‘’Allons enfants de la Patrie …iie’’ !! March on, fellow countrymen ! The first words of the French national anthem resonate !
Although I was not around to witness the time of the French colony, the rich heritage which was left behind lives on.
Time, ink, pen and paper would fail me, were I to unfold the many remnants of these former days of glory, preciously kept, three centuries and beyond, after our Independence.
The first that comes to mind is a gastronomic relic ! Memory of the senses, I reckon. I thoroughly enjoy rich and tasty treats and all gustatory matters appeal to me.
We have Mahé de Labourdonnais, French Governor, to thank for our traditional and still famous cassava cookies. Labourdonnais first introduced the cassava root in Mauritius back in the day, to feed slaves. Our Capital City, Port-Louis, still lies under the Governor’s statue’s watchful gaze.
The historic Biscuiterie Rault, an authentic site located in Mahébourg, still runs to this day and remains a must-see. The cookies are served with a nice cup of tea, combined with the exotic flavours of our beautiful island: coconut, vanilla … among others.
While occasionally strolling through the cobbled streets of Port-Louis, lined with basalt structured buildings, I am inevitably reminded of the French presence in the city, in the country. My imagination then wanders to that time again, when Port-Louis was a warm and cosy haven during the winter days, to those shunning the relatively cooler Central Plateau, Curepipe (where they lived in the summer).
Across the villages, some significant French names can be spotted: Nouvelle France, Terre Rouge, L’Aventure and especially Souillac, named after the illustrious figure, Viscount Francois de Souillac, who constructed a harbour on the Southern Coastline of the island in 1787. To date, the village remains considerably linked with the town of Souillac in Dordogne.
Walking along our magnificent Pamplemousses Gardens’ paths remains one of my favourite expeditions.
Another prominent French figure, the missionary and botanist, Pierre Poivre, thereby left his mark by introducing new plant species, the nutmeg, for example.
Another treat : a colorful picnic on the lawn under the sun, and there I go again, reflecting on the past : brave coachmen and their carriages awaiting the Garden’s visitors.
I then carry on my way towards the village of Pamplemousses, to find one of the oldest churches on the island, Saint Francois d’Assise (Patron Saint of Ecology), Paul and Virginie, the fallen heroes of the famous novel by Bernandin de St Pierre. The surroundings have such a comforting and soothing tranquility that, hours later, I catch myself (more times than I care to admit) drowsing in all quietude, in the shade of the bamboo leaves.
Despite attaining our Independence in 1968 following the British occupation, and English still being the official language since 1832, French is to this day the most predominant language on the island. The French influence is evermore present in our flowery Mauritian Creole, with such illustrated expressions as : ‘’ Bonzour Mamzelle ! ‘’ to call out to a pretty lady to say ‘’ Bonjour’’ (Good day), for example. Several French terms and phrases which are no longer as common as before, are still used in our spoken language.
‘Une plume’ (a feather) when we mean ‘un stylo’ (a pen).
‘Une chopine’ – a former unit of measurement for a 0.5 Lt bottle of soft drink. The word today means a pint.
‘Une topette’ – an expression from the dialect of spoken French in Picardy to describe a small flask, especially to keep rum in.
Many of the Mauritian Creole’s catchphrases also derive from expressions borrowed from French sailors, who, back in the 18th century, sailed across oceans to colonize the island:
‘’Hé matelot’’, litterally meaning ‘Hey, sailor/seaman’’, is a word used to informally or casually call out to someone.
‘’Largue moi’’ – The old expression ‘Larguer les amarres’ means to cast off or sail away. ‘Let me go’ is how we interpret it.
‘’Amarre sa la corde la’’- ‘’ To tie the rope’’ – again from the verb ‘Amarrer’ (To dock or berth).
‘’Maille moi’’ – ‘’Catch me if you can’’ – The word ‘maille’ means ‘mesh’, used to catch fish.
Another surprising fact is that Mauritius is still governed by the Napoleon Code.
We owe our great freedom of religion to yet another French, General Charles Decaen, who allowed runaway slaves to be set free, whilst acknowledging their choice to practice alternative religions to Christianity.
The Tricolor gave way to the Union Jack, which in turn gave way to the Four Bands, which we are extremely proud of, but the Mauritian people will always cherish and hold a special place in their hearts for the French culture.
The language of Moliere absolutely rocks ! I love everything about it, from its intonations, to its conjugations and variations…words that easily rhyme with musical expressions.
Speaking of which, there is luckily a French version of ‘Glory to Thee’, the Mauritius national anthem, which I often sing :
‘Gloire à toi, île Maurice, île Maurice, O ma Mère Patrie…Fraîche est ta beauté, doux est ton parfum…’
‘Glory to thee, Motherland, O Motherland of mine…Sweet is thy beauty, sweet is thy fragrance…’
From Tricolor to Four Bands…oceans apart…so far and yet so near on this 14th of July.