Project Canterbury

Mauritius and Madagascar

Journals of An Eight Years' Residence in the Diocese of Mauritius, and of a Visit to Madagascar
by Vincent W. Ryan, D.D.
Bishop of Mauritius

London: Sheeley, Jackon, and Halliday, 1864.

Chapter I. Mauritius and the Seychelles--General Description--Language, etc.

THE Island of Mauritius is situate in 20 degrees south latitude and 57 degrees east longitude, and possesses many advantages from its geographical position and its excellent harbour. When first discovered by the Portuguese in 1505 it had no indigenous race of men dwelling in it, nor does it appear that any settlement was made by that people of sufficient duration to lead to the importation of slaves from Madagascar, or from the continent of Africa. While the Dutch, who gave to the island the name of Mauritius, held it, from 1644 to 1710, many of the natives of Madagascar were brought over by them--large numbers of whom escaped from the plantations, which were few in number, and gathered in bands in the forests and mountains, from whence they carried on a system of predatory incursions on the settlements and factories, which so annoyed and impoverished the settlers that it was one of the main causes which led to their abandonment of the island. The French then took possession of it, and gave to it the name of the Isle of France. Under their rule the traffic in slaves went on vigorously, and those who now occupy the place of the peasantry of the country are either freed slaves or their descendants, of African or Malegache extraction.

The scenery of the island is very fine and varied; several distinct ranges of mountains, generally wooded to the summit, with wide and well-cultivated plains between them, extensive gorges and deep ravines, furnish a great variety of beautiful landscapes; while many of the bays and inlets of the coast, fringed with palm-trees above the white beach, and girt in to seaward with the line of reefs, on which the waves dash with incessant surges, present combinations of beauty and grandeur which must be seen to be duly appreciated.

The number of the ex-apprentice population, occupying, as we have said, the place of the peasantry, is about 40,000. They are generally employed on small holdings of their own, like our English allotments; or as domestic servants. The labour on the sugar-cane plantations is carried on by coolies from India: of these, the remarkable number of 228,780 were in the island in September, 1863. They come from each of the three Presidencies of India, and amongst them are found representatives of many of the tribes of that country, from Peshawur to Cape Comorin. Several thousand Chinese are living in Mauritius, chiefly artisans, pork-butchers, and keepers of grocers' shops.

In some parts of Port Louis the tradesmen are chiefly Mohammedans and Parsees from India. Arabs and Abyssinians are met with, but not in large numbers.

The remaining part of the settled population,--the whole of which, according to the last census, amounted to 310,000,--is made up of English and French residents, who have come from Europe; of the descendants of the French colonists of former days; and of the coloured inhabitants of mixed origin, among whom there are some of all classes of society--some of them having obtained high distinction in their competition with other students for the prizes given by the learned professions in Europe.

Besides the above, there are generally two regiments of the line stationed on the island, a company of sappers and miners, and one or two batteries of artillery.

The number of seamen passing through the harbour in the year 1855, for which I obtained the returns, was 15,764.

Nearly a thousand miles to the north of Mauritius are the Seychelles Islands--about thirty in number--the largest of which, Mahé, is eighteen miles long and about five miles wide in its broadest part. Several others are inhabited, and the population of the whole is about 8000. From the position of these islands, lying near to the equator, and out of the usual track of hurricanes, though occasionally visited by them at long intervals, the vegetation is very luxuriant, and the timber finer than in Mauritius. One tree, the coco-de-mer, is peculiar to this archipelago, and flourishes chiefly on the island of Praslin, 21 miles N.E. of Mahé. It grows to the height of a hundred feet, and the large branch-leaves at the summit are more than twenty feet long. The nut is double, sometimes triple, and I have seen some quadruple in form. The explanation given of the name "coco-de-mer" is, that until the Seychelles were discovered the nuts were only found on the shores of other lands, whence it was inferred that they grew in the sea. The white gelatinous substance inside the nut is rather insipid in taste, and the chief use made of any part of the tree is that of a part of the leaf, which is employed in the fabrication of elegant fans and baskets, which command a high price, and are greatly admired. The bulk of the population of these islands is of the ex-apprentice class, and it will be seen in subsequent pages how much encouragement has been given to the work carried on amongst them. A description of the Isle of Lepers will be given in its place.

Another scene of operations is presented by the groups of coral islands in the Chagos Archipelago. Situate about a thousand miles east of the Seychelles, and entirely different from those islands with their granite peaks, and from Mauritius with its basaltic mountains, these emerald gems of the sea present from a distance the appearance of trees growing out of the water; and on drawing nearer are found impracticable for landing on the seaward side, because of the extensive reefs by which they are fenced off from approach. They have been formed by the coral insect.

It will be seen from the account of my visit to them in 1859, that several islands, Agalega, Coetivy, and Ile Platte, lie between Mauritius and the Seychelles. I may also mention that there are coral islets near to Mauritius, and some amongst the Seychelles group, between which and Madagascar a few are also found: viz. the Amirautes and Providence Island, &c.; but the Chagos groups have this peculiarity, that there is no land of a different formation anywhere in the vicinity.

A flourishing trade in cocoa-nut oil is the chief cause why labourers of African descent, or imported from India, are found in these islands.

The language which may be called vernacular in Mauritius is Creole, a sort of corrupt French. Chinese artisans, Indian coolies, Arab traders, Mozambique rescued slaves, natives of Madagascar, and English soldiers, who might land on the same day, each utterly unable to comprehend any one of the others, would be found, after a year's residence, conversing together for the ordinary purposes of life with ease in this strange dialect. The number of words in it is very limited. One expressive term is used for all the shades of meaning which in the original have their own separate words. For instance, for all kinds of "seeing" the strong word guetter is employed. Happiness of every degree, as well as different gradations of complacency and affection, are expressed by the word "content." Gagner is used for every sort of acquisition, from a large fortune to a bad cold. To catch and lay hold of is chombo; i.e. "tiens--bon;" and a thief once passed by a crowd of persons untouched, because an officer who had seen him emerge from a house, pursued by the occupants, called out "Attrapez-le!" If he had said, "Chombo-li" he would have been seized at once. To the lower classes, who only know Creole, good French is as unintelligible as good English. In fact, more than once I have heard of the reply being given to some one who spoke in French, "Moi n'a pas connais Anglais." The only gender acknowledged in the pronouns is the masculine singular, and as the article when once put in is not again dropped, the combinations are sometimes exceedingly remarkable. Thus, "the eyes," "les yeux," becomes lizié; and, "his eyes," son lizié: "Li viri son lizié," he turns about his eyes.

The auxiliaries for the verbs are two:--Va, and fini

Thus:--I go, is expressed by moi allé,
I shall go, is expressed by moi va allé,
I went, is expressed by moi fini allé.

It sounds strange at first to hear such expressions as, "I have finished beginning"--"I have finished finishing." Moi fini commencé--Moi fin fini.

Project Canterbury