By Satyendra Peerthum
Following several press articles and email exchanges between different individuals in the heritage and history field in Mauritius during the course of the last two weeks, I would like to express my great concern over the issue of the building of a power station and major modifications to Fort George.
It is the largest fortification ever built in Mauritius and one of the most important. Part of the structure has been lost and as our built heritage is in peril and under siege from various developments it is important that we save this site. Therefore, I am appealing to NHF to look into this matter most urgently; there are various professionals in the fields of heritage and history who will support such an initiative.
What follows is a short history of Fort George which NHF had studied when I worked there in 2002 and 2003 as Technical Officer.
An Overview of the History of Fort George (1832-1998)
Fort George was erected between 1832 and 1841 and it was named in honour of King George IV of Great Britain, the son of the famous King George III. It is the largest stone fortification ever constructed in the history of Mauritius and the most important one at the entrance of Port Louis harbour. It was decreed national monument in 1998 and reconfirmed as a national heritage in 2003 by the National Heritage Fund.
The construction of Fort George was carried out as part of the British strategy to reinforce its fortifications in Mauritius, India and the Indian Ocean. It was also carried out in order to prevent a possible French attack on Mauritius, and to keep the rebellious slave-owning Franco-Mauritian planters in line, in the aftermath of the Mauritius Rebellion or the Inertia of 1831. The fort was built around the same time and with the same labourers who built La Citadelle and the Martello Towers in the island during the 1830s under the governorship of Sir William Nicolay.
The construction was supervised by Surveyor General Lloyd and also under aegis of Lieutenant Colonel Cunningham during Nicolay’s governorship. During its long nine-year construction, more than 200 government slaves, liberated Africans, Indian convicts, Indian indentured workers, prisoners from the Port Louis prisons, apprentices, and British soldiers were used. Free coloured stone masons and carpenters were also used as skilled and semi-skilled artisans and workers. The Fort extends over an area of more than 2 to 3 arpents and cost more than 100,000 pounds sterling. It also included a Martello Tower 10 meters high, which became known as Cunningham Tower and was demolished by the early 1900s.
In 1841, the British colonial government officially took possession of the fort. It is made largely of basalt stone, constituted by more than 5,000 to 7,000 basalt stone blocks. Between the 1840s and early 1900s, it was regularly manned by two British officers and more than 80 soldiers. Its long-range cannons could reach Cap Malheureux and Tamarin Bay, a range of more than 15 kilometers in each direction. It possessed more than 300 barrels of gunpowder as it acted as a gunpower storage facility. During most the 19th century, it was the most well defended and armed fortification on the island. There was enough food and water supplies to allow its troops to hold out for more than a week.
In 1893, the Fort was renovated extensively at a cost of more than 13,000 pounds sterling. In 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War, additional men, batteries and cannons were added as it was a period of wartime where British colonial interests were involved. Between 1940 and 1945, more than 300 soldiers and several officers, including Indo-Mauritians, were stationed there permanently as they feared an attack from the French based in Madagascar or the Japanese based in Singapore. Between the 1950s and early 21st century, the Fort was used as a storage facility and part of the structure was damaged and destroyed as it fell into disrepair. It was decreed national heritage in 1998 and unfortunately today, it is largely abandoned and in ruins.
* Published in print edition on 5 June 2015