Blending of cultures in Mauritius
That said, it is still a beautiful setting. When American travel writer and humorist Mark Twain visited Mauritius on his round-the-world journey in 1896 he wrote that – having seen the place and talked to locals – he’d gathered ‘the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then Heaven, and that Heaven was copied after Mauritius.’
Certainly the island was a pristine paradise when Portuguese explorer Diogo Fernandes Pereira happened upon it in February of 1507, while pioneering a new route to the East Indies. Up until then, the 700 square mile island had been sitting in splendid sunlit isolation for about 10 million years, since it first emerged from the Indian Ocean in a series of volcanic eruptions.
Over countless millennia it evolved its own vibrant ecosystem, its volcanic peaks cloaked in deep tropical forests still riot with life: exotic birds, flowers and reptiles, many of these species found nowhere else on the planet. With the exception of a few probable but unrecorded visits by Arab seafarers centuries earlier, the island had no human history at all. Nobody lived there. Its white sand beaches were a blank page waiting to be written on.
But its pages weren’t written upon by Pereira, nor the Portuguese for that matter – or at least, not very much. Pereira named it Ilha do Cerne, the Island of the Swan, after his ship, then sailed away to obscurity. Although the galleons of the Portuguese spice trade would call in at Ilha do Cerne occasionally over the next few decades, to refill water casks or re-stock their larders with fresh fruit, fish or meat from the giant flightless birds – the dodo – found in abundance there, nobody settled the place.
It was the Dutch, nearly a century later, starting in 1598, who wrote the very first chapters, introducing sugar cane, importing the first slaves, and giving the island the name by which we know it today, Mauritius, after a wealthy shareholder of the Dutch East India Company. It was they who famously hunted the poor old dodo to extinction, killing off the last of the forest-dwelling creatures sometime around the year 1680.
By 1715 Mauritius was in French hands, the Dutch having abandoned it a few years earlier. The money men of the Dutch East India Company back in Amsterdam had been dissatisfied with the island’s profitability. Not so the French. They came to stay and, thanks to the efforts of an aristocratic sea captain-turned-governor named Bertrand Labourdonnais, the island – renamed Ile de France – blossomed into one of the most prosperous places in the Indian Ocean. Gone were the primeval rainforests, replaced with mile after mile of sun-drenched sugar cane, and grand plantation houses that look lifted from Gone With The Wind (and indeed are occasionally used as movie sets).
‘They say that it is fangourin, the first juices of the sugar cane, that runs in the veins of the Mauritians,’ says Edwige Gufflet, director of L’Aventure du Sucre, as she walks through the gardens of the museum. Devoted to the history of the sweet stuff, it is set in a restored 19th-century mill in the Pampelmousses district in the north, near the village where Governor La Bourdonnais had his villa. ‘Sugar is the lifeblood of the island.’
Few Mauritians could claim fangourin-filled veins better than Salim Soobun, a cane cutter and seventh-generation Mauritian whose ancestors came over from India more than 150 years ago. Sunrise in a nearby northerly field finds him and his fellow cutters taking a breather from harvesting. ‘We’ve been out since 2:30am,’ he says, sitting shaded by a patch of tall cane. ‘We start early to try to avoid the heat.’ Because of the rocky ground on the island, much of the sugar cane still has to be cut by hand, with machetes, rather than with the big harvesting machines used elsewhere.