While many countries claim they
are cosmopolitan, only a few really qualify. Mauritius is one
of the rare authentically cosmopolitan societies. Where else could
so many towns and villages boast of a Catholic church, a Muslim
mosque, and a Hindu temple within walking distance from each other?
And if you are lucky, you might even find a Chinese pagoda in
the vicinity! One little-known cemetery at Bambous hosts a burial
ground with a Muslim and a ... Jewish section!!
A little history helps explain
this peculiar mix. The French took over the island from the Dutch
settlers (notorious for having eaten the Dodos down to the very
last!) around 1715. The French brought over slaves from Africa
(particularly from Senegal, Guinea, Mozambique and Madagascar)
to work in the sugar-cane plantations. The Mauritian Creole, now
in quasi-universal use on the island, probably evolved during
those years as some sort of lingua franca between slaves
The British became very interested
in the island in the early eighteenth century because it provided
the perfect transit for ships en route to India. The British eventually
won the island over from the French in 1810. British rule was
essentially administrative and the French colonists were allowed
to stay. Things did not change much for the unfortunate African
slaves until, yielding to the pressure of abolitionists, the colonists
emancipated them in the 1830s-40s. To make up for this sudden
labour shortage, the British brought indentured labourers from
India (mainly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh,
Maharashtra, and Gujarat) to the island. Within a few decades,
people of Indian origin were a majority in the island.
The early twentieth century also
saw the arrival of Chinese settlers (Hakka and Cantonese) who
sought their fortune in retail trade. Mauritius earned its independence
from Britain, following political disquiet in the 1960s. Since
then the country has been under a constitutional rule particularly
attentive to the political representation of the minorities and
to their equal access to healthcare, education and employment.
If anything, the twenty-five odd years since independence have
seen a consolidation of ethnic identities, never, however, at
the expense of the unity of the nation.
And if you are still wondering
about the Jewish cemetery at Bambous, here's the story. Jewish
refugees from East Europe (Poland in particular) tried to reach
Palestine in the early 1940s to escape the Nazi persecution. They
travelled down the west coast of Africa, past the Cape of Good
Hope and into the Indian Ocean. They were taken by the British
at this point, brought to Mauritius and made to stay there until
the end of the war. Some of them died and were buried in Mauritius
on a ground they share with Muslims.