A Tiny Dot in the Indian Ocean: Mauritius – The Very Different Island

If you read the advertising publicity for the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius you’ll see the words ‘The Unspoilt Island’ more than once. It’s accompanied by pictures of limpid aqua waters lapping onto glistening beaches, with palms wafting in the gentle breezes of trading winds. And indeed, for many visitors Mauritius fulfils that promise, perfectly.

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(Hotel Telfair, Mauritius – Image Copyright John Swainston, 2007.)

Go to a top international hotel and you’ll see exquisitely manicured gardens and walkways, freshly painted white buildings with expertly manicured thatched roofs. They are staffed by men in crisply starched clothes, reminiscent of an era of colonial service.

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These attendants have smiles as wide as the ocean vistas. But it wasn’t always thus.

Mauritius has a history of invaders and discoverers, of changing political fortunes and a bird, the Dodo, which is famous throughout the world. It was eliminated by man more than four centuries ago. It was wiped out because, as the largest bird of its kind on the island in 1600 when successive Portuguese, Dutch and French settlers arrived, it had no natural predators and no understanding of why it needed to defend itself. The Portuguese arrived first in 1507. Mauritius was noted on maps. Without laying any claim, they moved on. The Dutch arrived almost a hundred years later, in 1598.

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They too abandoned the island after a struggling hundred years of colonisation. Severe conditions and repeated poor crop yields from the stony volcanic hills made the seeming advantageous strategic location in the passage from South Africa to India seem less than ideal. Only when the French came in 1710 did Mauritius establish itself as viable. The French called it Isle de France. A naval port, Port Louis, now the location of the capital, was established. After one hundred years, the island was subject to the only naval battle in the Napoleonic wars that the French actually won, the battle of Grand Port. But a second onslaught by the British, a few days later, finally overpowered the local French garrison. In 1814 Isle de France was ceded to Britain as part of war settlement and renamed Mauritius. It became a French-speaking, French legal process island, but under British rule. The legislative language of English ruled. It was populated for the prior two centuries by indentured labour, which followed a period of slave trading, from Madagascar, Malaya, Africa and the Indian sub-continent, along with a scattering of French and Chinese plantation owners and traders. The British were few in number. Mauritius was run with just enough administrators and officials to form a colonial government. It remained a colony until 1968, when it became Independent. It became a Republic within the Commonwealth in December 1991. It’s capital city today is a thriving commercial hub.

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Over six centuries the island that is Mauritius has been transformed from an uninhabited dormant volcanic island, to colonial stepping point, to trading and military port, to fields of Sugar plantations hewn from the granite rocks, a European and latterly Indian tourist mecca, to clothing manufacturer, and most recently an offshore banking centre and low-tax corporate headquarters. It’s even now a major regional MRO Airline maintenance hub, linked to the excellent local airline Air Mauritius, which will soon be flying the next generation Airbus A350. Adaptable, flexible and easy-going. If you have visited the Pacific Ocean islands of Fiji, there is a certain familiarity. Buhla (How are you going?) is substituted by No Problem. In the 1990’s this was a phrase seen on almost every T-Shirt. It expresses the relaxed slower-paced life that seems appropriate in a nation cooled by Trade winds, lubricated by a divine local cane-spirit white rum and peopled by a mélange of nationalities, many of them inter-married producing a unique Mulatre look of great beauty.

The purpose of my visit this time, one of more than twenty such trips over four decades, has many authors. A family wedding of a nephew on my wife’s side of the family set the date a year ago. It’s ended up with a chance to document both the lead-up and the big day for the young couple, who currently live in Brazil. They are returning to their roots to be with family for the religious ceremony of marriage. It’s also a chance to write-up some conversations with Western Australian photographers I had in Perth on the way through, gathering a further rich harvest of points of view for the book on photography I am writing. I’m also having an update meeting on the direction and selection of photographs for a book being very slowly assembled into an anthology of images by the great Philippe Halbwachs, Mauritian photographer from the 50’s to 80’s. He recorded the changing life of this island in its industry, its leisure, its francophone social gatherings and its independence. It’s a powerful series of documents.

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Image: Copyright Philippe Halbwachs Estate, 2016.

That Philippe was my father-in-law was a matter of immense good fortune. He bequeathed in me my own passion for photography and the power of the document. How much more I could have learned if he had not died at the young age of 59. I reflect that I may have left it too late to talk to some of the last of the French colonial descendants who saw the transformation of the island from colonial outpost into the modern era.. Is that life’s fate? To only realise what the priorities should have been after the moment has passed?

There has been an unusually high level of rain in recent days. Tropical Cyclone Fantala has been stalking the island from a distance. Now it is returning from the North West, near neighbouring Madagascar. It was first noted by Mauritius Méteo ten days ago as a Tropical Storm, some 1,350km away to the North East. It’s now just 1000 kms to the north-west, having backtracked 180 degrees. Once again it is whipping up both the swell and the waves, causing intense rain showers across the island.

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At its height, the rain seems to flatten the ocean, gusting winds reach 90km/hr. and cause the coconut palms to sway alarmingly and other less strong trees to fall. At its peak, two days ago, located north of Madagascar, this storm was the most intense cyclone ever recorded in the Indian Ocean, certainly in modern times. In 1960 Tropical Cyclone Carole reaped similar disastrous losses on this emerging nation to those that Cyclone Tracey did to the remote Australian Northern Territory city of Darwin, in 1974. I well recall listening to the crackling shortwave BBC World Service radio news that Christmas Day as I paced the Mauritius beach at dawn on my first summer holiday as a married man. Little did this then-very English man also suspect that five years later we would move to Australia as our home, after a three-year stint in the USA. But, I digress: Back to the present.

Two days earlier, in a hasty safety effort to minimise risk, the gardener had shinned up the sloping trunk of the palm tree overhanging our rented beachfront home. He carried with him a stout rope reminiscent of the best arborists anywhere. He skilfully tied up the largest mature bright orange bunches of coconuts, artfully chopped away and then safely lowered these complete bunches to the ground to an awaiting youth, who seemingly was well below any reasonable legal working age. The size and weight of the cluster of coconuts exceeded his own weight, but he seemed un-phased and dragged them away. The savage razor-sharp hatchet then was used to gain access to the coconut and milk inside. It provided as much tasty coconut flesh as one could ever wish. This dual-purpose harvest saves property damage from falling over-laden trees, and it even saves lives. Each year, somewhere in the world, 150 unsuspecting citizens are killed by falling coconuts. Interestingly that’s more than 30 times the people that are killed by sharks each year.

I look out beyond the protective headland just to the south of our house. There, in the full sea with a very un-peaceful ocean to contend with, is the dedicated fisherman standing above his rocking traditional longboat, punting pole in hand. To the rear of the boat there is what is probably a 5HP outboard that only gets used to breach the reef, or after a successful day’s fishing to speed his return. Today there’s no sail aloft. The shape of the Mauritian fishing sail hasn’t changed in size or technology in centuries. A drop-in main mast and simple single sheet is all it is.

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For now it’s not in use. The fisherman’s progress seems infinitesimally slow. And then I realise that he’s not actually using the pole to advance his boat, but rather to try to spear one of the larger fish sheltering within the reef from the pounding ocean. Round and round he turns, jabbing from time to time. The boat rocks as it twists against the waves, now abeam and tilting ominously, then pointing into the wave and rocking up and down. Then I can just detect a change of stance as he more slowly draws himself upright and brings in his catch, too small for me to see from this distance, but clearly a success as he extracts the prized catch from the pole.

As quickly as it appeared the rain is gone. A shaft of sunlight emerges from the clouds above. As these rain-laden blankets scud across the bay suddenly blue sky emerges and then bright sunlight. The gentle waves reappear on the water’s surface and life returns to the picturesque tranquillity much-promoted in shiny brochures. But, as is the way in the tropics, no gain without rain!

This rain depression has already taken its toll. On the night of the pre-wedding welcome reception for some seventy guests, there have been a bout of power outages. Power returned just an hour before the guests arrived. It went out again an hour before the end.

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Candles and torches and the light of dozens of mobile phones quickly provide the backup and the party continues unchecked. Typically power can disappear with great regularity. The locals often have back up diesel generators to maintain their now obligatory air-conditioning. The next day we drive to get new provisions and pass an emergency crew clearing a fallen tree from its resting point on a very deformed power pole, the cause of the recent outages.

The humidity, once only experienced in the summer months of December through March, is now as high in mid-April as during peak summer. The daytime temperatures have been in the low thirties, some three degrees above average for this time of year. Cyclone season is running late again. The world’s weather IS changing here too. The beach has shrunk from cyclonically-induced tidal shifts, moving great mountains of sand further into the reef, bringing the ocean closer to shore. As is the way of things there will be some years the beach returns. But over the forty years or so I have been coming here there is distinctly less distance between the ocean’s edge and homes built in the sixties. When I first visited in 1974, I could snorkel anywhere off the beach and see a huge diversity of life; coloured fish, multiple varieties of crab, sea slugs and sharply edged oursin or sea-urchin shellfish. I remember the sharp pain and fast flowing bloodstream from those early encounters when I trod on an haches-d’armes (or Quill shellfish), that uses its razor-fine shell to inflict deep wounds on anything pressing down on it. Today over-development, constant construction and industrial effluent have denuded much of the reef. The unspoilt island is a shadow of the diversity that once existed here. Fishermen stand on the shore in what is an often fruitless effort to catch a pittance of useful food.

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Observing how an emerging island copes with environmental change can be instructive. In the 1970’s our seaside kitchen was equipped with a locally made wooden bottle holder, suitable for storing some 40 beer and soft drink bottles or cans of Mauritius’ very own beer, Phoenix, now owned by SA Breweries.

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You’d buy what you needed at the local Indian or Chinese-owned general store, bring it all home and, once consumed, you’d store the used bottles. You would then return them on your next shopping expedition. The bottlers would collect them and recycle them multiple times. In those days the cycle of re-use was well established. Vegetables and rice were dispensed from open trays and tightly capped jars and packed in used newspaper or brown paper bags. Our local store, in the small hamlet of Riviere du Rempart was a tin shed, two fluoro-tube lighting set up with shelves and a counter of glass to further improve display. The owner, Joseph had a thriving business, he knew everyone by sight and name, and nothing was too much. He wrote everything down in a little book  in pencil or ballpoint, and you settled from time to time. Cash was not a requirement.

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40 years later he is still there, a worn-out knee, a little bit of weight and seemingly faded aspiration. In his day he was the master of his universe. But some time in the eighties progress arrived!

The first French-owned supermarket opened in the residential town of Curepipe. Their far-seeing European owners, Monoprix, dictated that food would now be shrink-wrapped in plastic, and served up in convenient plastic shopping bags by smartly looking teenaged assistants at the bagging area. This was modern living. The multi-journey glass bottles were replaced by the plastic one-time use variety that saved one all the trouble of storing and return, and the bottling companies all of the costs of safely recycling! Economic arguments were advanced by the bottling companies, who added health benefits from improved sanitation. Within a decade the Unspoilt Island bore all the hallmarks of modern Western life – litter through the streets and byways, stories of fish washed up on shore with stomachs full of plastic and storm water outlets in the urban areas filling the bays with rubbish.

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After three decades of this and the almost complete depletion of reef fish stocks, government finally realised the error of their ways and banned plastic bags in late 2015. Glass bottles have not yet returned. Hopefully that too is a matter of time. For now the roadside bears witness to appalling debris in the irrigation channels, the gutters and adjacent fields. All that glistens is not gold, goes the old phrase. Never was that more true when that shiny sparkle in the ocean is not a rolling wave but a whirlpool of tightly packed plastic waste gently bobbing in once-pure aqua waters. Today Mauritius stands with other threatened island states around the world, calling for increased action to limit climate change and ocean rise, the most extremes of which would remove half the habitable land of this nation. In the meantime its focus on regional technology has seen a Mauritius Commercial Bank technology building being constructed that’s one of the first six star eco-buildings in the Southern Hemisphere.

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I choose an unexpected unfilled afternoon, and drive to the centre of this 50 km by 30km island that crams in 1.3 million people into the 20% that is habitable, or not used for agriculture. I pass through township or village after village. The road signs appear to have been the final project of British influence in the late 1960’s. The green paint remains, but the reflective white sign paint is all but gone, and invisible at night.

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Each village bears an ethnic hallmark. Indian villages proudly display red flags indicating there are young girls of marriageable age within. Please make your offer! They also have immensely colourful Hindu temples. Then there is a village with Chinese inhabitants dominant. Here the freshly painted catholic churches are a central focus. A little further along as I approach Pamplemousses, a towering minaret signals this is going to be a Muslim community. Brightly covered heads with glorious scarves, gentlemen dressed in white robes and smart headgear. Here, largely as in Australia, multiple religions co-exist and go about their business peacefully and without let or hinder.

When I get to spend a time in the capital city of Port Louis, I experience the markets that would make any environmentalist green with envy, such is the variety. The dragon fruit are so inviting.

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The freshest produce on every stall. Separate sheds for fish, poultry and meat. The meat building is clearly signed for Beef, Pork and Goat. No need for signs of Halal certification. It is where it’s needed, but no-one makes a big thing of it. Nearby I chance on the Royal Road Chinese quarter, and think I am back in Hong Kong. Each shop, some less than 2 metres wide, specialises in different household hardware: Locks, lighting, bathroom accessories and tiles, cast-ironwork railings, kitchen tools etc.. The next street is Indian and filled with shops of infinite hues of bright clothing. Never dull, always exciting to watch, Mauritius is multi-culturism that works most of the time, until political elections tend to bring out ethic differences. The contrast between old trading hub and financial hub is never more stark than when one looks up to the newly emerging skyscrapers.

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As I drive to the location of the big wedding now only a day away, for a rehearsal, I pass a ‘dark satanic mill’ that used to burn off sugar cane, the financial driver of the 20th Century Mauritian economy.

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Like the English clothing mills in William Blake’s heroic poem, these mills, once over a hundred in number, dominate the landscape. Now there are only four such processing plants across the island. This sugar mill is now overgrown with tropical undergrowth that entraps the man-made edifices as if in vines that would have been quite happy in some Tolkien Underworld adventure.

Next to it is another seemingly empty building. This is the shell of a once-thriving knitwear factory. In the latter years of the last century Mauritius gained duty-free access to the EU for knitwear. It imported raw cotton from South Africa and converted it into cheap T-shirts and clothing for value-conscious Europeans. Alas the wave of cheap labour that first induced Hong Kong manufacturers to set up shop here quickly passed. It was a brief window of manufacturing prowess. Only a few now remain, though much more automated and providing less employment. As the local working class aspired to middle class improvement, the now not-so-cheap labour caused those investors to move many of those factories on to lower cost Madagascar some 800 kms to the west. As consumers we always need to ask what the social cost of our voracious demand for cheap clothing actually means in those countries of manufacture: Myanmar, Philippines, Mauritius, Indonesia, Madagascar.

Today I handed over the 200 images of both the reception, wedding and preparations for wedding shot last week. It was a six hour stint. Pouring tropical rain soaked my already sweat-drenched clothing. Lesson: Always have a change of clothes in the car when shooting in the tropics. The task is to tell the story of a day in the life of two people, how they connect with each other through their families and friends, express their joy and fears, their emotions and their quiet thoughts.

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Each wedding is different, but in a way each one is the same. Every time the infinite nature of human expression will reveal special moments that, if recorded well, will give the family a series of pages on which they can look back. Now in my fifth decade of marriage to the same forgiving, understanding lady from Mauritius who allowed me to be part of her life all those years ago in the seventies, my own wedding pictures, most of them made by my later father-in-law, provide great comfort not only to us, but for our two daughters and now a third-generation grandson. There are pictures of the people in our lives then, many no longer with us, but who imparted their wisdom and experience from which all married couples launch. It’s the same in all cultures, and remains the most prized personal possession we own. Such documents of a special day must reflect all of those elements in a way that is memorable and impactful.

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How fortunate to be given the chance to be a photographer. What an unfathomable responsibility and honour.

In this island of Mauritius I see all the conflicts between the old and new. As a visitor over five decades I adore its progress and I mourn what is gone. Above all I am thankful to have known an island where a nation quietly go about its business, adapts to change and puts up with whatever weather the changing world throws at it. With all its faults and challenges, Mauritius is indeed a sceptred isle, set in a brilliant ocean.

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For a full tourist guide to Mauritius see information at this official link.
https://mauritiusattractions.com/mauritius-island-guide-i-83.html

The writer flew and was accommodated at his own expense.

All text and pictures © Copyright John Swainston, 2016, except where stated. All Rights Reserved.

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