Magazine article The Spectator

More Than Just Dodos

Magazine article The Spectator

More Than Just Dodos

Article excerpt

I TEND not to like tropical islands. I speak from the standpoint of someone who, until last week, had been to ... absolutely none, zilch, niente. But so what? There were only three facts about tropical islands that every intelligent person knew by heart. Tropical islands were a) boring b) uncomfortable and c) extremely bad for the bowels.

I forgot to add that it nearly always rains. They claim in the holiday brochures that October to March is nice and dry and the rest of the year makes up the rainy season. They lie. All of the year makes up the rainy season. Why else do those colonials in Somerset Maugham stories carry whopping great umbrellas?

So when they suggested I go to Mauritius I was prepared for the worst. I packed my raincoat and a sou'wester. I took plenty of sweaters for the freezing evenings that they never tell you about, and Imodium for the diarrhoea I was sure to get from the execrable cooking. As we flew over the Indian Ocean I congratulated myself on my perspicacity. It was raining.

Okay, I was Miss Bah Humbug. When the taxi-driver who picked us up from the airport gave me a fresh orchid as a buttonhole I sneered. When he said the clouds would pass I snorted. When he assured me that the local food was excellent I snickered. When he offered to tell me about Mauritian 'culture' I had an impolite fit of the giggles. Well, I was wrong on every count. This doesn't happen very often, so please pay attention.

The first interesting Mauritian fact that I learnt is that the place has a real history; -first, as the home of the dodo. There is a wooden sign in Port Louis, the capital, that reads, "Ibe Dodo, extinct bird of Mauritius. Victim of man's greed and his own laziness.' In the museum nearby one could examine a carefully assembled skeleton of this funny bird with atrophied wings whose survival seemed to defy Darwin's theories.

The dodo did very well, thank you, until the Europeans knocking about the Indian Ocean discovered Mauritius in the 16th century. Dutch sailors fancied it for dejeuner, so when the French took over in 1710 they had to make do with the indigenous seafood, tea and a great deal of sugar (which remains the island's largest export after textiles).

A century later it was all change. Under the Treaty of Paris in 1814 the island became British and stayed thus until its independence in 1968, when it adopted a Westminster-style constitution. In fact, everyone has done well out of Mauritius except the wretched dodo.

As melting-pots go you couldn't ask for a more fortuitous fusion of races and cultures. French Huguenots, British, Chinese and Indians have produced a native population whose complexions range from delicious dark chocolate to light honey. Though English is the official language, most Mauritians favour Creole, a linguistic legacy that conjures up pictures of the young Josephine Bonaparte and snowy-- white plantation houses outside New Orleans.

Much of the local architecture is colonial. Mauritius has its own plantation houses, whose columns reach up towards the azure sky below which rests the picturesque 'mountain of the three mammaries'. The hills, with their tea and eucalyptus plants, resemble gargantuan arboretums. The plains have been transformed by stout sugar canes into an army of golden sentinels. …

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