Mauritius Shoots to International Fame

Propelled by a fiery young Indo-Mauritian woman


By Paramanund Soobarah

Now onwards it won’t be just the Dodo and the Stamp. More importantly, it will first and foremost be Sheila. This simple girl from a very modest Indo-Mauritian family living in Rose Hill was pursuing neither wealth, nor power, nor even fame, but just her own love-life, and in the process ended up as an agent of the enemy — a Mauritian Mata Hari in fact, only ten times more effective than the original one.

How could such a girl be drawn into this incredible tale of duplicity and war? To have an idea, read her diary (‘The Diary of Sheila’, edited by Jean Lindsay Dookhit, copyright L’Atelier d’écriture, Trou d’Eau Douce, Mauritius, 2012, available in bookshops).

Just imagine the scene at the Château du Réduit, the fort of British Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Mauritius and its far-flung dependencies, on Sunday, the 30th June 1940. The war in Europe had already been raging for a few months to devastating effect and France had recently fallen to the Germans. The next obvious step in the War was invasion of Britain. When, on this Sunday, Hitler was yelling, screaming and shrieking away at the top of his voice on the radio, everybody at the Château feared that the worst had happened, and that most likely Britain had been invaded and London had fallen. But Hitler was speaking in German and infuriatingly nobody at the Château had a clue of what he was saying. Great was the relief when a few hours later, the Admiralty station in Vacoas brought news that all that had happened was that the Channel Islands had been occupied, and that without a shot being fired.

Even though it turned out that nothing catastrophic had happened on that day, Mr Moody, the then Colonial Secretary (the top administrative official in the Colony after the Governor, not to be confused with the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London), determined that there should be some competence in the enemy’s language at the Château. Applications had already been invited for three posts of secretaries to serve at Le Réduit, and candidates were to be interviewed the following day. Among the applicants, practically all of them from the French mother-tongue families, was Sheila, an Indo-Mauritian girl from Rose Hill. In addition to English, French and Latin, which were standard fare at the time, she, unlike all other applicants, also had German and had managed to pick up Icelandic. It is no surprise to us that she was among the three candidates picked – but the gens biens of Rose Hill at the time were flabbergasted that smart girls of their community had been passed over in favour of an insignificant malabar girl unable to speak French properly (Sheila protests in her diary that her French was not malbarisé, and that she had learnt to say “je” properly and not “zé”.)

Once in post at Le Réduit, Sheila, delighted to find that she had access to radio communication facilities, established contact with her German pen-friend and went on practising her German and learning about the detailed progress of the War, gradually becoming an agent of the enemy in the process, operating right out of the lion’s den – the Château du Réduit, residence-cum-office of the Governor of Mauritius.

World domination by the “Aryan” race

A few words about the War will help to put this story into its wider context. Hitler had a few years earlier marched his forces into Rhineland in violation of treaty obligations, and neither Britain nor France had said anything against that (these countries were then ruled by appeasers, much like what is happening in the Sub-Continent today). So he concluded he could safely proceed with his plans for the conquest of Europe and for world domination by the “Aryan” race (a total misconstruction of millennia-old Sanskrit knowledge and wisdom “discovered” in India for Europeans by Englishman Sir William Jones, a functionary of the East India Company, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but fully exploited subsequently only by German scholars who practically appropriated the language and its writings; they even adopted the Swastika, with some distortion).

After coercing Austria and Czechoslovakia, countries with large German communities, to join him in his grand designs for world domination, he had with lightning speed successively invaded and conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France. All British and other Allied troops on the Continent had to be evacuated hastily back to England via Dunkirk. The next obvious step was the invasion of Britain. This is when Sheila enters the story.

On May 10, 1940 Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister. With his show of determination and strong rhetoric, he helped the British tide over the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, Hitler’s efforts to destroy the spirit of the British. Hitler’s attempts at invading Britain remained fruitless, although the Luftwaffe, the German airforce, caused a lot of damage to British cities, particularly Coventry. The War went well for Hitler in other zones (Eastern Europe and Russia, South and South East Europe, North Africa, etc., and also more or less so at sea over the Atlantic.) When Japan, already at war with China for a few years, attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, America joined the war on the Allied side. A definite turning point came on 19 November 1942, when a Russian counter-attack besieged Stalingrad with the conquering German army inside it, and forced it to surrender. From this point on, Hitler kept losing ground until one day, in October 1944, the attacking forces were on the borders of Germany.

At this juncture, did Hitler’s superstitious impulses take hold of him? If we are to believe what Sheila wrote in her diary, this is what happened, and what led him to take a trip to Mauritius via Goa (then under Portuguese rule) to repossess an object of his superstition, which he was sure would change the course of events in his favour. From this point on, the reader should go Sheila’s diary. The planning and execution of Hitler’s last battle, the Battle of the Bulge (Dec 1944- January 1945), is clearly outlined.

Fact or fiction

There are sufficient clues in the book to enable researchers to find out whether the diary is fact or fiction. But the sociological aspects of the diary are absolute gospel truth. My wife was also, like Sheila, born and bred in Rose Hill. Even though she (like me) is younger than Sheila by 12-15 years, the social situation she has recounted to me that existed in the thirties and the forties is exactly as painted by Sheila. Indian-origin people were held in great contempt by the community of gens de couleur. The latter also shared with the white Franco-Mauritian community the hold over political power; the Whites held a monopoly over economic power, a situation that recent governments have been trying hard to maintain and even reinforce.

But I do have a word of advice to those who think we speak un français malbarisé. They should listen carefully to the way Mr Abdou Diouf, former president of Senegal and current Secretary General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, speaks. They should also listen how educated Senegalese and other West Africans, Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians speak. They have perfect French, and indeed constitute the backbone of worldwide French-speaking community. Listen particularly how they pronounce the R-sound and the mute-E sound. Nobody can speak French well if they do not pronounce these two sounds well. In the français créolisé that is the norm in Mauritius, neither of these sounds are pronounced – except by a couple of Indo-Mauritian news readers at the MBC.

Way back in the early sixties, well after leaving school, I was appointed into the hierarchy of the Civil Aviation Department. I came into contact with people of the airline industry who spoke genuine English and French. Realising my own limitations I took up the study of phonetics and phonology of English and French. Several decades later, I was working in West Africa, and so was another compatriot, this one being one of the gens biens. One day, a bunch of African officials asked me: “Toi tu parles normalement; mais ton compatriote, où est-ce-qu’il a été chercher cet accent exécrable?” So much for the accent of the gens biens.

Proper editing

This book, in my view, could, with proper editing, have gained worldwide fame if put forward by a major editor like HarperCollins or Random House. In its present form it does not do justice to the author, whoever it might be. Numerous errors have been left in, or perhaps even introduced by somebody who thinks he knows better. In my childhood, the term U-boat was in every magazine one could lay one’s hands on: in this book it is systematically spelled U-boot on the numerous occasions on which it appears. At one point, the phrase “today itself” is used. Way back in the forties, Indian English had not yet permeated Mauritian speech and writing as it has today, and an intelligent girl like Sheila could not have written that deliberately. Hindu monks do not squat on the floor to pray – they surely do so for other purposes. The purpose Sheila had in mind was praying, and for that, they sit cross-legged.

At the time Sheila was writing, HMS Mauritius was a cruiser in the Royal Navy, and it even visited Mauritius after the war: RCC pupils, myself included, were taken down to visit it. To my knowledge she remained on active duty until 1951. I cannot recall the name HMS Mauritius being applied to the local Admiralty station around that time. I first heard the name HMS Mauritius from Mr Ian Varney, the first British Director of Civil Aviation to serve in the country. He had arrived in 1959 as Civil Aviation Advisor to the Government and was appointed Director in 1960. It was during his time in Mauritius that Admiralty’s communication centre was moved from Colombo to this country under the name of HMS Mauritius, and the 600-ft masts at Bigara were erected, much to my sorrow as they were directly on the central line of the runway at Plaisance, constituting a obstacle to aircraft navigation. The terrain profile from that direction was so bad that Mr Varney had decided it would never be used by approaching aicraft. Much later, as Director of Civil Aviation myself, I oversaw the purchase of most of the major components of HMS Mauritius (Bigara and Baie du Tombeau stations) by the Government. In the interests of historical accuracy, the use of the name HMS Mauritius in the book ought to be checked: I am absolutely convinced Sheila did not use it.

It would be unkind to highlight every error. But one aspect of the editing of this book is absolutely intolerable and unforgivable. “Some unflattering comments about a few departed personalities… have been modified or even removed out of respect.” And what about the nation’s need for the authentic history of this country? Are we always going to be fed the “official” version — which obviously keeps changing with changing governments?

* Published in print edition on 18 January 2013

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