Kaleidoscopic Conquest: Mauritius – 1810 by Marina Carter, Mark Hall, V. Govinden, R. Ramasawmy and E. Richon. 217 pages
£9.99 plus shipping.
The British conquest of the French controlled island of Mauritius was an event of global significance. The fall of the “Isle of France” in 1810 was the Indian Ocean equivalent of the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place just five years before. Accounts of the conquest have usually focused on the perspectives of the two empires which were the main protagonists in the encounter, Great Britain and Napoleonic France.
Yet the takeover of Mauritius was of enormous significance for the people living on the island, most of whom were neither French nor British. Furthermore, the opposing land and naval forces at the time of the conquest were composed of large numbers of combatants who were not even European. The conquering British army was overwhelmingly Indian, and participants on both sides also came from Africa, Europe and even the Americas. The multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic clash in Mauritius in 1810 was a truly Kaleidoscopic Conquest.
The conquest followed years of blockade which also left their mark on the islands; shortages of manpower, provisions and commodities of every kind had produced distress and disaffection. The increasingly audacious activities of the encircling British squadron and the growing likelihood of a change of government were a source of anxiety but also offered a glimmer of hope to many.
And the change, when it did come, in December 1810, brought with it a kernel of the new era. Aboard the ships were Bengalis and Biharis, Marathas, Tamils and Telegus, among many others of diverse nationalities. Gujarati, Parsi and south Indian traders had supplied the transport vessels and victuals for the huge invading army – they would not be slow to take advantage of the new opportunities British conquest offered as the huge resources of British-controlled India were opened up to the Mauritians.
The small communities of Chinese settled in the port towns of British India would be among the first to arrive in search of fresh markets and better-paid employments. The transition to British rule seemed to herald a new era of prosperity. And many expected social change as well. French colonial society was riddled with discriminatory practices and policies: the coloureds craved a more equal status and the slaves aspired to freedom.
The present volume is divided into four sections. Part One deals with the people who were involved in 1810 in order to provide an overview of the diversity of cultures and nationalities participating in the events leading up to the conquest of the island. Soldiers, sailors, whites and blacks, juveniles and adults were all exposed to the inequalities and injustices of that era, which could include physical punishments and periods of forced labour that we would consider shocking today. Their stories help to personalize and bring to life forgotten aspects of the experiences of our ancestors. The second part of the book draws upon the letters, sketches and memoirs of eye witnesses to provide a detailed understanding of what really happened during the final days of the Isle of France. Part Three considers the fates of the participants of the conquest in the aftermath of 1810 and Part Four asks questions of the archives and of the past. What stories do the private letters and public documents discussed in these pages reveal about the measures taken by Decaen and Farquhar? In what ways can research into the lives and destinies of the participants of those events 200 years ago help us understand the evolution of modern Mauritius? By offering a glimpse into this vanished world, Kaleidoscopic Conquest underscores the importance of 1810 – it holds the key to the subsequent history of colonial and independent Mauritius. The historical treasures which continue to emerge both from the archive and from the ground itself must be valorised, preserved and discussed in order to derive practical lessons for the future and to honour the memory of those who have gone before.
‘Kaleidoscopic Conquest: Mauritius – 1810‘: £9.99 plus shipping.