Geopolitics in the Indian Ocean

Still capture of the map of the Republic of Mauritius that plays before each news bulletin

Still capture of the map of the Republic of Mauritius that plays before each news bulletin

As a Geographer, the first thing that struck me when watching the news here in Mauritius on the government run national (and only) broadcaster, MBC (Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation) was of course the map. MBC shows news bulletins in four languages, ‘News’ in English, ‘Le Journal’ in French, ‘Zournal’ in Kreol and ‘Samachar’ in Hindi. The Republic of Mauritius comprises of Mauritius proper, the main island, plus the outer island dependencies of Rodrigues (population 41,000) some 600 km to the east of the main island, Agalega (population 300), 1,100 km to the north and St. Brandon (also known as Cargados Carajos) 470 km to the north which has a transient population of around 60. These outer dependencies are clearly displayed on the map above, and contribute to Mauritius having an Exclusive Economic Zone of just shy of 1.3 million square kilometres. These outer dependencies are crucial to Mauritius’ claim on this sector of the Indian Ocean. What is of interest on the above map, and on other publications in Mauritius is the claim on Tromelin and Chagos, which can clearly be seen above.

Tromelin is currently administered by France and is part of the French Îles éparses de l’océan indien. The island is best known as the site of the wreck of the French slave ship L’Utile which ran aground in 1761 carrying slaves from Madagascar to Mauritius. The crew left the island on a raft and abandoned the sixty surviving slaves. Fifteen years later in 1776, a French ship passed the island and rescued the the remaining survivors, seven women and an eight month old child. Today the island is claimed by both Mauritius and the Seychelles. French claims to the island go back to 1810, but Tromelin was administered by the UK as part of the colony of Mauritius throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century up until the 1950s. Mauritius claims that Tromelin was part of its territory when it gained independence in 1968.

Chagos meanwhile is currently administered by the UK and its official name is British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). It is best known for the United States military base on the island of Diego Garcia. Chagos, formerly known as the Oil Islands (for the copra plantations) is an archipelago of some 60 islands and contains the world’s largest coral atoll, the Great Chagos Bank and formed part of Mauritian territory up until Mauritian independence when it was severed from Mauritius as part of an independence deal. It is one of the darkest periods of modern history, when over 1,000 Chagossiens were forcibly removed from their island homes and dumped on the quay in Port Louis and in the Seychelles with little in the way of compensation. This story remained under wraps to the outside world for decades, as the United States built up its military presence on the strategic archipelago. Today Mauritius claims the Chagos Islands, and its constituent waters as integral to the Republic of Mauritius.

Going back to the map that is beamed into Mauritian households multiple times everyday, it serves to reinforce the image of Mauritius as a major player in the Indian Ocean region, and acts in a similar vein to perhaps the Argentines claiming Las Malvinas on their maps, promoting a Mauritian solidarity and a kind of illustration that the Government (remember MBC is a government-run media outlet) is doing something to claim Tromelin and Chagos back (this surely will never happen).

Traces of Mauritius’ current outer dependencies can be seen throughout the archives – Rodgrigues, Agalega and St. Brandon as well as its former dependencies of Seychelles (severed in 1903), Coëtivy (severed in 1908), Chagos (severed in 1965) and Tromelin. I’ll be writing a piece on these outer dependencies soon.

Towards the Establishment of the International Indenture Labour Route: Conference

Mauritius hosted a three day conference 3rd to 5th November, organised by the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund and held at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Moka on the theme ‘Towards the Establishment of the International Indenture Labour Route’. As my previous post states, UNESCO has just confirmed the Indenture Route Project, and this conference was intended to bring researchers and other professionals from across the world together to present their work and discuss the future of such an Indenture Labour Route. I was able to present two papers, the first on the ‘Geography of Indenture: Fashioning an Indo-Pacific Arena’ and the second, entitled ‘Sweet Madeira: An Introduction to the Madeirans in British Guiana’. At the start of my first presentation I couldn’t resist asking if there were any Geographers in the audience…I got one enthusiastic hand in the air! So I think more scope for interdisciplinary work between Geographers and Historians in this field is needed!

There were participants and many interesting papers from academics and professionals from across the so-called Indenture Route countries and territories including: Mauritius, Réunion Island, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa, Uganda, St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Guyana, Fiji, Australia, the Netherlands, France and of course the UK (me!).

What was clear, was the need for more joined up thinking between academics, activists, and other community professionals across the countries which were touched by 19th and early 20th century indenture. It was fascinating to hear papers about indentured labourers (Indian and non-Indian) in places from St.Lucia to Fiji, from Réunion to Suriname. And it was great in particular to be able to listen to two presentations which showed that the legacy of indenture still has ramifications today – from the South Sea Islanders community’s experience in today’s Australia and female indentured workers in Sri Lanka.

Prof. Brij Lal giving his presentation on 'Culture, Identity. and the Indo-Fijian Experience'

Prof. Brij Lal giving his presentation on ‘Culture, Identity. and the Indo-Fijian Experience’

Home of the Conference

Home of the Conference

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The Indenture Labour Route

On 31st October, UNESCO approved the establishment of an International Indenture Labour Route, a project being led by Mauritius and including 26 countries to which indentured labourers were sent. The project is intended to complement the existing Slave Route project. UNESCO highlight that the Indenture Labour Route will:

  • contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics of the movement of millions of
    peoples and cultures in that age;
  • highlight the global transformations and culture interactions that has resulted from this
    history; and
  • contribute to a culture of peace by promoting reflection on culture pluralism, intercultural
    dialogue, sustainable development and peace.

UNESCO states that the Route will aim to ‘connect people, to foster research on indenture, disseminate information on Indentured Labour as an international phenomenon and to set up collaborative programmes that will promote
the history of Indentured Labour worldwide’.

More can be found in the UNESCO document available online:

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002299/229974e.pdf

Kreol

Mauritius of course, has no language ‘indigenous’ to its shores. An island comprising entirely of immigrant peoples, who came each with their own tongues (French, Malagasy, Mozambican languages, West African languages, Bhojpuri, Tamil, Telugu, numerous other Indian languages, Chinese languages…) concocted a language that is now the vernacular – Kreol or Creole, which used French as its basis. Mauritius is not unique in having a French Creole language as its everyday language. A quick glance at a linguistic map of the world will show dozens of countries and territories scattered across the globe in which some form of French Creole is spoken – Reunion Island, Seychelles, Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, Louisiana…Whilst they are all based on French, it does not mean they are mutually intelligible though some Creoles are more closely related together than others. What is of course revealing from this (incomplete) list of places in which a French Creole is spoken, is that they were all recipients of a mass influx of labourers (whether slaves, indentured labourers or both) who came from a multitude of places; in order to communicate with one another and the colonial administration, Creole was born.

Back to Mauritius – there is much debate on the status of Kreol / Creole. In the neighbouring Seychelles, Seselwa, or Seychellois Creole shares official national language status with English and French. In the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius and Reunion), this is not the case. English and French in Mauritius are the modes of instruction, are used for the rule of the law, in official documents etc. But Kreol / Creole remains what is spoken at home, on the street, in the playground and in the workplace. The national broadcaster also has a Kreol / Creole channel ‘Senn Kreol’ (Chaîne Créole) in addition to its other channels which broadcast in French, English and which play seemingly endless loops of presumably cheaply imported Indian soap operas. And in recent years, Kreol / Creole in its written form has increased (which has created lots of debate on potential loss of knowledge of English and French language skills, how to spell words in Kreol / Creole – which was born as a spoken rather than a written language etc).

Anyway, if you speak French and haven’t come across Kreol / Creole before, it’s fun to try and decipher it….

Mauritius will have a General Election before the end of the year. This party, the L'Alliance Lepep (People's Alliance) says 'bizin vrai sanzman' or 'besoin vrai changement' (need real change)

Mauritius will have a General Election before the end of the year. This party, the L’Alliance Lepep (People’s Alliance) says ‘bizin vrai sanzman’ or ‘besoin vrai changement’ (need real change)

Fancy a trip to the theatre to see Joseph and his technicolour dreamcoat in Kreol? In Kreol, the letters 'J' or 'G' is changed to 'Z'. So 'Joseph' becomes 'Zosef' and  'Gingembre' becomes 'Zinzam' (Ginger).

Fancy a trip to the theatre to see Joseph and his technicolour dreamcoat in Kreol? In Kreol, the letters ‘J’ or ‘G’ is changed to ‘Z’. So ‘Joseph’ becomes ‘Zosef’ and ‘Gingembre’ becomes ‘Zinzam’ (Ginger).

Whilst Malaria has been eradicated in Mauritius, other mosquito-spread diseases such as Chikungunya and Dengue Fever remain. This is a Government leaflet in Kreol telling you to    'get it before it gets you'

Whilst Malaria has been eradicated in Mauritius, other mosquito-spread diseases such as Chikungunya and Dengue Fever remain. This is a Government leaflet in Kreol telling you to ‘get it before it gets you’

Hey you! I'm growing, don't crush me!  'Pa kraze mwa' literally from the French 'Ne pas écraser moi'

Hey you! I’m growing, don’t crush me!
‘Pa kraze mwa’ literally from the French
‘Ne pas écraser moi’

'Fer couma mwa, to pa ta-c' Do like me, you'll be alright / you won't have a problem (given the amount of rubbish on the ground around the bin, I'm not sure the message got through)

‘Fer couma mwa, to pa ta-c’
Do like me, you’ll be alright / you won’t have a problem
(given the amount of rubbish on the ground around the bin, I’m not sure the message got through)

Ou = Vous = Your Lavwa = La voix = Voice Konte = Compter = Counts / Matters

Ou = Vous = Your
Lavwa = La voix = Voice
Konte = Compter = Counts / Matters

Long live your Kreolité Novam = Novembre ziska - jusqu'à Desam = Décembre

Long live your Kreolité
Novam = Novembre
ziska – jusqu’à
Desam = Décembre

Art in the Archives

Have we lost the art of doodling? Now pretty much everything we ‘write’ is typed, even our drafts.

While reading documents here in the archives, my eyes keep on being drawn on many pages to scribbles in the margin; the code symbols used; the illustrated report divisions; hand scrawled maps, and above all the periodical flourishes of ‘calligraphised’ (is that a word?) handwriting – perhaps when the writer had a moment of creativity? Or when (s)he was just bored? In any case, I think they add to the texture of the documents giving them some sort of individuality (different handwriting and scribbles by different writers). Something which, as we furiously type today gets a bit lost!

Section divider

Section divider

Pencil sketch of the east of Mauritius (Flacq and Moka districts) showing sugar estates

Pencil sketch of the east of Mauritius (Flacq and Moka districts) showing sugar estates

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Indicator to another section in a report

Indicator to another section in a report

Section divider

Section divider

Letter heading art

Letter heading art

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A flourish of creativity...or a moment of boredom?

A flourish of creativity…or a moment of boredom?

Stylised Fiji

Stylised Fiji

Images taken from National Archives of Mauritius documents

Indenture and Mauritius

My research whilst here in Mauritius focuses on the Indentured Indian and time-expired (those who had completed their contracts) population on the island. Following the abolition of slavery, Mauritius required a labour force to produce the sugar that its economy had become so dependent on. Mauritius was the first British colony to recruit labourers from India to work on its sugar plantations in 1829 (shortly after its neighbour Réunion). Indians were recruited, principally from northern India (Bihar, Uttar Pradesh) through the port of Calcutta (Kolkata), from southern India (Tamil Nadu) through the port of Madras (Chennai) and also initially through the port of Bombay (Mumbai). Labourers were recruited for a determined number of years, after which they could renew their contract or return to India. This of course is a very general description of the Indian Indenture Scheme for those coming across the term for the first time and I hope to elaborate further on some of its peculiarities at a later date. One final point for now – whilst Indians make up the bulk of indentured labourers who were transported to various colonies throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to work on sugar plantations, there were also other groups that worked as indentured labourers alongside them; Javanese in Surinam, Madeirans in British Guiana, Melanesians in Fiji, Chinese in Cuba…

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Who are Mauritians?

If you take a trip around Mauritius, and are a people watcher (or even if you are not) you will see faces that could call Asia, Africa or Europe home. Mauritius was uninhabited when the Dutch arrived in 1598 and Mauritians today are descendants of European planters who came to Mauritius in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; of Africans brought to the island under slavery from Madagascar, Mozambique and West Africa; of Indians who arrived in Mauritius under the Indenture scheme between the 1820s and early 20th century; and of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is of course, a broad categorisation. Whilst this is the basic generic published history of the Mauritian population, there are even further intricacies. Mauritius was also for example, home to an Indian population before Indian indenture commenced in the late 1820s, as under French and British rule it was a destination for Indian prisoners. The white Mauritian population is also often homogenized as Franco-Mauritian – yet not all Europeans who arrived in Mauritius were from France (archival naturalization records for example reveal Austrians, Belgians, Brits and Germans who settled on the island). And not all immigrants from Africa came as slaves; during the nineteenth century, Comorians and Malagasies for example were enlisted as indentured labourers. In short, Mauritius highlights the forced and voluntary mobility of people in and around the Indian Ocean during the 18th and 19th centuries, and it contains exciting and unique geo-histories of migration and settlement to be explored.

Coat of arms of Mauritius - the ever-present Stella Clavisque Maris Indici, or Star and Key of the Indian Ocean - indicating its strategic position at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and 18th and 19th century European shipping lanes

Coat of arms of Mauritius – the ever-present Stella Clavisque Maris Indici, or Star and Key of the Indian Ocean – indicating its strategic position at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and 18th and 19th century European shipping lanes

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