Journey To Beauty & Chaos In Paradise Islands

Mauritius - Seychelles - Comoros - Mayotte - Réunion - Madagascar

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore

Sunday June 22, 2003


Greetings from Mauritius ! I arrived here end of May on a month-long project.  Images of exotic fine beaches, colourful coral atolls teeming with fish, and coconuts swaying in clear blue skies - all running riot in your mind?  This is my first foray into this part of the world, officially classified as part of Africa .  However, Mauritius , like other islands of the Indian Ocean , Seychelles , Réunion , Comoros , Mayotte and Madagascar , are not really Africa but a strange cultural mix-mesh, the result of centuries of global movement of mankind, cultural exchange and trading links.  Let me bring you on a historical journey into the Indian Ocean !


Madagascar , the fourth largest island in the world, though moored just off the coast of southern Africa , was essentially a land inhabited by Malay-Indonesian mariners who sailed here 1500 years ago and intermarried with some Africans who crossed the Channel of Mozambique to Madagascar .  They speak a tongue that is closer to Bahasa Indonesia than Zulu or Xhosa. 


The volcanic islands of the Comoro chain (which comprises the three fragmented and individually autonomous islands of the Union of Comoros, and the French-ruled island of Mayotte ) - the legendary Islands of the Moon - are inhabited by an Islamic people formed by the union of African coastal tribes, Persian mariners and Arab traders who once patrolled the vast waters of the Indian Ocean,  like Sinbad the Sailor from now-occupied Basra .  The volcanic islands of Mauritius , Réunion and Seychelles were uninhabited, with the most unusual fauna and flora, until the arrival of the Europeans.


With the Age of Great Explorations, the Europeans – the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all passed through these islands on their way to the fabled spices, silk and riches of the Orient.  They established fortresses to safeguard their control over safe routes and set up plantations to exploit the rich volcanic soil of the islands. 


Whilst it was the Portuguese and Dutch who first came to the region, it was the French who settled here in huge numbers - in Mauritius (then known as Ile de France), Réunion and Seychelles - and altered the demographic and linguistic landscape of these isles.  The French brought black slaves from Africa and Madagascar to work in the sugar plantations which at one time covered up to 90% of all arable land, and instructed them in French, which the latter duly corrupted into a hybrid dialect called Creole.  Today, descendants of the Creole still live in Mauritius , Réunion and Seychelles .  In Seychelles , they form a majority of the population and 40% in Réunion . 


Then came the British, who occupied Mauritius and Seychelles with ease, and allowed the local French aristocracy to run the local economy and good life the way they wanted it.  Even today, French language remains the language of business and public communication, while Creole is the language of the home; with English the language of public documents and official signposting. 


With the abolition of slavery, Indian indentured workers were brought in, and they became the majority ethnic group in Mauritius and one of the largest minorities in Reunion .  The Chinese came too, mostly as small traders and businessmen – every Mauritian town and village has at least one Chinese store.  Ten of the top 50 businesses here are Chinese-owned.  All these newcomers – both Indians and Chinese - quickly adopted Creole as their tongue of choice. 


Came the rise of nationalism and Madagascar , Seychelles , Comoros and Mauritius became independent states.  Mayotte refused to join the Comoro Union and has remained a French overseas territory, while Réunion has been declared an overseas department, meaning that it is part of “Mainland” France , not just a colony.  With the exception of Mauritius and Réunion , civil wars and coup d’etats have plagued these isles of paradise in the last few decades.  Madagascar ’s civil war “lite” ended only a year ago and Comoros continue to suffer from the separatist passions among its three already small island states and the more than twenty attempted coups in the last 20 years.  As I wrote these words, a power struggle is continuing in the Comoros , where the Federal President tries to prevent the President of the largest island state (Grand Comoro) from coming to office.


Over the next three weeks, with E who will soon arrive in Mauritius , I am to begin my journey across this interesting region, starting from Mauritius , then on to Seychelles , Comoros , Mayotte and Réunion .  We will spend about 10 days in Madagascar – too short for this huge country – before returning to Mauritius for transit back to Singapore .


OK, hold tight and the journey begins!


Wee Cheng

Port Louis , Mauritius


Mauritius I: Fishing Villages, Sugar Ocean And Ganges Of The Isle

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