Sweet taste of freedom: Celebrate 50 years of independence in Mauritius

As part of the ongoing 50th Independence celebrations in Mauritius, here’s a round-up of the festivities, and a look at their centuries-old ties with India. 

author_img Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy Published :  16th March 2018 12:55 PM   |   Published :   |  16th March 2018 12:55 PM

As we landed in Mauritius, a pearly drop in the Indian Ocean, striped flags fluttered gaily in the untamed tropical breeze. In vast fields that stretched from mountain to sea, sugarcane stalks swayed in celebration as we joined 1.3 million Mauritians commemorate 50 years of Independence since British rule, earlier this March 12. Immigration officer JL Juste reminisced, “I was four when we got Independence. Back then, there were only sugarcane fields. Now there’s tourism, resorts, industries…”

The British were not the first to colonise the island. Until the early 1500s, nobody knew of its existence besides African sailors and Arab traders. The Portuguese were the first humans to set foot on it in 1505. The Dutch colonised it in 1598 and named it Mauritius after Prince Maurice Van Nassau. They introduced wild boar, tobacco, slaves from Africa and sugarcane from Java by mid-17th century. The French, who had occupied nearby Reunion, came to Mauritius in 1715 and laid the foundation of the sugar industry. The British took over in 1810 and made Mauritius their stronghold for the next 150 years. 

A cultural cauldron

How a virtually uninhabited, unknown speck of 790 sq miles became the global leader in sugar production by the 1800s under colonial rule is a bittersweet story of ambition, grit and hardship. After the abolishment of slavery in 1834, plantations were deserted as slaves fled to nearby towns and empty lands. The British had to bring indentured labour from their populous faraway colonies, as some Indian spice and Chinese flavour was stirred into the cultural cauldron that’s Mauritius.

In capital Port Louis, we stood by the footprints that marked the first landing site of indentured immigrants at Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Led by officer Ramavtar Vedanand, we walked up the old basalt steps to the bathing area, Immigration Depot and other historic relics. What began as an experiment of using ‘free’ labour instead of slaves, created one of the biggest migrations in history. 

Immigrating in waves and tracing their ancestry to Odisha, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, the Indian influence is palpable. Despite its Creole culture and Franco-Mauritian and Afro-Mauritian population that converses in French or Creole, you notice the Indianness everywhere — in food, clothing, faces and names (though more elaborately spelt)! English may be the administrative language but locals ‘think in French’, hum tunes in Bhojpuri and celebrate Thaipusam, Ougadi and Shivratree. “The Mauritian personality presents the best of everything,” said Roselyne Hauchler of Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, with a chuckle. “We have the tolerance of the Indians and their patience guided by the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, the English way of life and pragmatism, and the welcoming warmth, hospitality and love for fine things from the French and Dutch! That’s why we get along with everyone!” 

All in a day

In an exclusive interview, Tourism Minister Anil Kumarsingh Gayan said, “Our association with India goes back a long time, and today, we see the blossoming of those ties. Mauritius is a beautiful country with temperate climate. When it’s monsoon in India, we have winter here with 15-16 degrees. Despite its small size, it is very multi-cultural, like a miniature United Nations! Only in Mauritius can you catch the sunrise and swim with dolphins at 8 am, have lunch and walk with lions and see the famed Mauritian sunset with a sundowner and Sega dance on a beach — all in a day.”

On the eve of Independence Day, we witnessed the gala street parade with dodo tableaus at the Mahebourg waterfront. The narrow winding roads were packed with people heading for the regatta to enjoy a day out, shopping and feasting on fried noodles and dholpuri (improvised Bihari dal paratha) at street food stalls around Pointes des Regates. The regat is a unique boat race of traditional rowboats or sailboats, a Mauritian sporting tradition that originated in 1874 as contests between fishermen. Sailboats did a ballet on waters that were bluer than a bluejay’s wing with the lofty Lion Mountain providing a dramatic backdrop. 

Hand in hand

It was a bright sunny day and the mood was electric. Local musicians performed on stage as Sega dancers twirled their frilly skirts and moved sensuously to the beat followed by a Koli (fisherman) dance and other traditional dances from India. Despite its roots in Africa, the Sega evolved over the years with fusion from other cultures, including some inputs from Bhojpuri! (The Bhojpuri Boys is a popular music band here.) Young men belted Creole songs to the beat of the traditional ravanne (large tambourine like a dafli). 

On the big day, the stalls were jam packed in capital Port Louis at the legendary Champs de Mars, the second oldest racecourse in the world to witness the flag hoisting ceremony and 21-gun salute. The Republic of Mauritius flag was raised for the first time right here in 1968. The 50th year of Independence saw gravity-defying manoeuvres by Sarang, the team of Indian Air Force helicopters and a phenomenal rifle drill by the IAF’s Air Warrior Team. There were dog marches, a horse parade courtesy the Mauritius Turf Club, a drill by the Mauritius Police Force, vibrant cultural performances and a fireworks display that provided a befitting finale. It was a proud day for us, as the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, presided over the celebrations as chief guest. Mauritian PM Pravind Kumar Jugnauth explained how the two countries enjoyed a special bond that went deep, going beyond government interactions to the very hearts of people who take pride in the shared heritage and ancestry. As the Indian tri-colour flew alongside the Mauritian Les Quatre Bandes, the motto ‘lame dan lame’ (hand in hand) rang true...

Things to see & do

Visit the Aventure le’Sucre (sugar factory), Mahebourg Museum, Grand Bassin, Black River Gorges, Casela wildlife park, and La Vanille Crocodile park. Take part in undersea walks, sea karting, snorkelling & scuba, nature hikes, rum tastings, and check out the multi-coloured earth, Curious Corner, and the island’s highest waterfall at Chamarel.

Upcoming events 

• The food fest, Festival Culinaire Bernard Loiseau (March 25-April 2) 

• A village carnival in Rivière Noire District, Chamarel en fete (April 8)  

• Mauritius Tour Beachcomber – Mountain Bike Race (May 17-19)

• Runs on the Dodo Trail (July 8)

• Mauritius Marathon (July 15)

• The Creole jamboree, Festival International Kreol (November 17-26) 

• Porlwi Festival of Contemporary Culture, Port Louis (December)