'Pigmentocracy still rules': Vaughan Rapatahana visits Mauritius
Mauritius is a lagoon of contradictions resting inside a coral reef of pluralities.
My wife Leticia and I just spent over a week traveling throughout the island (population about 1.3 million).
We really liked the ambience because it is unlike anything else we had previously encountered – and we are inveterate travellers, having been to over seven different countries in the past three months alone. The weather was hot and pleasant – except for Christmas Day when it rained all day; the beaches are white-sand lovely; the food is yummy (lots of East Indian touches and there’s plenty of fresh fruit) and above all else it’s a safe place to holiday in. Serious crime does exist, but it is not rampant, and any major violence had been more to do with intra-ethnic strife than anything else.
The largest proportion of the population - about 68% - are of Indian ethnicity, 27% are of African stock, and 3% belong to a Sino-Mauritian minority. None are Indigenous in the sense of being First Nation Peoples, but all have existed on the island for generations. Mauritius was uninhabited until about 400 years ago.
All had predecessors who were introduced as either slaves or indentured labourers (same thing to me, if truth be told) for the usual array of Imperialist Bunnies – Holland, France, England – in that order of hopping. They were nabbed and sent to Mauritius to harvest the massive sugar cane crops which are still a major component of the Mauritian economy, along with – increasingly – the textile industry and finance. The two largest ethnic groupings are generally stuck in the lower echelons of society. Many are (increasingly) unemployed as tourism – the regnant cash crop of the island nowadays – falters; most have never ever even been able to leave the island and visit their ancestral homelands. They count themselves as pure Mauritians, even if to look at they seem very similar to folk beyond their shores, and even if they share the predominant world religions of Hindu, Islam and Roman Catholicism.
All inhabitants speak French or this very French-based Kreole, with a significant minority also speaking the diminishing Mauritian Bhojpuri tongue. All can speak English if need be, but it is by no means their language of choice (it is spoken as a first language “by less than 1%” according to the 2011 census): more, it is imposed on them at school level by a still colonialist-flavoured government, to the extent that arcane Cambridge examinations prevail and that up until 2012, at least, no Kreole was even offered in schools (Kreole was made into an optional subject in primary schools this year)...
Mauritius is a lovely place to swim and suntan and shop for novelty knickknacks – especially if you are a visiting Frenchman (the French comprise 2% of the population but are still the dominant small, land-owning minority) or Brit – and huge flight flotillas of these two nationalities arrive at the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International airport down in the south-east every summer season – boosting the manifold beachfront hotels and the two Club Meds near Grande Baie and also fostering their own delectable seaside private mansions, which are in complete contrast to the non-whites' unpainted low-level cinder-block homes, green and white Muslim mosques and ubiquitous plain domed Hindu temples.
The contrast is all-too-obvious between Mahebourg – a scenic but run-down city where the original Dutch colonizers and Dodo-decimators first arrived - as compared to the nearby Blue Bay which is an impressive array of these sprawling several-storied on-the-sand mansions owned by the Europeans and serviced by the descendants of slaves brought to L’Isle de France, as the French called Mauritius, by the antecedents of these European Godfathers only a few hundred years earlier.
So pigmentocracy still rules in Mauritius – the whiter you are, somehow the ‘better’ you are seen to be, to the extent there is a sort of caste system on the island and it is somewhat alarming that the (financially-speaking only) lowest of the low are the darker-skinned, especially the completely eviscerated Chagos Islanders who were expelled from their Chagos Archipelago relatively recently by the scheming British and Americanos so as the latter could construct their massive Diego Garcia airbase to rendition and redact at will.
These poor indigenous folks (for they too were sealed, signed and delivered to Chagos, from Africa in the main, to work in the coconut industry among others) exact whereabouts are unknown generally to their ‘fellow’ Mauritians other than the fact that they are lingering lost ‘somewhere’ in several villages and also in the outskirt slums of Port Louis – the sprawling and largely mundane capital city, highlighted by an impressive deep-water harbour, a scuttle of slightly high-rise shopping arcades at the water’s edge, the bustling Central Market festering in spices, and the old British Fort Adelaide built especially to protect their women and children during the historical Anglo-French land-squabbles and sea battles in and around Mauritius – one of which the French actually won in 1810 and recorded as their sole naval victory over the English on the L’Arc de Triomphe!
All of which is hugely ironic as so many tourists to Mauritius are black-skinned English bankers who were born and bred in London and are rabid fans of Manchester United(!), or members of the rapidly rising black South African middle-class with the funds to spring over to Belle Mare beaches from Johannesburg. We met some of these types when we went on a guided tour to the impressive Botanical Gardens in Pamplemousses and the Sugar Factory Museum on the outskirts of Port Louis. We all ended up at the lovely lunchtime restaurant at this selfsame ex-Sugar Cane Factory and shared tales about Aotearoa-New Zealand rugby over the luscious sugar cane rum of many varieties, as well as the equally impressive local Phoenix beer. It’s when a 14 year old non-white J’burg boy tells a Maori that his favourite rugby player is Richie McCaw you know that – for some ethnicities in some places, at least - it’s all far too simplistic to cast everything in clear cut black and white tones nowadays: which is all a very good thing...
In many ways Mauritius is a time-warp where the past rubs up against the immediate present and an indubitable and inevitable widening future: where black men and women cater to other black men and women with more money than them. One group speaks French, the other English. It’s just that Mauritius has yet to inherit the prosperity that fuels the visitors from its former colonies, (some its near neighbours), who have successfully begun to throw off the shackles of their selfsame colonisers! Ironies abound - rather like the piles of lank green kelp, which are consistently being cleared off the seashore by teams of – you guessed it – Creoles and Indo-Mauritians stewing under the noon day sun.
Globalisation at play, maybe, but any leveling process has yet to eke through to the ‘average’ Mauritian in their own rather wondrous and spectacularly verdant homeland, operating on a distinct Mauritian time, whereby one waits just a bit longer than one would in Hong Kong or parts of Auckland: Leticia and I were going to be picked up by taxi at 5.00 one evening to be taken on an hour-long drive to the very touristy Grand Baie before the sun went down. Our affable driver finally arrived at 6.10 pm. C’est la vie, n’est-ce-pas mes amis?
And we cannot forget sega – the endemic and idiosyncratic and Mauritius unique meta-dance-music that quintessentially sums up this island overall: a kaleidoscopic cross-pollination of variegated nuances, fragrances, tones, credos, aftertastes and tongues – and for us now already – delightful memories.