There are amazing common historical linkages between Goa and Mauritius, says TEOTONIO R DE SOUZA
While at Mauritius enjoying a week of summer break early this month, I could get a first hand glimpse of the island and verify what I knew from my past readings and limited research. Some decades back I published an essay about French slave-trading in Goa. It can be read online at Scribd – http://scr.bi/9djabh – along with another hundred-odd published research articles related to Goa's history and culture that were widely dispersed and difficult to access.
The Mhamay Kamats had been the commercial correspondents and brokers of the French in India. Their papers were handed over to me in the early '80s and are now preserved at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research (XCHR). They are open to bona fide scholars for consultation. They enabled me to throw fresh light on several little-known aspects of Goa's past, including slave trading by French adventurers who acquired slaves from Mozambique for sale in the coffee and sugar plantations in Mauritius, other places in India, or even Macau, via Goa. Earlier, the French had tried to take slaves from Madagascar, but found them "insolent and idle".
La Bourdonnais had served the Portuguese from December 1729 till 1732 as naval captain. He was even awarded the honour of the Order of Christ, but abandoned service when the Portuguese lost interest in the project of recovering Mombaça. However, his contacts with Portuguese officialdom, and particularly with successive governors of Mozambique, permitted him to work out clandestine and lucrative deals in slave traffic, despite all official attempts of the Lisbon government to put an end to it. The Jesuits and Dominicans had their own interests to facilitate the French slave trade, which amounted to an average of around 1,000 slaves annually.
The Mhamay documents permitted me to cover the human traffic between the years 1773 till 1791. The correspondence mentions Mr Rondeau, a surgeon in Mauritius, and also several traders like Villeaulet & Neucent, Galinem, Pitot & Frères, Monneron Brothers, Gattereau & Co.
The period covered saw the peak of the French slave trade in East Africa; during the peace that followed the American War of Independence, and till the beginning of the Napoleonic wars. Many of the slaves were destined for America, with a nearly 500 per cent profit per slave. Indian cottons were doing well, as a means to acquire the slaves for sale to the French. The British capture of the islands of Mauritius and Bourbon in 1810 put an effective end to French slave trade. Studies by Edward Alpers and, more recently, Pedro Machado, are enlightening in this respect.
Little is still known about French activities in Goa during colonial times. We know that British troops occupied Goa under pretext of the Napoleonic threat, but even earlier, during the Anglo-French wars for control of India, the British feared the collusion of Hyder Ali and Tipoo with the French to take over Goa.
My recent reading of some Kannada papers from the Mhamay collection, and documentary references presented by two other scholars at the recent International Seminar on Indo-Portuguese History in Marseilles, corroborate my hunch that most historians so far may have been misled by Cunha Rivara's research on the Conspiracy of the Pintos in 1787. The English dealings with the Marathas need to be better analysed to lay bare the English interest in taking over Goa without disturbing the traditional friendship of Portugal with its oldest ally in Europe.
The capital and main port of Mauritius, Port Louis, was founded by French Governor Bertrand François Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1699-1753), who had assumed the name Mahé following his conquest of that region of Malabar in 1724. It was not his name that was given to the French colonial settlement of Mahé in Kerala, but the reverse. Mahé in India is said to derive its name from the Malayalam Mayazzi, meaning `eyebrow of the sea'. It is surrounded by Kannur on three sides. Would Mayem in Goa and Mahim in Mumbai have related linguistic origins?
When La Bourdonnais was appointed Governor of Ile de France (Mauritius) and Bourbon (Reunion) in 1735, he gave a huge impetus to the agricultural economy of the islands. We in Goa attribute most botanical transfers to the Portuguese, and often miss the larger colonial scenario in which the French, too, deserve credit for similar interests and actions. Often these were in reverse, from India and East Africa to Brazil via Ile de France.
The French sought to transform the island of Mauritius into a centre of spice cultivation, in order to reduce a virtual Dutch monopoly. La Bourdonnais introduced índigo and cotton, increased sugar plantations, and introduced tapioca from Cabo Verde to improve the diet of the black slaves.
Following him, an ex-missionary and administrator of the islands, Pierre Poivre (1719-1786) introduced the printing house. This administrator-cum-botanist and member of several science academies introduced a wide range of spices. He also encouraged the culture of fruit trees and was one of the instigators of laws concerning the protection of nature.
It is to Poivre that the Mauritians owe the famous 25-hectare spread of Pamplemousses garden, home to giant water lilies, orchids (which now find a lucrative market in the EU) and varieties of flora, including 60 species of palm trees, including Traveller's Palm (Ravenala madagascariensis), a fan-shaped plantain tree which holds sodium-rich water in its leaves and trunk, and can be precious for thirsty travellers. Curiously, the bothe – the yellow trumpets (Allamanda cathartica) that grow in most Goan cemeteries – are the national flower of Mauritius and used in welcoming social rituals.
The Indo-Mauritians comprise about 70 per cent of the population, much of it from the influx of indentured labour from South India between 1834 and 1909. Earlier Dutch slavery to Cape Colony also shared the Mauritian destination.
It is noteworthy to mention that the first two governors of the Cape were Indo-Creoles. Simon van der Stel's grandmother (Maria Lievens' mother) was Monica of Goa, an Indian slave. Maria was married to the Dutch Governor of Mauritius, and Simon was born aboard a ship in Mauritian waters. He was raised till 7 years in Mauritius and until 20 in Batavia. Governor Willem Andriaan van der Stel (1664-1733) was the great-grandson of Monica.
The majority of Mauritians are Hindu (77 per cent) and a significant group are Muslims (22 per cent). There are also some Christians and Sikhs, but they do not add up to even 1 per cent of the population. I was told that various Indian languages are still spoken, especially Bhojpuri, Tamil, Hindi and Urdu. But most Indo-Mauritians speak a French-based Creole language at home, and French in public. Goddess Durga occupies a central place in the cultural-religious life of Mauritian Hindus. Since 2007, a giant 30-metre Shiva statue dominates Ganga Talav, just as Anerood Jugnauth dominates Mauritian politics.
Multicultural and multi-religious harmony, together with a visible concern for the environment, is something Goa could learn from Mauritius. It has learned to exploit the best of its colonial heritage and its natural resources, through the politics of tolerance and well-planned cultural tourism.