French victory commemoration sparks Mauritius debate
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France’s commemoration of its only naval victory during the Napoleonic wars has sparked debate in Mauritius, where it took place. A delegation from led by Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam attended the Paris ceremony on 31 August.
There’s just one naval battle among the military triumphs commemorated on Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. It’s the Battle of Grand Port, fought two centuries ago off the south-eastern coast of Mauritius, when Napoleon’s fleet won its first-ever naval victory after several days battling Britain’s Royal Navy.
Mauritius, known as Isle de France under French rule which lasted from 1715 to 1810, celebrated the event this August with, among other things, a reenactment of the battle and the recreation of a historical village which shows how colonial masters, slaves, soldiers lived 200 years ago.
Paris followed with its own celebration. Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam was invited to take part in a commemoration ceremony where a wreath was laid at the Arc de Triomphe. He also met President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister François Fillon.
Some voices of dissent in Mauritius, including Nobel literature prize winner Jean-Marie Le Clézio, questioned the decision to mark celebrations of the French heritage around that particular battle.
What does the French victory mean to modern-day Mauritius, they asked. Why commemorate this battle and not other landmarks in the history of Mauritius?
The debate revolved around how a young nation with 42 years of independent history looks back and interprets its own history, especially when it is as diversely influenced as Mauritius is by Holland, France, Britain, India, China, Africa… to name but a few of those whose legacy is still felt.
Ramgoolam believes the Grand Port celebrations are as much part of the island’s cultural and social fabric as any other event of the country’s history.
“There should be no difficulty for us to assume our history: the French were here, it’s part of our history, the Dutch were here, it’s part of our history, the Dodo, the British… that’s also our history,” he explains. “We seem to forget that there were also Mauritians involved in that battle and that Mauritians have died in that battle.”
The battle was fought in late August 1810 over the possession of Grand Port on Isle de France. The harbour represented a strategic stop for trade and army convoys on the routes between Asia and Britain. The squadron led by British commander Captain Samuel Pym was defeated by the forces led French Captain Guy-Victor Duperré.
The other islands surrounding Mauritius in the south-west Indian Ocean, Reunion island (now French), Seychelles and Rodrigues were all under British dominion.
Despite the victory, the French were unable to resist much longer. A few months later, on 3 December 1810, a reinforced battle squadron led by British Admiral Albemarle Bertie conquered Isle de France.
The British colonisation of the island lasted until 1968. The 158 years of British rule have left an enduring legacy visible in the country’s parliamentary and judiciary system, the official language… custard cream and die-hard supporters of Manchester United and Liverpool.
So why isn’t Mauritius celebrating 3 December?
“We have some serious differences over what has happened to the Chagos [archipelago] which is part of our territory and which have been dismembered [by the British], that’s a shadow on our relations” replies Ramgoolam.
France, according to the prime minister, has found a better way of resolving the dispute over the sovereignty of Tromelin island, owned by France but claimed by Mauritius.
“After 50 years of dispute, we are at least coming towards a solution thanks to the determination of President Nicolas Sarkozy”, he adds.
Furthermore, Ramgoolam said that Britain needs to be more financially pro-active. “At a time when the British were cutting costs, reduced institutions in different countries, I think that was a mistake. The French had a different vision, we have more scholarships from France, more institutions managed jointly by France and Mauritius.”
France invested heavily to maintain a degree of influence in Mauritius and it is paying off. Francophonie (French-speaking culture) is alive and well in Mauritius and gaining predominance over English, although not to the extent that there will be a switch in the official language.
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