Friday, 9 January 2015

Mauritius: Mark Twain’s heaven – HISTORY

Photo Courtesy: MTPA
Before I made my way towards Mauritius this past December, I read several articles online that mentioned one quote which stood out. Mark Twain once said: “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.” Though I was already sold on visiting the tiny island after seeing mesmerising visuals of tourists wading through its turquoise blue waters and walking by the white sand beaches, this certainly increased my curiosity. Surely Twain’s words had more depth than the mere visual of the deep blue Indian Ocean housing this piece of heaven. So I attempted to find out what makes Mauritius so special. Is there more to it than being one of the most popular honeymoon destinations? After several conversations with the island’s residents and observations I made during my trip, here are my findings.

The dodo in a Santa Claus costume at Le Caudan Waterfront
Tracing its origin: The Dutch and the Dodo
Mauritius sits in the middle of the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar. It is said to be the creation of volcanic activity that took place under water. The Arabs fell upon it back in the 9th Century. But it was only in the 16th Century that the island had its first visitors: the Portuguese. Oddly, the Portuguese were not impressed and left soon enough. The Dutch however were clearly beach lovers as they stayed on when they came in 1598. They were not only the first to colonise the island, but they also gave it a name. They called it Mauritius, inspired by their then ruler Prince Maurice Van Nassau.

A dodo-shaped water toy at Le Prince Maurice. No rubber duckies in Mauritius!

While they are attributed to naming this stunning island, they also played a huge role in the extinction of Mauritius’ national animal, the dodo. I was told by many locals that the Dutch enjoyed dodo meat and literally ate all the dodos until there were no more! I could only imagine how helpless the poor birds were in procuring an escape seeing that they couldn’t fly. And since dodos only were indigenous to Mauritius, their extinction was inevitable. But Mauritians chose to keep their memory alive. And so, despite its extinction the dodo remains Mauritius’ national animal till today. You will find numerous products featuring illustrations of the dodo. In fact, even the Mauritian Rupee note features the flightless bird!
Look at the left-hand side corner near 'RS'. See the dodo?

The British rule… yet again

After the exit of the Dutch, and the extinction of the dodo, it was the French who took control of Mauritius between 1715 and 1814 when they surrendered to the British under attack. They even changed the name to ‘Île de France’, but once the British took over they reverted to Mauritius. Aside from attempting to make English the official language (which did not happen as according to the Treaty of Paris, the population was to keep its language, its religion and its laws), the British decided to abolish slavery. Seems like such a noble act. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as noble as it seemed. After they freed the slaves, they realised they still needed people to work in the sugarcane plantations that comprise 80% of the land in Mauritius. So, they sought ‘indentured’ labourers from India. They were brought to Mauritius under a labour contract, but were made to work much like slaves. Chinese and Muslim traders too came to Mauritius history dictates attracted to the possibility of employment. While some labourers eventually returned to their homeland, a large number of them stayed back and as a result formed the local community in Mauritius. Even today, you will meet fourth and fifth generation Indians whose ancestors once came to Mauritius through the Aapravasi Ghat, an immigration depot from where indentured labourers emerged. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, and Sir Seewosagur Ramgoolam became the first Prime Minister. A revered man, you will notice Sir Ramgoolam’s face illustrated on Mauritian currency. The island’s airport is also named after him.

While it seemed like Mauritius had successfully left behind its painful history of the indentured system, I found that it is still prevalent today. When I arrived at the airport, heading towards Passport Control, I was approached by a group of women from Bangladesh who asked for my help in filling their disembarkation forms as they didn’t speak or write English. They were accompanied by one man who spoke a little English, so I asked him their purpose of visit. He said they were all here to work for a textile company doing tailoring work on a three-year contract. It was clear that the indentured system was never discontinued. I can only hope that the living and working conditions of these labourers are humane.


PART 2: Mauritius: Mark Twain’s heaven – PRESENT DAY

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