Mauritius : about honoring past heroes

Port Louis is a small capital city, but it is the most beautiful capital I’ve seen. Most of Port Louis lies in a palm-cusp formed by mountains, suggesting a city being held out to the sea, as an offering to it. It is a city founded by Europeans and its citizens today are descendants of Africans who came to the island most reluctantly, chained at neck and limb as slaves; and Indians and Chinese, who arrived as bonded laborers when African slaves became freemen.

On the beautiful, sunny waterfront of Port Louis stands the iconic statue of Mahé de La Bourdonnais, looking out at the Indian ocean; a statue of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam faces Mahé's, from beyond the main street, its back to the waters. The tiny museums in Mahebourg and Port Louis praise Mahe’s leadership, and his enterprise—Mahé is to Mauritius what Francis Light is to Penang, and Stamford Raffles to Singapore. But Mahé promoted the slave trade and built systems and institutions that sustained it—he created measures that made it impossible for slaves to escape. In the deep of the horseshoe-footprint of the mountains, on the racing grounds at the far end from the ocean, stands the tomb of General Malartic, a French governor whose courage prolonged slavery in defiance of France which had abolished it.

Taking-The-Kent-246-TitledIn the National Museum at Mahebourg, there is a celebration of another type of hero in Mauritian history—the corsair. And Robert Surcouf, whose portrait hangs there, was the King of Corsairs. The corsairs were mere pirates, even if they were sponsored by the state. Next to Surcouf’s portrait is a smaller painting depicting his taking of the Kent, the jewel in the fleet of the British East India Company. His own ship was only a third the size of the Kent, he had only a third of the men Captain Rivington of the Kent had, and Rivington’s guns far outnumbered his own, but he attacked anyway. This happened in the Gangetic gulf in the Bay of Bengal, a fight in which Captain Rivington was killed and Surcouf was victorious; he took the Kent with him to his base in Mauritius, there to be welcomed like a general back from great campaigns—the man was only twenty-seven years old. Below his portrait in the museum there is a pistol supposedly his, and (surely) Rivington’s sword and scabbard.

There hadn’t ever been a pirate like Surcouf. He retired when only thirty-five, and took home to France a prize of forty-seven ships and lived in great luxury. He was a hero in his lifetime and is a hero after his death. But Surcouf, too, ferried slaves to Mauritius in his ships.

Such are the great men in stone and on canvas in Mauritius. The descendants of the people whom these men oppressed protect the monuments and the artifacts of their remembrances in the museums.

Vasco-Da-Gama-140I remember when, in India, in May 1998, I had driven to Calicut to where a sign marks Vasco da Gama’s landing after his historic voyage from Portugal. I was the only person at the spot, at ten in the morning, on the day which marked the five hundredth anniversary of that great maritime achievement. From the newspapers I gathered that nothing happened at any time on that day. Some leaders had planned a celebration, but some others had feared political and religious offense in it, a fear which far outweighed the daring of the man, and his epochal adventure.

Technorati Tags: ,