I learned this history only gradually, lulled away from time by the island’s bewitching geography.”
It was in October, late spring in the southern hemisphere, that I first saw the island of Mauritius emerging from the glittering emptiness of the Indian Ocean, the waves rolling back to reveal an oyster-shaped land of green and gold with dark rocky protuberances. Its beaches were strips of palm-studded sand set against creamy green lagoons. A central plateau rose gently up, waving with sugar cane; to the far west were three monstrous black rocks, the Trois Mammelles. Dark stones of solidified lava lay beside them in untidy heaps, as if some earlier race of giants had been interrupted in their labors. Further to the south stood the enormous cliff of Le Morne, whose numerous caves were once home to hundreds of runaway slaves. They were hiding there in 1835, when a police party ascended the cliff to inform them that slavery had been abolished. Distrusting the British authorities, the hideaways flung themselves off into the valley below.
I learned this history only gradually, lulled away from time by the island’s bewitching geography. I would spend the evenings sitting up in the house in Floréal looking out at the Mammelles, which bore only a tortured resemblance to breasts. Ships appeared behind them, luxury liners, cargo vessels, oil tankers, even the odd flotilla of battleships and destroyers en route to their base in Diego Garcia. The vessels gathered there seemed like gigantic insects trapped against a vast watery backdrop, hardly moving, yet when I came back before bedtime for another look, they would be at the far corner of my visual field. Sometimes I felt I was at the edge of the earth, its horizon bent at the corners, curving away before a mysterious void.
The nearest country was Madagascar, five hundred miles to the west, a beautiful island full of dying species. There were two neighboring isles, Réunion, still basking in the neglect of French department-hood, and Rodrigues, a tiny Mauritian-owned plot three hundred and fifty miles to the north. In the midst of all that isolation, the mind slipped into a geographical solipsism, with the rest of the world becoming a hazy mirage, made real only by the price of sugar on the world market. People adapted their sense of scale to the island’s miniature dimensions; the districts of Plaines Wilhems, Savannah, and Flacq expanded into vast territories, and Port Louis grew into the quintessential big city, a capital on par with Paris, New York, and London, its residents brashly materialistic and addicted to a hectic lifestyle. The mountains and the sea were everything; the procession of ships to and from the world beyond seemed like the slowly changing backdrop of a stage. The planet itself seemed to have the island as its center, the pupil of a vast watery eye looking out into the universe.
* * *
The island had been known for centuries to men of the sea, to the Arabs, who christened it Dina Robin, or Silver Island, and later to the Malays, and Portuguese, but they left it as they found it, pristine, devoid of human habitation, and wreathed in a thick rain forest. It remained that way until 1598, when the Dutch rediscovered it and named it Mauritius, after Prince Maurice of Nassau. The Dutch left few traces of their colonial period and are remembered mainly for their wholesale slaughter of the world’s only collection of dodo birds. Soon after their departure at the start of the eighteenth century, the French arrived, bringing with them a complement of slaves from Madagascar and the African coast. They gave the island the unimaginative name of Isle de France, and settled down to a calm colonial existence, unaffected by the revolutionary tumult that was eating away at the soul of Europe.
The planet itself seemed to have the island as its center, the pupil of a vast watery eye looking out into the universe.”
The old Franco-Mauritian families kept to themselves in their remaining estates, their privileges mostly eroded.”
The French settlers of the eighteenth-century led quiet lives, centered around the parish church, the cyclones, and the arrival of ships from Europe, the latter signaled by a white flag on Discovery Mountain. How they must have relished their freedom, while their counterparts were being guillotined in France! They traveled about the island in palanquins, while poorer settlers eked out a living barefoot among the rocks. Treated like beasts of burden, the slaves remained suppressed, though from time to time a few would escape and join bands of roving bandits. The countryside took on a cultivated look, as the rain-forests gave way to the saw and the sickle. After a century of French rule the British wrested control of the island, administering it without really settling in. The island was thus left in the hands of its French residents, by then already outnumbered by their attending slaves and mulattos. When large-scale sugar cane cultivation began on the island’s fertile volcanic soil in the early 1800’s, a few of the old pre-revolutionary families became sugar barons, eventually employing thousands of Indian laborers in place of slaves.
The new laboring class labored under conditions of near slavery; their names underwent Francophonic distortions, and though they swelled to 70% of the population, the French families continued to retain control of the governing council. It was only after a long labor struggle that the Indo-Mauritians were finally allowed representation, following Word War II. When independence came, in 1968, the mostly Hindu Indo-Mauritians were firmly established, calling the shots on just about everything, to the dismay of the disadvantaged Creoles and Chinese. The old Franco-Mauritian families kept to themselves in their remaining estates, their privileges mostly eroded.
The island’s legacy of slavery, brutal as it was, had left vibrant subcultures. The nights were rich with music, with the Creoles dancing in the streets under the southern sky, the young men dressed in flowery shirts and felt hats, the girls in miniskirts and straw hats and high heels. Their dances were lascivious and provocative, the most famous one, the sega, resembling a kind of early ‘60s twist which rapidly degenerated into a shallow squatting with bold pelvic thrusts. Its origins, however, were far more ancient, being first brought to the world’s attention in 1768, when the visiting French writer Bernardin de Saint-Pierre noted the slaves’ passion for soft music played with mysterious instruments. As for the songs of the sega, they were litanies of reggae-like incantation, the jeremiads of men who sang of sweating away in the cane fields and then drinking away their weekly wages.
There were also dances which told other stories. The laborers from India brought with them a multiplicity of gods and languages. They too, on occasion, danced the sega, but on the night of Cavadee some of them thrust knives into their skins and triumphantly carried idols into the sea. At the Mahatma Gandhi Institute they taught their children the Bharata Natayam and Odissi styles of Indian classical dance, where women danced with their eyes, with their pupils and fingers and feet, their hands reaching out in narration, their palms brought together in prayer.
The Indians were there when Darwin visited for ten days in 1836. “I had no idea”, he wrote in The Voyage of The Beagle, “that the inhabitants of India were such noble-looking figures.” He also noted the existence of a “very pretty little theatre, in which operas are excellently performed”, and his surprise at “seeing large booksellers’ shops, with well-stored shelves; – music and reading bespeak our approach to the old world of civilization.”
Where women danced with their eyes, with their pupils and fingers and feet.”
His poem À une Dame créole was dedicated to Mme. de Bragard, whose eyes, he proclaimed, would enslave poets more than her slaves.”
Baudelaire stopped by in 1841. Back home in Paris he’d had a contretemps with his stepfather, General Aupick. The poet got drunk at a dinner party and flung a glass of claret in the General’s face. Charles was banished on a mail boat bound for Calcutta, but en route they were met by a tropical cyclone. They put in to Mauritius for repairs, at which point the poet jumped ship. There he was introduced to Autard de Bragard, a prominent solicitor and sugar baron.
Baudelaire was by then in bad shape, having written nothing for months. On the mail boat, he had contemplated suicide. But Mauritius got him writing again. Ensconced at the de Bragards, he was rather taken by the mixed-race lady of the house. His poem À une Dame créole (published four years later) was dedicated to Mme. de Bragard, whose eyes, he proclaimed, would enslave poets more than her slaves.
A few weeks later, at a brothel on the neighboring island of Réunion, he met Dorothée, a former slave. History usually ignores the downtrodden, but Dorothée, who was working to free her sister from slavery, inspired his prose piece La Belle Dorothée, and more famously, his posthumously published poem Bien loin d’ici, or Far Away from Here, where she is pictured as lying on one elbow lazily fanning herself. A spoiled child, he calls her, as she lies oiled and waiting in her coffin-like chamber.
* * *
Curepipe, the French cultural capital, was a highland town which appeared suddenly over the rise, its villas bright with flower-boxes, and commanding beautiful views of the golden-green island. It was a town crowded with Catholic churches and schools, and it was always breezy, and rather wet, a place where you needed a jacket even on summer evenings. It boasted one or two elegant hotels with faded ballrooms, and numerous pastry shops presided over by smiling French matrons insistent on speaking a genteel French rather than the lively lingua franca, Creole. Men in baggy coats walked down its sloping streets clutching baguettes. Couples in the latest Parisian fashions strolled arm in arm in the streets, and housewives in dark glasses drove by in their Benzes, past poorer women in bright clothing standing patiently by their baskets in the vegetable markets, while even less fortunate men, mostly descended from slaves, gathered boldly on the steps outside the liquor stores.
Mademoiselle M__, my French teacher, was the town’s resident eccentric, fond of stepping down its streets dressed in her flowery Louis XVI costumes, corsets and all. She was a lively, rubenesque lady with an exquisite slanted handwriting who chose to live at the edge of town in a rather well-done up railway carriage, its mirror-rich interior upholstered in gleaming brass and leather.
From Curepipe, I would drive along the little roads winding down the hillside, past numerous French cottages enlivened by the screams of soccer-playing children, crisscrossing fields of waving sugarcane, wandering past homes with little vegetable gardens, each adorned with a henhouse and a collection of children playing in the dust; people paused in their labors to watch you go by. The roads were smooth and quiet, winding through the cane fields, around little hills, past the colored sands of Chamarel, past Black River Bay, under the shadow of the Mammelles. You could drive from north to south in an hour. Usually there were only a few low clouds in a brilliant sky, a smell of molasses in the air, and the sea everywhere was emerald, beckoning.
I would often stop on the way at a village for a snack of chilli cakes, or gateaux piments, slaking my thirst with coconut water or a glass of rum. As I lunched, villagers would gather around me, asking where I was from. The children were barefoot and smiled shyly; the women wore slippers and held hands; the men laughed heartily. The people there were humble; some owned bicycles but most walked two miles through the cane fields to the nearest bus stop. As the sunlight fell on their faces in the cool highland air, they seemed blessed; their world was the world of cane and rural markets, people self-sufficient yet filled with a sense of careless wonder for the world outside.
Usually there were only a few low clouds in a brilliant sky, a smell of molasses in the air, and the sea everywhere was emerald, beckoning.”
The island was linked umbilically to France.”
“Happiness,” wrote Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, “consists in living according to nature and virtue.” He visited the island from 1768 to 1770, where he found it a wild and rocky place, full of tiny streams and quiet pools and hidden waterfalls and springs, the valleys still filled with latania and tacamahac, myrobalans and jambos. It seemed the perfect setting for his fictional Walden, the novel Paul et Virginie. The eponymous couple grew up in an Arcadian wilderness near Long Mountain, not far from Port Louis. They were pure white children brought up in log cabins in the splendid isolation of nature, full of the rustic innocence of their still unspoiled, pre-Darwinian world. Brought together by fatherlessness, they became attached from infancy, their cheeks pressing against each other’s in the cradle, and in due course grew into lovers cuddling under the coconut trees. They were the best of French hippies. But this natural life was fraught with peril, its harmony threatened by the ties of the civilized world. The island was linked umbilically to France, and its settlers to the colonial culture that had spawned them, that would prove their undoing. Virginia was yanked away to France for an education; on her eventual return her ship was trapped in a coastal channel in the midst of yet another cyclone. The faithful Paul tried in vain to swim out to the ship, but the sea was too high.
Her death, and that of the broken-hearted Paul, had the effect of mythologizing the region’s geography. Driving from Port Louis to the resorts on the bay, one passed Discovery Hill, now flag-less, and Long Mountain, its log cabins long gone. At the church where Virginia was buried, the bells were silent, but men in their Sunday best were sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. At the Baie du Tombeau, where her body was found washed up on the shore, a few children were running along the beach throwing stones. From there the road wound slowly north, towards the Cape of Misfortune and the Saint-Geran Channel, where, passing ancient stone walls and newly renovated mansions, I would think of Virginia, a ghostly relic of a vanished Europe, still hovering heroically in her neoclassical pose.