Mauritius diary 2: On race

A continuation of Mauritius diary 1: Friendly people

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Though the Arabs and others had visited before, in 1638 the Dutch became the first inhabitants of Mauritius, which they had earlier named after Prince Maurice van Nassau.

Ecologically, one can only wonder what it must have been like. Without humans or other big predators, unique flora and fauna thrived, most notably the dodo. They were severely affected by habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species such as pigs and macaques. The last sighting of the dodo was in the late 17th C.

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A dodo, a one-horned sheep, and a red rail (all extinct), 1624 Dutch painting

In 1715, five years after the Dutch abandoned their colony, the French established one, renaming the island Isle de France. It became a key strategic outpost as well as a trade port for ships travelling between Asia and Europe. Amid the Napoleonic wars, the British won control of Isle de France in 1810, and revived its former name, Mauritius. They would rule till independence in 1968.

Importantly, a compromise was struck between the incoming British rulers and the French settlers, who were permitted to keep their land, the French language and French law.

Hence Mauritius today has a schizophrenic colonial heritage, with English as the official medium, including in parliament and school, and French Creole as the popular one—in a country named after a Dutchman.

During the recent Euro 2016 football tournament, “Franco-Mauritians” supported France while most Hindu-Mauritians supported England. When England seemed on the verge of playing France, I was told to ready myself for the sporting occasion of the year, a night when the whole country would shut down.

But then the plucky Icelanders ruined the party by beating the English to set up their own meeting with France. Football fans in Mauritius groaned.

Is there any other post-colonial state where two separate colonial legacies continue to operate so strongly in tandem? It’s all the more remarkable given that the colonialists’ descendants—the English and the French—now constitute only a tiny minority.

Yet Mauritius is unique in that it had no original inhabitants. When the colonialists arrived, they would have found a cultural blank slate.

One could argue, semantically, that Mauritius could never have been a colony because there was nobody here to colonise. In need of free labour, the colonialists turned to slavery.

Though the Dutch enslaved some Malagasies from Madagascar, it was the French who ramped up the operation, bringing in people from West and East Africa as well as India. It was around this time that Mauritius’s raison d’être evolved from simply strategic outpost to colonial production site, with sugarcane the dominant crop.

Today sugarcane covers some 85% of arable land. Verdant plantations function as landmarks, while the crop’s lifecycle, from young shoots to flowering adult, serves as a marker of seasons. Its numerous byproducts—including muscovado, a dark palm sugar, and delightful, infused rums, so smooth you double-check the alcohol proof—enrich Mauritian life.

Yet the industry began and flourished, like other colonial projects, through the brutal exploitation of other humans, something I am reminded of every time I kitesurf.

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The three essential life skills I have learned here are kitesurfing, cooking octopus, and harvesting and preparing sea urchins (uni). Whenever my writing day job has been particularly unfulfilling or unproductive, I have found some redemption in one of them.

Kitesurfing has been challenging because it has forced me to confront issues I prefer to suppress: body ageing, flexibility and balance; and one’s ability to learn completely new things. There is nothing quite as humbling as watching a ten-year-old effortlessly perform somersaults just before you slam your face into the water.

Nevertheless, after sixteen, often frustrating, hours of lessons—the average student needs eight—I crossed the final milestone (kitesurfing upwind) and became an independent kitesurfer.

It is exhilarating, and there’s such a sense of unbridled freedom when I’m out zipping across the water.

And then there is the stunning scenery at Le Morne, a peninsular with its eponymous 556m-high basaltic monolith. It looks like a colossal fist that has punched through the earth’s surface. Situated on Mauritius’s south-western point, Le Morne is easily visible from the middle of the country. Wherever you are, whether miles away or kitesurfing right at its base, your eyes are just drawn towards it.

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Its vertiginous dimensions suggest there is no way up, yet Ling and I complete the return trip to the summit in about four hours. The last hundred metres of the ascent involves the use of ropes as the passageway becomes narrower and steeper. Even on a sunny day, the strong winds make it frightfully cold.

Le Morne, then, is perhaps the least accessible and habitable place in Mauritius. And that, I guess, made it the perfect refuge for slaves—far from the capital, Port Louis, in the north, far from any plantation.

Slavery persisted in Mauritius under the British. When it was finally abolished in 1835, a police patrol was sent to Le Morne to inform the runaway slaves that they were free. From their perch atop Le Morne, the slaves saw the cops coming. Believing they were going to be captured and returned to their “owners”, they jumped off Le Morne to their death.

It is difficult to imagine how wretched and crippling slavery everywhere must have been. But just by looking at Le Morne, in all its forbidding grandeur, one can better understand the torture, the pain. It is one of two World Heritage Sites in Mauritius, both in remembrance of the horrors of slavery and the system that replaced it.

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After slavery was abolished, the British started importing indentured labourers from India. That was the last major immigration wave—wonderfully narrated by Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies—which accounts for Mauritius’s ethnic complexion today: Indo-Mauritian 68%, Creole 27%, Chinese-Mauritian 3%, Franco-Mauritian 2%.

Yet centuries of miscegenation mean that many Mauritians trace their origins to two or more groups. Mauritius apparently stopped asking about ethnicity after its 1972 census (the above numbers are from the CIA world fact book). Like other post-colonial multicultural societies, Mauritius seems to have constantly dithered over how important—or not—ethnic classifications are for equitable development.

The Indians and other South Asians prefer to align by religion, and so in Mauritius today the people you meet are likely to self-identify as such: Hindu-Mauritian (the group most South Asians belong to), Muslim-Mauritian, Creole, Chinese-Mauritian, Franco-Mauritian, and some others, like Anglo-Mauritian. The Creoles and Whites are mostly Christian.

Many Hindus resort to micro ethnic identification. There are Bhojpuris, Marathis, Tamils and many others. It sometimes feels like every single Indian sect in Mauritius has its own language, its own temple, and its own public holiday.

It is all very confusing, with ethnic, religious and linguistic affiliations criss-crossing the island. Even the classification of Creole is ambiguous. Most people who call themselves “Creoles” are Africans, yet I have also met “Creoles” who look more Asian, more Indian, or more White.

Like other small, multiethnic countries, Mauritians have difficulty defining what it means to be Mauritian. Despite the history of inter-racial mixing, it seems that in post-independence Mauritius there is little intermarriage.

Nevertheless the Creole language is a wonderful social glue, celebrated in song, dance and occasionally even in parliament (some want it formally accepted there). The most fascinating Mauritians I have met seem a blend of Indian, European and islander—spiritual, family-oriented, introspective, philosophical, and infused with joie de vivre, prone to break out in song or dance any time.

There are three socio-economic groups worth noting. North Indian Hindu Mauritians have dominated the civil service and politics, which unsurprisingly resembles India’s—dynastic parties prone to cronyism, corruption and fractured coalitions, endlessly berated by a rambunctious media and population that ultimately feels powerless.

The old Franco-Mauritian elite still controls much land and wealth. And the Black Creoles have formed an underclass seemingly stuck in a cycle of poverty.

These are the slightly paraphrased thoughts of a young Creole female professional:

“In 1967 we had an election that was essentially an independence referendum. Most Hindus wanted independence; the others wanted to stay with the UK.

When the Hindus won (marginally), many of the White and Creole elite left. The Whites went mostly to South Africa. The Creole elites spread out, many went to Australia and the UK.

Many of the Whites returned in 1994 post-apartheid, but the Creole elite never did.

The political class is dominated by Hindus, but it’s very caste-based. Non-Indians don’t even bother applying for public sector jobs.

Once, an Indian friend of mine, who is married to a Creole guy, applied to work with the Public Service Commission. At the interview the Indian officials grilled her about her (marital) Creole last name, asked many questions about her family’s origins. She didn’t get the job.

Most racism against the Creoles comes from the Hindus.

That said, we also have ourselves to blame. There has been transmission intergénérationnelle—how do you say it in English?—of a slave’s mindset among the Creoles.

Work was never seen as advancement, as social good, as progress. It was always seen as something forced.

In the 1990s, there was a big educational push among the Creole community. So now there are a lot more of us coming through the system. But it took a long time.”

Negative stereotypes about the Creole community—lazy, unreliable, preference for family/leisure time over work—are similar to the ones about Malays in Singapore. Or, for that matter, similar to how Shanghainese describe Sichuanese, and how mainland Indians describe “hill” Indians from the North-east.

Perhaps in every society the richer workers who believe they work harder need an easy framing device for groups whose values or life opportunities differ.

At times, like when I’m kite surfing or walking along the Flic-en-Flac beach, Mauritius can seem perfectly integrated. Other times it can seem perfectly segregated: at the London Way supermarket in Tamarin, an expat area, the only Chinese and the only White run an electronics store and Cable TV stand respectively; Indian ladies control almost all the cashier and other customer-facing positions; and black Creoles perform most of the other work, including delivery and kitchen. Neat class-based ethnic clusters.

I know I’m just scratching the surface here, but I hope to explore this and much more if I ever write a book about this country.

***

Because of their friendliness and attitudes towards money, Mauritians can give the impression that they have only just progressed from the barter economy, and are yet to be afflicted by the impersonality, the guardedness, the cynicism, of modern monetary societies.

With a quarter of Singapore’s population on land two-and-a-half times as big, there appear to be sufficient resources for hunter-gatherers, including the people who hike in summer through the thickets of the Black River Gorges National Park to pluck goyaves des Chines, Chinese guavas, little red, sweet-sour explosions; the fishermen who return from the seas with 8kg octopuses, 7kg blue parrotfish and 3kg red snappers; and the Singaporeans who harvest sea urchins, scattered endlessly across shallow Mauritian bays, while wondering why nobody else has cottoned on (“You Asians eat weird things,” our landlord declares).

Yet many different worlds exist in parallel here, and one can also find many financially-savvy professionals, particularly since Mauritius is a major offshore financial centre aka tax haven, particularly for India Indians. The Panama Papers revealed that some 1,200 Mauritius companies have links to Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the centre of the scandal. One reason inequality has been rising is the immigration to Mauritius of wealthy foreigners fleeing taxes.

Service industries, primarily finance, technology and tourism, make up the bulk of the economy. Mauritius was never able to attract the kind of export-oriented manufacturing that flocked to East Asia. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 effectively cut Mauritius out of global sea trade routes. Most products here seem to have been made in either China, India or South Africa.

Among the few Mauritians I’ve spoken with, one big existential dilemma is how much like Singapore they want to be. On the one hand, Mauritius, like other small developing countries, seeks to emulate Singapore’s economic success. On the other, middle-class Mauritians, many of whom have visited Singapore, seem acutely aware of what they might lose.

“Busy, busy, busy. Rush, rush, rush. For what? For what?” says Attiq, a Muslim-Mauritian moneychanger.

Some locals already bemoan the creep of commerce and modernity in their day-to-day interactions. “Visit Rodrigues,” I am told, about Mauritius’s offshore island some 600km away. “That’s Mauritius twenty years ago. The people are still simple.”

It’s all perspective. Perhaps these are the common growing pains of development and urbanisation—fear of change; worries over greater individualism and materialism, and about less family and leisure time.

If Mauritius did develop very quickly, one would also worry about its pristine environment. As we travel around the island, we see very few smokestacks greying the skies. That is partly why Mauritius has one of the cleanest air qualities in the world (being in the middle of the ocean also probably helps).

Even though Mauritius has a poor ancient ecological record—dodo and others—its recent history has been much more impressive. And that is what brought Ling and me here.

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The story continues at Mauritius diary 3: Conservation

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A Hindu wedding we attended—the bride is the niece of Ling’s classmate

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Indian vegetarian meal

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The wedding kitchen had three wood fires going. Poor Mr Diesel was being hounded by head chef in fuchsia

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The wedding band

Below are a few more examples of Mauritius’s linguistic and cultural mishmash

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This Indian snack, perhaps known as muruku or sev to some, is in Mauritius called kaka pizon—pigeon shit.

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There are numerous Catholic shrines all over the island, in little caves, at the base of trees, along mountain roads. This is perhaps the quirkiest—built by a man who apparently dreamed that the road to salvation runs through a pigeon house. (Le Morne in the background.)

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Mauritians love their festivals. We attended a Pride parade, which was followed by an annual Lady Boy Competition

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Goyaves de Chine, Chinese guavas, most commonly found in summer

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Mauritian truck driver on the way home with a yellowfin tuna head below his seat

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My cousin Sanjeev from Singapore learning to kitesurf.

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These Mauritius sea urchins can have an intense sweetness, with the aftertaste of sugar granules. But not all are nice.

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And here are the more familiar black spiky ones. It was a real struggle dislodging them from their crevices at the base of large rocks. Watching them die, their spikes twitching slowly to a stop as I salivated over devouring their sexual organs, made me again consider vegetarianism.

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Octopus salad conquered; grilled octopus a work in progress.

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Watering sugarcane

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Flowering sugarcane, with the Moka range in the background

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Sugarcane flower

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Harvested

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I haven’t used my drone that much, but I like this shot from Chamarel, which shows sugarcane fields with and without flowers. The Chamarel rhumerie is the red building way in the distance

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Climbing Le Morne

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