"God first made Mauritius and from it, he created Paradise." This saying from Mark Twain praises the natural beauty of Mauritius. The island’s landscapes can be mesmerizing to the eyes of everyone, but Mauritius’ culture is not any less. However, it would be too simple to classify Mauritius as having one culture as so many unique and distinctive parts forms this whole. Going to its discovery can be a journey into some of the most fascinating and refined thousands year old ancestral traditions. It is made up of the different customs and traditions of those who, during the last 400 years, have settled on these shores. They all have been brought and planted on the fertile Mauritian soils by colonists from Europe, slaves from Africa, indentured laborers from India and Pakistan (before partition) and migrants from China. These people brought with them what they have been venerating in their country of origin; their tradition and cultures. This essay will take a look at how the migrants helped shaping the language, the food culture and the folklore culture in Mauritius.
The island was first discovered by the Arabs in the 10th century and they named it Dina Robin. In 1510, the Portuguese visited the island and navigator Pedro Mascarenhas called it Cirné. “The small Portuguese element in the vocabulary of Mauritian creole derives rather from the Portuguese element in European maritime jargons (such as Sabir and Lingua Franca) or from enslaved Africans or Asians who came from areas where Portuguese was used as a trade language”. Both the Arabs and the Portuguese did not permanently settle on the island. Instead, they just used it as a port of call in order to supply themselves in food and water. Later on, in 1598, the Dutch, while going to the East, landed at “Port Bourbon”, now called Vieux Grand Port, in the South East of the island and they named the island “Mauritius”. Unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch decided to establishment some settlements on the island. “The first slaves were brough from Madagascar by the Dutch in 1639.” However, the difficult climatic conditions as well as the fact that they already had a well established settlement in South Africa, forced them to leave the island. Much more time after their departure, the French took over in 1715. They named the island “Isle de France”. It was only from 1735 that the island started developing effectively. They created on Mauritius a plantation economy based on slave labor as they had done on “Ile de la Reunion” and in the West Indies. “Slaves became a majority of the population by 1730 and by 1777, they formed 85% of the total population.” These forced migrants came from West Africa, East Africa, Madagascar. French became the language among the slaves. However, their french would develop in a different way and thus, the creole language was created. The French governor, Mahé de La Bourdonnais, established Port Louis, which is now the Capital of Mauritius, as a naval base. A lot of buildings found today in Mauritius are from the French period. The Isle de France had become a base from which French corsairs successfully organized raids on British commercial ships. However, in 1810, a strong British expedition was sent to capture the island. The British landed in large numbers in the north of the island and overpowered the French, who did not have any choice but to leave. By the treaty of Paris in 1814, the Isle de France was renamed Mauritius and was given to Great Britain. When the British took over in 1810, “there were around 60,000 slaves in Mauritius. Britain had already abolished slave trade in its colonies but when Isle de France capitulated to the British in 1810, a deal passed between the British Government and the settlers on the preservation of their laws and customs.” So, the slave trade continued for a while. Under the British rule, “the island had completed the transition from being an agricultural and trading economy to become a plantation economy.” However, in 1835, slavery was abolished and a shortage of labor struck the island. This is when the British decided to contract indentured laborers. Indentured labor began with Chinese, Malay, African and Malagasy laborers, but ultimately, it was India which supplied the much needed laborers to Mauritius. “From 1 August 1834 to the end of 1835 fourteen ships landed “coolie” Laborers from Calcutta in Mauritius, and the West Indian colonies were to follow in the recruitment of free Indian labor. The recruits came mainly from the Tamil areas of Madras in Southern India, from the United Provinces and from Bihar in the north.” This period of intensive use of Indian labor took place during British rule, with many brutal episodes and a long struggle by the indentured for respect. This led to a wave of immigration which greatly affected the cultural landscape of Mauritius.
The largest ethnic group are North Indian Hindus, comprising about 35 per cent of the population. 17 per cent are Muslims of Indian descent, around 28 per cent are Creoles or non-white Catholics of African, Malagasy or mixed descent, while 3 per cent are Chinese and about 2 per cent Franco-Mauritians.
Analytically speaking, all the cultures of all the ethnic groups in Mauritius are creolized to a greater or lesser extent. For example, the Bhojpuri language spoken by many of the Indo-Mauritians has been so strongly influenced by other languages that it is unintelligible to Bhojpuri-speakers in Bihar, and the Franco-Mauritians – like all other Mauritians – eat spicy curries and lots of rice. Nearly every Mauritian speaks a French-based creole language (Kréol) fluently, and it is the mother-tongue the majority. Regarding lifestyle, consumption and way of life in general, it is easy to demonstrate the effects of mutual influence between the ethnic groups that make up the Mauritian population, as well as cultural influence from the outside world – not merely from the West, incidentally, but also from India and East Asia.
In spite of obvious cultural creolization evident throughout Mauritian society, it is traditionally the Mauritians of African and/or Malagasy descent who are classified locally as Creoles. Indeed, already in the 1850s, in an important article, the Rev. Patrick Beaton entitled his book on Mauritius Creoles and Coolies , contrasting the two major groups of African and Indian descent, respectively. Moreover, just like the other migrants, despite having kept strong ties with their traditional culture, Chinese migrants do not identify themselves to the mainland Chinese culture, probably due to the high "Mauritianism" and very strong Mauritian identity in the country. Most of the Chinese youth speak Mauritian Creole, French and English, the official language of the country. The elders or those who had little exposure to English or French who still be seen speaking in Mandarin.
According to an academic journal written by Amit Mishra,“emigration of Indian laborers was carried out under government regulation from three principal ports—Calcutta, Madras and Bombay; though some emigrants were illegally shipped from Pondicherry which was also under French possession.” Those Indian workers who came to Mauritius brought their cuisine with them. Since they came from different part of India, they had their own culinary traditions, depending on the regions. Both southern and northern Indian cuisine can be found on Mauritius. The extensive use of spices like saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves are the common ingredients that provide some powerful, yet subtle, savour. There is also extensive use of dals, vegetables and beans, and pickles, achards, to accompany the dishes. Dholl puri and roti, originally an Indian delicacy have become the fish and chips of the Mauritians. Biryani from Mughal origins is a dish prepared by the Muslim community, with meat mixed with spiced rice and potato.
At the end of the 19th century, the island saw the arrival of Chinese immigrants. They originated mostly from the Cantonese region bearing the best reputation in Chinese cuisine for its variety and sophistication. Chinese dishes appeal to the senses through color, shape, aroma and taste. This tradition of excellence has been preserved and, as such, has conquered the tables of all the other communities. Even if the Chinese community is one of the smallest, its cuisine is the most present in the restaurants around the island. Fried noodles or rice, chopsuey, spring rolls are eaten by everyone. Other such delicacies as the shark fin or abalone soup can only be found in specialized Chinese restaurants. Along the years, each of the country’s communities have adapted and mixed each other’s cuisine to their liking.
The national music of Mauritius is the “Sega” which is of African origin. Danced and sung by the African slaves, the Sega is now adopted by all Mauritians. The dancing was “a body language of slaves forgetting, leaving pain and sorrow behind at the end of a hard day’s work.” They would sing and dance at night and even the landlords would sit with them and watch as the slaves play their instruments during this little time of freedom they get. Furthermore, there are also traditional music and dances that have been introduced by the Indian and Chinese migrants coming to Mauritius. The Indians slaves have brought their own style and instruments such as the sitar and the tabla. Gradually but surely, the music of the Indians started mixing with that of the Africans. Thus, chutney music was created. It is sung in bhojpuri and kréole. There is also the Chinese migrants who have brought their ancestral tradition with them. The Dragon Dances and Lion dances which are very popular among all Chinese communities around the world, during the new moon festival, add a bit of spices to this already complex society. The Dragon dance is celebrated during the New moon and Lantern festival and the Dragon Dances is part of the culture.
The Africans, Indians and Chinese indentured laborers have contributed largely in shaping the culture of Mauritius. By bringing in each their own traditions, they created a common language which all Mauritians now use to communicate. The Indians with their spices and curry, the Chinese with their noodles and rice, built the culinary culture. The Africans with their Sega, the Indians with their traditional music instruments and the Chinese with their Dragon dances, helped develop the musical culture of the island.
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