23: South Sea Island

11 December 2010

Mauritius is a product of volcanism. From 13 million years ago, the Earth’s core punched a hole through one of its tectonic plates and began to spew lava onto the floor of the Indian Ocean. By seven million years ago, an island had broken the surface, 855 kilometres east of what is now Madagascar. By 200,000 years ago, the volcanoes were spent and the colonisation by life in full swing.

Through an oft-tested pattern, bare rock turned to rainforest. First, brought by wind and sea, came the litchens and mosses. Then the seeds of more substantial plants: ferns, shrubs, trees. Land animals arrived on driftwood. Bird species flew in, settled down, became flightless and became dodos –evolving in an environment where they had no predators, knew no fear and made very easy meat.

The first human visitor was the Iranian adventurer Hasan Ibn Ali, in 975 CE. The Portuguese dropped in around 1511. The Dutch – who were the first to settle – arrived from 1598, naming the island after their Prince Mauritius of Nassau and beginning the import of slaves. The French assumed control in the eighteenth century and, in 1735, appointed as governor the island’s true founding father, Francois Mahe de Labourdonnais, an aristocratic sea captain who established a new capital, replaced hovels with hospitals and set up a shipbuilding industry.

In 1810, the British arrived and took over. They expanded the island’s export-oriented sugarcane production and (following a struggle with the local plantation owners) abolished slavery on 1 February 1835. Said plantation owners immediately turned to Indian immigration for their workers, beginning a demographic transition which would give Mauritius the predominantly South Asian population it enjoys today.

The island became independent in 1968. Since then the economy has expanded beyond sugarcane, a manufacturing base has been set up, wealth-per-head has increased and unemployment has fallen dramatically. In the twenty-first century Mauritius is taking advantage of its well-educated, multi-lingual workforce to move into outsourcing, information technology and offshore banking.

None of which is any comfort to the dodos.

My mates Annie and Jamie (who are supposed to be retired, but can’t stop having adventures) arrived two years ago when Annie’s friend asked her to help set up an outsourcing business. She runs a team of 38. After trying to leave a year ago (when she and Jamie had grown weary of the sun-drenched paradise) her employer lets her work three days per week. It also pays for their three-bedroom house (with a pool), their cleaner, their gardener, the guy who cleans their pool and their car. Jamie plays househusband and hangs out on the beach.


On being picked up from the airport, any notions I had of a laid-back writer’s retreat went out the window as Jamie bundled me aboard the fun bus and turned the party dials to maximum.

Breakfast was served on the patio. An hour-long swim in the ocean every day was mandatory. Twice I was taken out on the catamaran of their ex-veterinary surgeon friend, Robin. Her cat-footed sailors doubled as barmen, poured triples and played a mixture of John Denver and pounding techno.

The theatre for this tropical extravaganza was a country visibly moving from developing to middle-income status. Social norms are conservative. The religion is an Indian-style mix of Hinduism and Islam. The cops are given to periodic brutality. The earlier French influence dominates the more recent British one. The ex-pat community is populated by can-do capitalists and, at the moment, the South Africans are arriving in force, bringing their culture and money. Tourism is booming. Busty Nordic women sunbathe topless a few metres from local girls – cross-legged in the shade, babies under their arms, sucking the juice out of coconuts.

On Saturday we clubbed it until 6 a.m. with the wealthy and healthy new-generation cool kids. On Sunday, we were entertained at the sumptuous beach-front property of gentleman John (Kenyan by birth, English at heart) with whom I swapped life stories. Then there was mojitos, snorkelling over coral, the sweet smell of sugarcane and dusk on the sand – distant clouds, caked in gold, hiding the sunset, mountains in the sky. All in all, a prefect place to plan my next book.


Bloody heck! Me fookin pool lights are on the knacker!
– Rose Anna Atkinson, Friday 3 December 2010

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2 Responses to “23: South Sea Island”

  1. Sam Says:

    I had to pinch myself to bring me back to a grey and miserable London. I was completely absorbed by your description of the landscape and culture. I passed it on to a couple of Mauritian workmates who replied “brilliant ! makes me want to go on holiday. thanks mate i’ll send it to my dad coz he’ll love that shi*.” and from another “this is so good. I love it. So accurate too.”

  2. Noahboy Says:

    The next book? Give us the first book! We are waiting! :-)

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