The last area I walked as part of this study was the south western corner of Mauritius. For reasons I shall explain later, I never got to walk the coast round Ile D’Ambre. If Pont Naturel and le Souffleur were unexpected landscapes here, Le Morne Brabant is the iconic feature of all tourist brochures. A large cubic bluff of land sticking out beyond the main island, enclosed by two large lagoons, it has long been surrounded by a cluster of exclusive resorts. The western side has some of the best beaches on the island, and the south western tip had one of the few locations where surfing works, but the southern lagoon was popular with all kinds of active sports from dinghies and jet skis to kite surfs and diving.
le Morne is not just a recent global tourist symbol, but has always held a special part in Mauritian history and is of almost spiritual importance to the Creole community. It was here that Creole slaves would escape to from the harshness of a sugar plantation. The geology of the Morne allowed the mountain to be used like a fortress. On the only side where an approach is truly feasible, a huge gully splits the massif. The Slaves were able to use a plank across this gap and pull it up like a drawbridge when anyone tried to get close. They then lived in the caves around the central block. Life must have been harsh here in what became known as the Maroon Republic, the freshwater limited to what the clouds condensed or could be caught in the limited rainfall of this part of the island. Food had to be scavenged or foraged for from the sparse vegetation or forays back across the plank.
The end of the maroon period was also tragic – when the authorities tried to communicate to the occupants of le Morne that slavery had been abolished, the former slaves misinterpreted the approach as an act to capture them, and threw themselves over the edge of the cliffs to escape; threw themselves to their death. In amongst Mauritius’ beauty and opulence, it seems there has been a lot of heartbreak and misfortune in its history.
Ever since, the Morne has become a focus of the search for the Mauritian identity. Like many formerly colonised territories, history was often forged, built and written by the occupiers, whereas the vast majority of inhabitants were seen as bit part players. Mauritius had both the slavery period and the indentured period, and the sources of populations from both these parts now form the dominant communities. For the Creoles, they came from slave ships forcing them here from Africa; for the Indian community, both Hindu and Muslim, it was the promise of better lives that brought them to the island, only to be indentured into a lifestyle that was little better than a slave’s. A symbolic part of that journey into indenture was the gateway at Port Louis where they disembarked from the ships from India. Although now it looks little more than a series of much altered stone warehouses tucked behind the main road through Port Louis, Aapravasi Ghat, or the Immigration Depot, holds a symbolic place in Mauritian Indians culture, and was awarded a World Heritage Site status in 2006. The Indian population, and in particular the government majority, want to highlight its importance both nationally and to visitors, so much so that in 2008 a series of road signs were created pointing to Aapravasi Ghat from almost every corner of the island.
The Creole population were put out that this Indian site was put forward as representative of cultural identity, and it heightened the activities to get the Morne better recognised, and it duly became the island’s second World Heritage Site in 2008.