The Ankle Deep Sea – The hidden parts of “Mauritius”

Many people who visit Mauritius are unaware that it is just one of the islands in the republic.  Nearly 500 km north east of the island is a long thin archipelago called St Brandon, where around 60 fishermen live.  Over a thousand kilometres north are two sausage shaped islands collectively known as Agaléga, where about 300 people live cultivating coconuts and fishing in a narrow lagoon.  It has an airstrip and rudimentary social institutions, but no running water and secondary education has to occur off island.  A third island, Tromelin, is also claimed by Mauritius, which is little more than an airstrip on a coral platform, barely 1500 m long.  As with many small rocks in the ocean, the claims on its possession are more about the rights that gives countries over the sea and what is under it.  No wonder both the French and the Seychelles also claim Tromelin given it has no other land for 200km around, and so gives a nation an enormous  Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ.  All that fuss just for a colony of booby birds.  Mauritius even lays a claim to Diego Garcia – a contentious part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

By far the largest sister island to Mauritius, though, is Rodrigues.  For most people it would be a distantly recalled name, and many I would guess place it as a former Spanish colony in the Caribbean Sea.  No, it is about 500km east of the main island of Mauritius.  If the twelve hour flight from the UK to Mauritius has made you feel like you have dropped off the edge of the earth, the extra hour and a half on a prop plane to Rodrigues would make you think you were now in a different solar system. East of Rodrigues, the next land is 5000km away in Western Australia. Apart from a couple of scraps of land the French claim, there is no dry land going south till you reach Antarctica.

My project manager, Mike, had made a visit there early on in the project and come back waxing lyrical about how different the island was from Mauritius – so much more relaxed, so pristine – and armed with a pack of the strongest pickles, the local delicacy, that  you could ever wish for, or not as the case may be.

So I was looking forward to my own chance to visit Rodrigues in the October of 2008.  We were to spend around a week there, work with the different agencies to build a similar plan to the main island, and conduct both boat and land surveys in the same manner too.  The tickets were bought, the hotel planned.  Then I got a phone call late one night.  It was a call I knew might have happened any time in the last two months.

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Rodrigues (copyright Google Earth, Digital Globe)

As far as you can go- the Napoleon Connection

So it was the minutiae of the city that intrigued me, but, as tourism often demands,  I had to see the big sights of the island too.  There was no escaping St Helena’s elephant in the room.  On my first visit, the National Trust arranged a day where I could visit the locations connected to Napoleon.  If there is one thing everyone knows about St Helena, it is that Napoleon was imprisoned here.  They know that even if they cannot identify St Helena on the map, or have any idea of what St Helena looks like or how its history continued before and after the years Napoleon was on island.  Maybe the perception is of a harsh cruel environment with Napoleon banging rocks in a quarry like Nelson Mandela.  The truth is somewhat different but it was probably the period of most inward investment into the island so that it was a fortress able to hold the public enemy number 1 of the British people in 1815.  And sure the first sight of St Helena for Napoleon must have been forbidding  – the huge cliffs and cloudy uplands would scare the bravest.  The British invested a lot in building up the defences of the island in this period, less with the idea that Napoleon would want to escape, but that others might try to rescue him.  A small number of weak points existed in the natural fortress obtained from the local topography.  Where river valleys came down to the sea, walls were put across and sentry points set up.  Various signalling locations were established around the island and forts were set up.  Much of this was put in place before Napoleon arrived to protect this vital watering point for the British Commerce to southern Africa and Asia.  But as that had begun to decline, St Helena had become less important.  Holding prisoners like Napoleon was a way to bolster up the defences and attract money to the island.

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Was this Napoleon’s first sight of the island ?

Napoleon himself was kept in two locations.  Given that there were no telecommunications in these days, the Governor of St Helena only got the message that Napoleon was being placed in his care by a fast ship just a few days ahead of the boat carrying Bonaparte himself.  It was decided to renovate a house on the far side of the island but it would not be ready when the prisoner arrived.  So while his permanent accommodation was being made ready, he was housed in a small lodge on the Briars land just behind Jamestown.  I drove up the back streets of Jamestown and was greeted by Michel, the French Consul and his little dog.

One of the peculiarities of this little island is it is not under one sovereignty but two.  While the UK government control most of the island through their Overseas Territory of St Helena and its Dependencies, three pieces of land connected to Napoleon are counted as French Territory – the so called French Domains of St Helena.  The Briars is the smallest of these, not much more than a small garden raised above the road and a little pavilion – like a summer house, where Napoleon opted to live when under the residence of the Balcombe family who owned the main house.

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The French Consul and his dog