The Isle of Rats: Colonial Mauritius

The liberal imagination is pleased by multicultural societies like Mauritius but its culture was built with violent sacrifice.

 
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Mauritius is a rare example of a Creole culture from the start. There really aren’t many of these in world history. The island had no indigenous human beings and the first human visitors to the island were Muslims from East Africa and Arabia in the medieval era. There were no permanent settlements there until the 17th century when the Dutch arrived.

Bernardin de St. Pierre, Paul and Virginia, 1788.

Gordon, Daniel, ed. Postmodernism and the Enlightenment: New Perspectives in Eighteenth-Century French Intellectual History. New York: Routledge. 2001.

Vaughn, Megan. Creating the Creole Island: Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius. Durham: Duke University Press. 2003.

Vink, Markus. “The World’s Oldest Trade: Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century.” Journal of World History 14, No. 2 (June 2003): 131-177.

Anthony Comegna: In September 1598, Dutch Rear Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck landed with five ships on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The island was full of natives, many of whom lived in the center in the forests, some of whom lived in the coasts. The Dutch called them, “walgvogels”. They had no fear, they moved freely about the island whenever they want, they went wherever they wanted, until the Dutch ate every single one of them. The walgvogels were Dodo birds and their image remains [00:00:30] important in Mauritian history. It’s a symbol of authenticity, a sign that Mauritian culture really is unique, that it’s more than the sum of its parts. Without any indigenous peoples to mourn on Mauritius, the island remembers the walgvogels or “disgusting birds” as the first sacrifices that were made to build the island’s Creole culture. Today’s modern liberal imagination is quite pleased to look at multicultural wealthy peaceful societies like Mauritius and see all the progress [00:01:00] we’ve made in hundreds of years now, but even Mauritian history and culture have been built by bloody violent sacrifice.

Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

Mauritius is a rare example of a Creole culture from the start. There really aren’t many of these in world history. The [00:01:30] island had no indigenous human beings and the first human visitors to the island were Muslims from East Africa and Arabia in the medieval era. There were no permanent settlements there until the 17th century when the Dutch arrived. The Dutch had achieved their independence after their 1566 revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs, King Philip II. They established their republic in 1581 and chartered the East India Company, or VOC, in 1602. From the start, the [00:02:00] new country was yet another corporate capitalist imperial power.

Rear Admiral Warwijck’s ship stayed on Mauritius for about four months but they didn’t establish any formal settlements there until much later, 1638. What Dutch settlements did gradually rise up on Mauritius were there really just as a stop along the way to the much more important colony of Batavia, which is today in Indonesia, the city of Jakarta. The VOC center of operations was Indonesia and [00:02:30] that was really the center of the Dutch empire at the time. Mauritius was just another place along the way. The first party the Dutch left there was only 25 men and the second wave added just a few dozen more. They were mainly sick soldiers, sailors, and convict laborers imported from other parts of the Empire. The most obvious and accessible source of labor for the Dutch, therefore, was in Madagascar. They took 105 slaves from Madagascar back to Mauritius, but half of them escaped almost immediately [00:03:00] to the center of the island in the forests where they lived as maroons or they escaped French ships that were anchored elsewhere on the island. But everyone on Mauritius was a maroon of sorts, most of them were convicts or they were slaves and everybody basically wanted to escape when they could.

The Dutch finally dismantled the settlement 20 years after it was founded in 1658 and an unknown number of black and white maroons remained behind, haunting the island whenever it was visited by Europeans afterward. They also [00:03:30] left European animals, especially rats. They so dominated the island and terrorized European inhabitants that the Dutch called it the “Isle of Rats”. For the better part of a decade after the Dutch abandoned Mauritius, the rats really ruled along with the maroons at the island center.

The Dutch settled again in 1664 and this settlement lasted until 1710, but slaves still escaped from their masters with ease, genuinely competing with the imperial overlords for actual [00:04:00] and real mastery of the island. This prompted the Dutch then to institute a terroristic legal system to compel order. When the authorities convicted three male slaves of arson, the Dutch crucified them and ripped their flesh from their bodies. Once they were dead, the bodies were left on public display. Fear should rule this island, constant fear of maroons and constant fear of master terrorism, one feeding right into the other.

In 1706, Pete of Bali, [00:04:30] a freeborn person of color and an escaped prisoner, formed a cosmopolitan gang of maroons in an arson conspiracy to burn the islands most important buildings. The conspirators came from everywhere around the Indian Ocean basin. They were a motley group of many nationalities. There were people from Bali, like Pete, from Madagascar, Batavia, Malabar, Bengal and Goa, Mozambique, Padang and Pati. There were also Dutch colonists from German, Swiss, and English extraction. But even though they [00:05:00] foiled Pete of Bali’s plot and many others, the Creole maroons really dominated the island along with the rats. The Isle of Rats was abandoned again in 1710 and the settlers were forcibly removed to the Cape in Africa or to Batavia. Captains ordered them to be well clothed so they wouldn’t bring shame to the Dutch nation. The rats again became kings and the maroons rejoiced to again rule themselves.

With the Dutch gone, the French swooped in to claim Mauritius. They did so in [00:05:30] 1715 as part of John Law’s growing Mississippi Bubble and the French East India Company put settlers there in 1721. They called it “Ile-de-France”. Colonial Governor de Nyon conducted a census in 1725. There were 213 known residents, including 20 company officials and 100 soldiers, so half of these people on the island were non-productive citizens. There were only 28 laborers and 5 domestic servants, a mere 13 [00:06:00] women and 24 slaves owned by the company. Only 10 slaves were owned by private residence. This was the only time in colonial Mauritian history when the free outnumbered the enslaved and it did not last for long. At the island center there was always a shady and unknowable number of maroons, legions of rats, real and potential conspirators everywhere surrounding white residents. There were natural disasters like cyclones, there were famines. [00:06:30] The island was amazing we isolated out there in the middle of the ocean and everybody felt it, they felt constant phobia and anxiety, constant fear from virtually every source. Slavery was necessary in such a place, or at least they thought so, yet it was the source of their greatest fears.

The slave trade was a company monopoly and it was the main source of its success or at least whatever success they could claim. But settlers complained that more slaves meant more danger, so the more the company imported and [00:07:00] tried to make profits, the more they endangered the island’s safety, yet the island’s main purpose, as far as the French imperialists were concerned, was as a national defense projected into the Indian Ocean. Real life on the island, however, was an ongoing class war that Paris knew nothing about. Mauritius’s civil engineers hoped to fuse physical and social engineering into a single project when they imported lascar sailors from Muslim areas to build the harbors on the island. They leased slaves as apprentices to the [00:07:30] Muslims hoping to make them complicit in the practice. The Muslims and their leased slaves would build the islands infrastructure, make slavery more profitable, and distribute the risks of the institution. It was supposed to all reinforce the effectiveness of the French Code Noir, the Imperial black code that regulated slavery, but it didn’t really happen that way. After all, the slave code did not really govern behavior before the fact, it’s impossible for law to govern behavior before the fact. People are free agents and [00:08:00] they’ll do what they like. They may be punished afterward, but you can’t compel behavior before the fact with a mere law code. Mauritian’s knew this implicitly.

The East India Company had a total monopoly on trade, but black markets flourished. They were essential to prosperity on the island, people needed their supplies and the company’s ineffective inefficient methods were always lacking. The company sold slaves on credit, yet they promulgated laws that regulated white violence toward their slaves to [00:08:30] prevent rebellion. There was a constant balancing act between corporate profit and the purpose of the island and the empire and the actual colonial governance that was necessary to keep white Mauritian’s safe. There was supposed to be a clean fusion here between private and public interests, but slavery in the island’s isolation made this relationship inverse, the more slaves imported, the less safe the island became. Management of life on Mauritius was always socially [00:09:00] negotiated as it is in every slave regime. The white settlers there so feared maroons that they would even arm their slaves when necessary.

Old regime France, that is France before the revolution in 1789, France under the kings, was marked by a Baroque imperial ideal. The Baroque style of architecture and art also applied to the kinds of empires that were being constructed in the era. Baroque style combined lusciousness, luxuriousness, grandeur, and [00:09:30] stunning complexity into an awe-inducing inspiring work that swept you up in the glamor and universalism of the Catholic Church or the universalism of the absolute monarch that you lived under.

In the very late days of the Baroque French Empire, one novelist, perhaps the most popular novelist of his day, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, wrote a novel called, “Paul and Virginia”, centered on Mauritius. He published it in 1788, right at the end, right [00:10:00] at the very end of old regime France, and his portrayal of Mauritius represents very well, very clearly and thoroughly, the old regime Baroque ideal of what a French Empire was supposed to look like, what exactly it was supposed to be around the world. The idea was that people everywhere, all over the place, people of all types, can be incorporated into the same hyper rationalized governing institution. Paul and Virginia were very happy children, they had a pleasant [00:10:30] upbringing in the most beautiful countryside you can imagine with two happy slaves in the family to do everything they needed. One day the two go out into the forest and they’re gone for quite a while so their families get worried and they send the slaves to go looking for the children. On their way, the children find a runaway slave that Virginia very much feels for and tries to help them out.

Speaker 2: Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul and Virginia, 1788. “Margaret’s slave, who was called [00:11:00] ‘Domingo’, was still healthy and robust, though advanced in years. He possessed some knowledge and a good natural understanding. He cultivated indiscriminately on both plantations the spots of ground that seemed most fertile and sewed whatever grain he thought most congenial to each particular soil. Where the ground was poor, he strewed maize. Where was most fruitful, he planted wheat and rice in such spots as were marshy. He threw the seeds of gourds and cucumbers at the foot of the rocks, [00:11:30] which they loved to climb and decorate with their luxuriant foliage. In dry spots, he cultivated the sweet potato. The cotton tree flourished upon the heights and the sugarcane grew in the clayey soil. He reared some plans of coffee on the hills where the grain, although small, is excellent. His plantain trees, which spread their grateful shade on the banks of the river and encircled the cottages, yielded fruit throughout the year. And lastly, Domingo, to soothe his cares, cultivated a few plants of tobacco. [00:12:00] Sometimes he was employed in cutting wood for firing from the mountain, sometimes in hewing pieces of rocks within the enclosure in order to level the paths. The zeal, which inspired him, enabled him to perform all these labors with intelligence and activity.

He was much attached to Margaret and not less to Madame de la Tour, whose Negro woman Mary he had married, and he was passionately fond of his wife. Mary was born at Madagascar and there acquired the knowledge of some useful arts. She [00:12:30] could weave baskets and assorted stuff with long grass that grows in the woods. She was active, cleanly, and above all, faithful. It was her care to prepare their meals, to rear the poultry, and go sometimes to Port Louis to sell the superfluous produce of these little plantations, which was not, however, very considerable. If you add to the personages already mentioned, two goats, which were brought up with the children, and a great dog, which kept watch at night, you will have a complete idea of the household as well [00:13:00] as of the productions of these two little farms.

One Sunday at daybreak, their mother’s, having gone to mass at the church of Shattuck Grove, Paul and Virginia perceived a Negro woman beneath the plantains, which surrounded their habitation. She appeared almost wasted to a skeleton and had no other garment than a piece of coarse cloth thrown around her. She threw herself at the feet of Virginia, who was preparing the family breakfast, and said, ‘My good young lady! Have pity on a poor runaway slave. [00:13:30] For a whole month I have wandered among these mountains half dead with hunger and often pursued by the hunters and their dogs. I fled from my master, a rich planter of the Black River, who has used me as you see.’ And she showed her body marked with scars from the lashes she had received. She added, ‘I was going to drown myself, but hearing you lived here I said to myself, “Since there are still some good white people in this country, I need not die yet.”’ Virginia answered with a motion, [00:14:00] ‘Take courage unfortunate creature. Here is something to eat.” And she gave her the breakfast she had been preparing, which the slave in a few minutes devoured.

When her hunger was appeased, Virginia said to her, ‘Poor woman! I should like to go and ask forgiveness for you of your master. Surely the sight of you will touch him with pity. Will you show me the way?’ ‘Angel of heaven,’ answered the poor Negro woman, ‘I will follow you where you please.’ Virginia [00:14:30] called her brother and begged him to accompany her. The slave led the way. At length, about the middle of the day, they reached the foot of a steep descent upon the borders of the Black River. There they perceived a well-built house surrounded by extensive plantations and a number of slaves employed in their various labors. Their master was walking among them with the pipe in his mouth and a switch in his hand. He was a tall thin man of a brown complexion. His eyes were sunk in his head and his dark [00:15:00] eyebrows were joined in one.

Virginia, holding Paul by the hand, drew near and with much emotion begged him, for the love of God, to pardon his poor slave who stood trembling a few paces behind. The planter at first paid little attention to the children who he saw were meanly dressed, but when he observed the elegance of Virginia’s form and the profusion of her beautiful white tresses which had escaped from beneath her blue cap, when he heard the soft tone of her voice which trembled as well as her whole frame, [00:15:30] while she implored his compassion, he took his pipe from his mouth and lifting up his stick, swore with a terrible oath that he pardoned his slave not for the love of heaven, but of her who asked his forgiveness.

Virginia made a sign to the slave to approach her master and instantly sprang away, followed by Paul.”

Anthony Comegna: Saint-Pierre was an abolitionist, he was anti slavery and his vision, or his portrayal at least, of Mauritius is harsh in its treatment of slavery. But yet, [00:16:00] it is still romanticized. This is, to him and many others of his era, still the natural society in development, it’s the perfect Creole island waiting there for human beings to come and sculpt from the very state of nature itself. To Saint-Pierre, slavery was still natural in Mauritius to some degree and though we might want to reform it, it was still a romanticized portion of the island’s natural history.

Speaker 2: “At the sight of the good [00:16:30] old Negro who wept for joy, they began to weep too, but had not the power to utter a syllable. When Domingo had recovered himself a little, ‘I ran backwards and forwards in the plantation not knowing where to look for you. At last, I took some of your old clothes and showing them to Fidel, the poor animal, as if he understood me, immediately began to send your path and conducted me, wagging his tail all the while, to the Black River. I there saw a planter who told me you had brought back a maroon Negro woman, his slave, and that he had pardoned her at [00:17:00] your request. But what a pardon! He showed it to me with her feet chained to a block of wood and an iron collar with three hooks fastened around her neck. After that, Fidel still on the scent, led me to this very spot. Come, eat and recover your strength.’ Virginia sighed at the recollection of the poor slave and at the uneasiness they had given their mothers. She repeated several times, ‘Oh how difficult it is to do good.’

While she and Paul were taking [00:17:30] refreshment, it being already night, Domingo kindled a fire. But when they prepared to continue their journey a new difficulty occurred. Paul and Virginia could no longer walk, their feet being violently swollen and inflamed. Domingo knew not what to do when he was in this perplexity, a troop of maroon Negroes appeared at a short distance from them. The chief of the band, approaching Paul and Virginia, said to them, ‘Good little white people. Do not be afraid. We saw you pass this morning [00:18:00] with a Negro woman of the Black River. You went to ask pardon for her of her wicked master and we in return for this will carry you home upon our shoulders.’ He then made a sign and four of the strongest Negroes immediately formed a sort of litter with the branches of trees and [inaudible 00:18:15] and having seated Paul and Virginia on it, carried them upon their shoulders. Domingo marched in front with his lighted torch and they proceeded amidst the rejoicing’s of the whole troop, who overwhelmed them with their benedictions. [00:18:30] Virginia, affected by this scene, said to Paul with emotion, ‘Oh my dear brother! God never leaves a good action unrewarded.’

It was midnight when they arrived at the foot of their mountain on the ridges of which several fires were lighted. As soon as they began to ascend, they heard voices exclaiming, ‘Is it you my children?’ They answered immediately and the Negroes also, ‘Yes, yes, it is!’ ‘We have been,’ said Virginia, ‘to the Black River where we went to ask pardon [00:19:00] for a poor maroon slave to whom I gave our breakfast this morning because she seemed dying of hunger and these maroon Negroes have brought us home. Now I am repaid for all the hardships I have suffered.’ When they reached the cottages with their children, they entertained all the Negroes with a plentiful repast after which the latter returned to the woods praying heaven to shower down every description of blessing on those good white people.”

Anthony Comegna: So this was Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s ideal Creole island. [00:19:30] A natural romantic ground for human development in the enlightenment fashion and his novels were incredibly popular among the enlightened readers at home in Paris, as they were on Mauritius. But the real Mauritius, the Mauritius that was actually in the Indian Ocean rather than in the novels, the real Mauritius was simply a military hub in the great French Empire and the main beneficiary of the Indian Ocean slave trade and the luxury [00:20:00] good trade that so depended on slavery. This was no island of enlightenment dreams, much as authors might like to present it that way and much as our modern liberal imagination would like to think.

The island’s elites really thought of themselves as the empire’s best representatives, the enlightenment’s best representatives. They had naturalists among them, they were explorers, there were astronomers and botanists on the island, pharmacists and doctors. They had a printing press on Mauritius. They hosted grand [00:20:30] island balls that I’m sure, from time to time at least, rivaled the salons in Paris. They read Voltaire, they read Montesquieu and Renault, Helvetius and Locke, Rousseau. They read Compte de Buffon and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre of course, Mauritius’ own. The Isle of Rats really had come a long way, at least now that the French had control of it.

Yet still, in 1767, there were 15,000 slaves on this tiny island and they added 5000 more over the next [00:21:00] five years. From 1769 to 1793, about 80,000 slaves were imported to Mauritius and the island’s total population in 1807 was just 77,768. Here, slavery was everywhere and the prospect of rebellion never left. The enlightened officials on the island recognized that slavery was unnatural and the rebellion to it might in fact be natural. So, therefore, the law must [00:21:30] mitigate the slave’s condition, it must control the actions of white people, control their tempers and their tortures, in order to protect the island slave regime.

This old regime version of justice, this Baroque kind of imperialism that could combine many swelling overawing examples of human order, it fundamentally recognized the slaves’ humanity and their rightful place in society. So to appease white local’s fear of official recognition [00:22:00] of the slaves interests, colonial masters ultimately resisted authority from Paris when it threatened Mauritius. But again, there was the balancing act. A single overtly terroristic master could threaten the entire island, especially the women and children left to oversee slaves. If there was a slave rebellion, they would be the first targets. When the French Revolution arrived in Mauritius in January 1790, the population immediately split between radicals and conservatives. [00:22:30] But when the directory abolished slavery in 1794, there was resistance all over the island. They refused to enforce abolition. Eventually, Napoleon came to power and enforced slavery again throughout the French empire, the Mauritian’s doubled down on their terroristic practices of before. The new harsher slave regime removed slave trials from public view and it made manumission, or the voluntary liberating of your slaves, substantially more difficult.

[00:23:00] The British took Mauritius in 1810 as part of the Napoleonic wars and they instituted a version of indirect rule very much similar to what they would later do in Africa, where they let local elites control their own affairs so long as they followed the general guidelines instituted by the empire. In practice then, in Mauritius, this meant greater exploitation and continued slave trading.

The British abolished slavery finally in 1835 and Indian laborers quickly surged in Mauritius [00:23:30] to replace the slaves. The demography of the entire island shifted over the next century. The Creoles, descended from Africans, Indians, East Asians, were swiftly outnumbered by immigrants directly from India. The Creoles partially disappeared into history. They had built Mauritius, but they were now vanishing like the Dodo, the island’s only indigenous resident. The Creoles built Mauritius, but they were now vanishing like so many Dodos before [00:24:00] them. Today, Mauritian national history tends to treat the Creoles and the Dodos alike, romantically, as the friendly, helpful, even lovingly naïve helpers who helped build their wonderful country, they were extensions of the island’s natural history. But Creole culture and history was hardly natural, neither was the Dodo’s extinction. Creole-ness was a reaction against slavery. Despite the Dodo’s extinction level naïveté, it lives on [00:24:30] as a collection of meme’s, ideas in the general popular culture. Despite the official intentions of the master class, the enslaved and freedman Creoles created their own authentic culture. They created the Creole island of Mauritius, one of the most beautiful, free, and wealthy countries there is today. But despite our own liberal notions and dreams, this was no enlightened romance.

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