of the island.

To ‘go to Town’ in the past meant a trip to Port Louis — any settlement outside Port Louis was dubbed an ‘habitation’ or a ‘bitation’, and the people in the rural areas downgraded to ‘dimoune bitation’. This was initially due to the contempt which the great ‘Négociants’ of the Capital showed towards the planters living on their rural estates in the past. Only Port Louis, it was believed, then provided the urbanity, the culture, the resourcefulness, and later the open-mindedness, which characterized its inhabitants, brought up in a multi-cultural setting.

Granite underfoot polished by shoe soles

Whether the pride of its inhabitants is justified or not, it has lingered up to the present. I also tend to value my early childhood years and all those years I spent in Port Louis for they have added to my cultural capital, which one inevitably inherits from the place whatever be our station in life. Born in Moka Street, and later brought up in a house at Caudan Street, which ended with the railway track at one end, the place provides a window to a wider world comprising different kinds of people, which any local or foreign visitor can discover at the Central Market.

We shared the house with a schoolteacher, Miss L’Entêté of Western Suburb Primary School. Her widowed sisters had two children of my age who were my first friends. My nearest neighbour was a locomotive driver; he lived in a dwelling, now occupied by the CWA and the Waste Water Department. Although I do not remember making a long trip by train, I was regularly invited to take a seat in the locomotive and was thus able to undertake short trips probably whenever he had to try and test the engine.

From my house I reached the infant school by travelling along the railway line to Miss Sarah whose father, possibly a veterinary, would take us regularly to the Champ de Mars to look at horses. The old Chinese Pagoda was not very far, and to attend a religious ceremony at the Kovil located in the docks, we simply had to cross over the railway lines. A few days before the celebration of the Ghoon, a small procession accompanied by drummers would go down the streets and people would come out and make a small contribution; in our case it would be a few coins and a bowl of sugar. That was the kind of multicultural environment any inhabitant of Port Louis would have generally encountered in whichever part of old Port Louis he lived.

Distinctive features

Port Louis had its segregation policy during the colonial times. At a short distance from Caudan Street is the Pont Bourgeois, which is the boundary that separated the western suburb from the white-inhabited parts of Port Louis during the French period. The western suburb was inhabited by the free coloured people while the eastern suburb which started at the end of Desforges Street comprised in the past the Camp de Malabar and the Camp des Lascars which emerged from the grassy lands of Plaine Verte, where once people would flock to watch the execution of criminals.

The government primary school was also known as Western Suburb Government School before it changed to Dr Millien GS. (In the 1950s the headmistress was one Mrs Vining, as pronounced by pupils in lower classes but the name was probably Mrs Vinay.) The western suburb was a very rich area where there were some big houses with vast courtyards. The beautiful Cassis Church was the pride of the inhabitants. Later the region went into decline after the malaria epidemic of 1867 killed about 35,000 people in the capital. The whites too left the town and their mansions in St Georges, Edith Cavell and Pope Hennessy Streets for Curepipe. The coloured settled down in Beau Bassin and Rose Hill and the less rich amongst the whites in Quatre Bornes and Vacoas, replicating the same racial and class segregation in the district of Plaines Wilhems.

Port Louis has remained for long the commercial, political, administrative and cultural capital of Mauritius. In the 19th century, French and British and coloured merchants dominated its commercial activities. In the harbour, sea cargo was hoisted to feed the Mauritian population while sugar was brought to Port Louis by a network of railway lines, which ran into the hinterlands. At the docks, immigrant workers from the seaport of Vijagapatnam were recruited to work in the Albion and Mauritius docks.

The commercial class was supplemented by Tamil and Muslim as well as Chinese traders. The labouring class was constituted of the descendants of Indian immigrants and those of African descent. From the beginning of the 19th century a class of petty functionaries and artisans lived at the foot of Signal Mountain, which later became a part of Ward IV of the capital. Their number was swelled by many professionals and other white-collar workers until the late 1970s. They occupied important positions in the lower rungs of the civil service and in various government departments such the Railways, Public Works, Printing, Education and Health.

For the inhabitants of Port Louis the iconic buildings of the capital are Government House, the Treasury Building, the old municipal building, the Museum, Port Louis Theatre, Civil Hospital and the Supreme Court. The prominent religious buildings were the St Louis Cathedral, St James Cathedral, Kylasson Kovil, Jummah Mosque, Vishnu Kchetra Mandir and the Chinese Pagoda at Caudan. There are other buildings of no less importance but perhaps less well known in the past. The Champ de Mars has always retained its popularity for the races and as a recreation ground.

Other popular places in the past and nowadays too are the Company’s Garden and the Pleasure Ground also known as Les Salines, Marie Reine de la Paix, the harbour and most important of all the Central market with the ever refreshing ‘Alouda Pillay’, the ‘Roti Manilall’ or even the various lotteries sold by Coronation not forgetting the herbal stalls which have survived more than four generations. Some of these places are still popular. Whereas in the past these places would have been mostly reached by a stroll with friends and relatives, now it is the car which has become the commonest form of transport.

Rich culture

In the 1950s the ‘illumination’ of the capital was a great event that attracted visitors late into the night. Government House and the Municipality shone with bright coloured electric bulbs on St Louis Day, on Empire Day or for any major event such as the Queen’s Coronation. For Empire Day our schools were decorated with the Union Jack and on Coronation Day pupils were feted with cakes and lemonade and were also given a commemorative medal.

Football was the favourite past-time. The town had a number of football teams like Plaines Verte United, Town Rovers, Rovers United and later Fire Brigade, Muslim Scouts, Tamil Cadets, Police and later Sunrise. They attracted large crowds at the Line Barracks, the Champ de Mars or at St Francois Xavier football grounds. There were also other sports, which were practised such as table tennis, volley ball, badminton and lawn tennis. Music was also important and there were a number of music bands such as the Police Band, the Hindu Band, the Typhoon and several other bands which were started in the 1960s. The inhabitants could watch their favourite films in a number of cinema halls, the most ancient were Rex, the old and the new Luna Park, Majestic and the Cinema des Familles which screened silent films in the 1950s.

After the Great War, theatre and opera moved to Plaza and foreign troupes occasionally made their appearance at the Port Louis Theatre. There was a host of dramatic clubs, which became active during the Youth Drama Festival. Literary life remained as lively as before with its various poets and writers such as Emmanuel Juste, Marcel Cabon, Jean Georges Prosper, Joseph Tsang Man Kin, Ng Kwet Chan, Edward Maunick, Mootoocoomaren Sangeelee, Basdeo Bissoondoyal, Somduth Buckhory, Hossenjee Edoo, etc.

We cannot think of life in Port Louis without its colleges, libraries and newspapers. When I lived at Jemmapes Street just behind the office of Le Mauricien, where the clanging noises of the printing machine contrasted with the silence of the Immaculee Church, one could watch every afternoon a small crowd of people on the opposite side of the road waiting religiously for their newspaper. For a small population of Mauritius there were surprisingly a large number of newspapers reflecting the diversity of tastes, opinions and ideologies. Some of the main newspapers were Le Cernéen, Le Mauricien, Advance, Action, Mauritius Times and later L’Express.

At one time Joseph Coralie had started a newspaper with articles in Creole called L’Epée, in which one could savour the political conversation of the day in the form of a popular dialogue between Gaby and Soondron. The press culture was something peculiar to Port Louis. It was customary for many to gather in the small tea hotels for their buttered loaf accompanied with ‘gateaux piments’ and ‘badia’ and listen or partake in the passionate exchanges on the political topics of the day. That was popular political education at its best. At election times it was the politicians who took the relay in the kiosks in the Company’s Garden, at Plaine Verte, or the Champ de Mars, which attracted the biggest crowds.

Some misfortunes too…

Port Louis had also had its lot of misfortunes — the fires and epidemics of the 19th century, the cyclone of 1892, which in the words of Mark Twain produced a “water famine” in the capital, the Spanish influenza of 1918, the riots of 1999 and more recently the flash floods in 2012. In the 1950s, Port Louis was shocked to learn about the Citadel crime where two children were killed by criminals whose nicknames were PicPac, Paul le Fou and Le Roi. In the 1960s, Cyclones Alix and Carol undermined the multicultural fabric of the capital and removed the poorer classes to the new housing estates, which soon slided into the poverty trap.

The ethnic riots of 1967-68 were the worst calamity which befell the town when a great and still unknown number of people lost their lives in horrific crimes. From that time the multicultural setup was destroyed forever. It has since been further disturbed with vast numbers of people leaving the City for other places. Moreover as commerce encroaches on residential areas, the town has almost become a ghost town during certain hours with only some suburbs of the town still throbbing with life.

One cannot end this brief overview of Port Louis without recollecting the elevation of the town to the status of a city. Like in the 1930s when G.D. Atchia was denied the office of Mayor, which had been promised by fellow politicians, the same kind of controversy cropped up in 1966 when a group in the PMSD was opposed to Dorsamy Moorghen becoming the first mayor of the city. At the popular level it was even questioned whether he had enough command of English to make a speech on the occasion. Finally when the decision went in favour of Moorghen, people gathered before the municipality wondering whether he would be able to deliver his speech in English. It was a stressful time for supporters of the Tamil United Party and supporters of the PMSD; finally to their relief his speech went on well and he received his Letters Patent for the city from the hands Governor Sir John Shaw Rennie.

What does the future hold?

Today the city is faced with great challenges and is paying the price of decades of neglect at the level of town planning. If the problems are not tackled seriously with the collaboration of citizens of the capital, they will sour the life of the whole city. It is not the fanciful smart city which will give a new life to the capital. Artificial cities of this sort are rarely successful and are not suitable for a city like Port Louis. They simply enrich property developers. The solution may be simple, yet costly. There is no major traffic problem in Port Louis. There is no over-crowding. In fact the city is losing its residential population. The streets are deserted after four o’clock. Old residential houses are giving place to car parks and there are security problems in the capital especially after working hours.

Let us take examine why some parts of the capital remain very lively until late at night with no problem of security. The solution lies in that simple formula. There is security when there are people on the streets. There are people on the streets when they inhabit the place. So the solution is perhaps in encouraging more residents into the town and in every street through the compulsory provision of residential apartments on all (new) buildings and the putting up of residential blocs in strategic places. This requires planning, money but also boldness and imagination and inputs from the inhabitants of Port Louis themselves.

Sada Reddi

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