Mauritius: Sugar

The first time I heard about Mauritius, I was just about to begin a masters degree in London and living in a students residence called International Hall. It resembled images of one of those prisons in Scandinavia which look nice for a prison but in reality look like offices. They organised all sorts of weird mixers and dances that recalled some fantasy version of American high school awkwardly cast with international students. The playlist was everything from Eurovision bangers to Bon Jovi, otherwise amazing. My girlfriend at the time and I ended up hanging out with a bunch of people that were also there because Carling cost £1.50 and it was two flights of stairs away. We ended up talking to this other kid who wasn’t sure what he was doing there as well. He said he was from someplace called Mauritius.

I had no idea where this was or why. I thought it was in the Caribbean. I did guess correctly it was a former British colony. This was an easy geographic guess because this was London, and we all were from former British colonies. He was exceptionally polite, so I felt like a complete dick. I often like to think that I’m good at geography and know about people and places, but this tiny island, 2000 km from the African mainland, adrift or cast away almost in the middle of the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, should have been known. It’s generally not.

I say generally because some people do know about it, and they’re mainly French, and that is because Mauritians speak a sort of French and have sunshine and bright, white sand beaches all year round. There is the odd Brit on honeymoon and maybe a random German, but that’s about it. It is an island paradise.

According to the internet “The island of Mauritius is sixty-one kilometres long and forty-six kilometres wide at its widest point and has a total land area of 1,865 square kilometres.” So it’s not a prominent place, but not the smallest either in terms of islands in the Indian Ocean. I soon learned there are loads of them, well at least for now until rising sea levels render most of what’s peeping a meter or two above the water in the Mascarene Plateau future Atlantis style attractions like the Seychelles. One thing that if for sure is the island itself is formed from a ring of small, sharp mountains ringing the island with a mostly flat centre. That is because the whole thing is where the earth decided to belch up fire and brimstone millions of years ago and then collapse in on itself. Nobody I talked to could tell me about if it was actually dormant, inactive or extinct or when it happened.

When you open up your favourite map application and type in Mauritius, it is a spec on the map. That is because maps start zoomed out, space level. That is probably a good thing. But you have Africa which is more significant than anything, and you go for a while to the right and then the red dot that is hiding the entire island there on your screen in front of you. Once you start looking at a map, you realise Mauritius is a place with people shouldn’t be there.

It’s almost an afterthought, a volcanic blob in the middle of the Indian Ocean where there should just be bluer. There are other islands there. A couple of them. Thousands of kilometres apart. It doesn’t make sense why its a place you should know until you begin to dig into the very recent past of the place. By recent, I mean the past 300 years.

What freaked me out about the geography of Mauritius was that the nearest major bit of land is Madagascar which was 2000 km away. I’m not sure why I thought this was so terrifyingly disturbing. I’ve always had this idea in my head that when worse comes to worse, you know civilisational collapse and whatnot, that I can walk super far. This is one skill I’ve somehow managed to eke out of my otherwise not danger-filled and tepid life. This place you can not just walk super far when civilisation collapses or the world’s about to end. You’re in the middle of nothing.

The Portuguese “discovered” it in 1507 as did Arab sailors did 600 years prior. It was “discovered” again when the Dutch took possession of the island in 1598. They named it after Prince Maurice van Nassau who was in charge of the Netherlands at the time. The name seems to have stuck, despite the French having control of the island 1715-1810 and calling it the equally non-inventive name of Isle de France. The island and its population seem to have plugged along through all of this so far without a single proper invasion besides the one which made the place British in 1810. That involved the British showing up and outnumbering the French garrison six to one and then them surrendering. But people still kept on talking what sounded like French. Then came everything British and thus magistrates wear wigs and people drive on the left but are still named after a Dutch guy. Make sense of that.

Nobody lived on the island before the Dutch. Neither did mammals besides bats. There were just insects, lizards and birds and fish all frolicking about without any human intervention until the 1500’s when the island due to the fact it’s in the middle of the most extensive trade routes at the time became a popular stopover point. So at that point, Mauritius was most well known for being the home to no one except to the first recorded and famous species extinction due to mankind, that of the dodo bird.

I listened to a podcast recently where the guest, a writer, was going on and on about how much he hated a species of fish known as paiche. Paiche lived in certain parts of at the Amazon as an invasive species and in others as an endangered sort. He hated the fish because, and perhaps rightly so, the fish as a species was an asshole. It was extremely ugly, taking over parts of the Amazon and wiping out other species of fish and it apparently sounded like a pig when it came up, very un-fishlike, to breathe air.

I’ve only encountered a live jellyfish in the sea once maybe and never hope again to, but when I have seen them dead, dried and shrivelled on a beach, I’ve felt a slight tinge of satisfaction. I’ve often thought to myself on the merits of jellyfish extinction. I hate them, so surely this is enough to warrant their wholesale eradication from this planet. They too seem just wrong and at the very least disgusting and to no apparent benefit to ecology. I have recently been informed though that sea turtles eat them. I still wouldn’t mind their extinction deep down inside, but I like turtles a lot, so I guess until we sort out another way to feed sea turtles in the wild, or until sea turtles are themselves extinct, we’re going to have to leave them.

The dodo mind you looked like shit, not quite disgusting like jellyfish, but still didn’t deserve extinction. It’s one of the few things that is supposed actually to be on Mauritius, but no longer is. It was a very ugly bird, ballooning up to 23 kg, and resembled a squat, bulging dump, with a massive crooked bill and shrivelled head poking out. It looked more like a turkey after a 20-year crack binge rather than a descendant of a type of pigeon. It evolved with no natural predators on the island and eventually lost the ability to fly, and just waddled around the island oblivious to the world for a couple million years. Then the Dutch came and decided it would be an excellent place for a penal colony. The dodo was then not only hunted into extinction by humans but also helped along into oblivion by introduced species such as rats, pigs and monkeys which ate their eggs. The last one was apparently killed in 1681, and now the bird features prominently on the country’s coat of arms, money and any keychain, ashtray or shot glass like the one I bought myself.

So nobody should actually be there otherwise. Nobody. Not even other mammals. Instead, there are 1,265,577 humans growing bananas, going to the beach, walking to the bank, putting credit on their mobile phones and having a beer in the late afternoon sunset. This is all because of commerce. You could argue that every place only came to be because of trade, that cities developed because of business, but Mauritius is one of the few places in the world that had no indigenous culture or population, and only got one because of the “Age of Discovery” and the birth of Capitalism. It essentially didn’t exist as a place until it was developed for commercial means. For the longest time, meaning all the time in the world up until the 1940s, you could only get to or from Mauritius on a ship. Ships brought people and took away sugar. Ships brought animals, bacteria, parasites and plants that shouldn’t be there and took away stuff that also probably shouldn’t be there.

Mauritius was a means of production. The entire island was a plantation essentially. A whole nation that now exists as an independent republic with a by default multi-cultural population that gets along with itself came to be because of shipping routes and then sugar.

We love sugar and did anything we could to get it for a couple of hundred years. It was and still is the world’s worst addiction. We as humans are so overwhelmed by our senses and our desires to sweeten things, both literally and metaphorically that we can’t stop ourselves. That is because taste is a sense without any rationale. It has no rhyme or reason it just is. It pulls us in one direction or another, never telling us why.

An apple makes one person feel good, reaches them deep inside and firing through their brain with pleasure and satisfaction while making another like this one dude I grew up with disappointed for no apparent reason. But when this first person sees an apple, they see a reward, immediate contentment in his life. They see a way to drive away everything going on for a moment and becoming the animal they really are. The idea of food providing comfort is probably real but slightly skewed from reality. Food makes us feel comfortable because food takes us back. Eating, especially sweets, is visceral, just gut and brain in flashes and waves. For a second, there is nothing else, it is a pure experience in a life that is only distraction.

My kids love sweets because they are kids, and they are human. I love sweets as well and have met people in the recent past who say they don’t. These people are liars. All humans love sweets. We all love sugar. There are theories that one of the reasons is that we evolved to love sweets because fruit had vitamins that made our ancestors, both human and pre-human primate, better able to survive. Sugar’s attractive lure made us strong. It has become such a force in our lives that we need it to feel strong. We need that sparkle in the gut and that blaze in the brain to forget and to conquer and will do anything to foster and exploit this. The British and the French did precisely that on Mauritius when they brought East African people they treated like animals in chains to make that happen.

 You used to be able to trade these trinkets for a human’s life. What the hell.
You used to be able to trade these trinkets for a human’s life. What the hell.

I imagine some guy named Lord Bucksworth sweating his balls off under a top hat in the baking sun suddenly having pangs of guilt from feeling okay for so long treating people like cattle that he came up with another idea. “Oh I know, we will have now indentured servants which is oh so much more civilised than slavery.” So he and all the other pasty, fat cats in London decided to do just that and in the early 1800’s, brought 200,000 people over about twenty years, mainly from India, and apparently as far away as Indonesia by various means to work on Mauritius for what amounted to as just a bit better than slavery to avoid doing the work themselves. Afterwards, they would pat themselves on the back that they pulled off “The Great Experiment” and replaced free labour with nearly free labour.

What indentured servitude means people were brought from instead of Africa, from India in the same boats in the same inhuman and deplorable conditions, but this time they were paid. Except how much they were paid would not, in fact, be able to cover any sort of return where they came from after over a decade and that many were basically kidnapped and brought over. At that point, they were bound to the plantation where they worked for five-year contracts which they couldn’t leave nor do much of anything without any sort of permission. Oh yeah, and if you missed one day of the seven days a week you were there to cut sugar cane until the day you died, then you didn’t get paid for two days to make up for it. Once your five-year term was up, you would, in theory, be free, but you had no other option than to go back to toiling away under the baking sun cutting and processing sugar cane so our ancestors could have those shitty candies your grandmother would keep around in little crystal bowls. And then Lord Bucksworth and all his snivelling, blue blood scum of the earth associates patted themselves on the back and downed their cherry while looking on a map of another place to completely fuck over.

We never as a species know what we’re getting ourselves into. In the early 1800s, the people of Bhojpur probably didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. Many of them were tricked, press-ganged, forced by various means to board the ships never to return to India and all points around the globe to make our food a bit sweeter, our teeth a bit blacker and our waistlines a lot bigger. We’ve been high for a long time. We’ve been so desperate to make our miserable lives sweet, we’ve wiped out species, enslaved millions of people and clear cut entire islands for the stuff. A ship came with people in chains and left with sugar, never wasting a trip.

Port Louis is a perfect grid. This makes it really easy for white people like me to navigate it. I can only seem to understand things in terms of grids and tables. I lived in London, which is very much nowhere near a grid, for 14 years and still had no idea where I was going half the time. What we had plopped down there though in middle of the Indian Ocean is X and Y and off we are to progress and unlimited capital expansion. Look at America – all grids, all progress and hunky dory good times for everyone right?

We’re so used to the idea that where and how we live has to make sense. It has to follow some sort of predetermined order or else life in that place will just be unliveable. You have straight lines in the spreadsheet denoting category and you have intersecting straight lines declaring value. The city, wherever it may be, should be sliced and diced into smaller and smaller intersections of value and order, making no matter what or where it was make sense. Why I was there, musing on order and implementation, browsing and gazing down long avenues wasn’t nearly that auspicious. I was trying to get some damn flip flops.

I’m all for onomatopoeia (naming things after their sounds) but this one just sounds sort of stupid. They work as mediocrely as their name. I wasn’t a fan but I needed them because it’s hot basically all the time in Mauritius and especially when its the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. Socks are not a thing in Mauritius. I came from snowy Central Europe that same week and was already deep in sunburn and sweating. I was in a place where by the looks of it, every Mauritian probably had not one, not two, but probably dozens of pairs of flip flops. You would have your Tuesday flip flops, or maybe your indigestion flip flops, or the ones you wore to the in-laws. I needed to acquire some and thought this would be relatively easy.

I looked at people a lot there, and it seemed I was one of about three people on the whole small island republic of 1,265,577 people that was wearing socks. The other two included an old man who was wearing shoes because he was a sort of business man and the Italian photographer who was shooting for National Geographic that was with our group. I spent about an hour in Port Louis looking for these things and somehow couldn’t. It’s like rubber bands. Rubber bands are everywhere. They’re in your kitchen drawers, on your desk, in every corner of your life when you don’t need it, but yet if you had to go and buy a rubber band you would be hard pressed. So I walked and walked, turning left and right, enjoying the right angles in the tropics.

Finally I found a stand somewhere roughly half a kilometre away from the Grand Bazaar. I said my size was 44 to which the man asked if that was 44 in Thai or European size. Somehow European 44 is Thai 46. I got the European sized ones and my wife later said they looked like I stole them from an orphan. They had palm trees printed on them and on said “Teen Spirit” on the strap. Most importantly I could get my feet just as sunburned as my face and neck.

I’m all about people doing what they want in the world and making things their own for most things, but there is one thing for which I don’t which is measurement systems. I find one of the most easily embarrassing things about being American is not using the metric system like the rest of the planet. This of course tells the whole story about that place in about a second but that’s a different story. My main issue is with standards and interoperability. We as humans are dumb and uncooperative enough as it is. We speak thousands of languages at each other and our lives and outlooks clash as much as they don’t. With this in mind, we should be looking for more things to have in common that help us do things better together. This goes for one of the more important things in modern life, charging things you don’t really need.

One of the things you ask the Internet when you go someplace exotic, hot or full of people that don’t look like you is what sort of plugs they have. Electricity has wound its way into every nook and cranny of humanity at this point. So I ask the internet what sort of charging apparatus extension I will need in Mauritius, assuming it was the European two pin type of plug like what I believe the rest of Africa to have. What the internet told me was to bring both European style plugs or converters as well as a UK ones. Looking at the history of the island this makes no sense as they would have been under British rule for at least 70 years before they even potentially got electricity, but that made sense. But did the two pin plugs come with French somehow? Or maybe from Africa? They used two types of plugs because someone somewhere else somehow decided for them.

A Dutch frigate in the 1600s had a massive shipment of lamps and toasters with both UK and European plugs and it was the way things were done whether or not anyone liked it. So someone on the island said fuck it. They’re bringing another thing to the island that will dramatically and irrevocably change the nature of life and humanity on our little island again. And there’s probably not much point in resisting any former colonial masters on the other side of the world. So they stuck with both. They probably saw it as just some more bullshit that the rest of the planet decided was good for them and another way to squeeze more sugar out of the place.

Multiple unrelated shoe sizes and multiple means of plugging things in for electrical charge was just an introduction to the torn nature of the place. For the place itself was delivered there. It had no indigenous culture and didn’t even have any mammals besides bats until the Dutch plunked down there in 1638. Nothing. Just birds, lizards and bugs. The choices were always brought on a ship from far, far away.

Mauritius is the archetypical tropical paradise. You go there and immediately fall in love with being there. You see yourself living here and as you walk along a white sand beach in the sunset say to yourself with a dreamy sigh “I could totally get used to this,” while you pretend not to care about anything in your otherwise winter sodden northern hemisphere life.

You imagine tall ships on the horizon and pirates cajoling on the beaches with rum, sodomy all that fun stuff. That’s because all of that did happen there. You imagine your retirement there where you are inexplicably not in declining health at all, and are going for your 10k run in the morning barefoot on the white sand beaches while the palms began to sway in the morning wind as the sun crept up the sky. Tropical paradises are hot, but in this one nobody above a certain age wears shorts.

I think shorts are great. You likely do as well. If you’re a woman who has issues with your legs or the way they look you love shorts as well even though you don’t wear them. This is because shorts are great. It’s hot, you have less cloth on you. Perfect. Your legs get more air  and the wind can go up into your crotch and circulate freely. You can wear sandals with complete freedom, which I don’t believe you should be able to unless you’re wearing shorts. After all, if it’s cold enough to wear trousers why can’t you wear shoes? So its decided, shorts are amazing for most of us, but apparently not on Mauritius.

I asked a native of the place why this was, if there was some sort of cultural stigma with shorts, which to me seemed out of place in a place that is always basically warm to hot for us northern hemisphere types. I relayed my experience with the island and the informal quantitive research I had been doing on what people wear below the waist and how I didn’t see any Mauritian above the age of 50 wear shorts which to me seemed insane. He relayed the story of his father who as a boy got a job because he had a pair of trousers. That’s right. Apparently at the time whilst trying to get a manual labour job on a plantation or something he was determined to be better, richer, or perhaps even smarter because he wasn’t wearing shorts.

I’m aware there are certain insurmountable divides in the world and perhaps many of them are geographically determined, but I would never guess having more cloth on your in a very hot place would make you look smarter. Then again I never knew about Mauritius and how other people have been dumping other people and bad ideas there for centuries.

I never knew so intimately a place with that short and tortured of a history. If you look back at it, just being British subjects and exploited by big foreign companies from the mid 20th century was the highlight. That is because that was the only time up until that point where the overwhelming majority of the population wasn’t either enslaved or indentured.

Back to shorts. So this is perhaps it, Mauritians were force fed the illogicalities by everyone who showed up on a ship to the island. The plantation owners likely wore trousers and they could read and they ran the men that ran the fields with whips. The soldiers, French or British or whatever, always wore trousers and they had guns. The power was in the hands of people who wore way too much cloth on them for the climate, so therefore they needed to as well, as if by donning the extra 100 square cm of cloth that they would take on roles of rule. There were ideas that nobody there quite got but they just went along with them because this is how you make it when you’re shoved on a place in the middle of nothing just waiting to have people show up and start showing you how to do things. The goal was to avoid avoid causing too much trouble until they got back on their ships and finally let you alone which they never did for too long. This is something that could be controlled that you could try to make a little bit better. With nature, you have to just roll with it.

When you live in the South Indian Ocean there are cyclones. These are otherwise known as hurricanes. I like the word cyclone though because it sounds a bit less harsh. It’s the same 200kmh winds and destruction and all that but cyclone sounds just a bit more innocuous.

They happen semi-frequently down there and always have. I suspect they measure time partially by them, like “oh you remember the cyclone of ’78?” and then someone’s uncle would go on about how tough they had it and how it levelled the whole island. Cyclones are natural events, and there is nothing you can do about them, and because people in Mauritius are just cool like that they don’t seem to be bothered much by it. Apparently there are warnings and you can spot them out a couple days ahead of time and then you have time to board up your windows and get our your cyclone box.

Thats right – a cyclone box. Apparently, some, meaning the guy Thierry I was talking to, has in his house a cyclone box. He said a lot of people had them so I’m just going to have to take his word on this. A cyclone box is everything you imagine a cyclone box would be, meaning a box for when the cyclone hits. So there you are huddled in your house, and because its the tropics you don’t have a basement, so as the winds hit and you hear goats flying through the air, telephone poles crashing into the corner shop and glass shattering all over the din of the sirens, you say to yourself, well it looks like we should crack open this cyclone box right about now.

In other places, let’s say the US where they have all sorts of hurricanes and natural disasters with increasing frequency, they probably have similar boxes. They are in fact probably not boxes but bags, black, Kevlar blend bags with all sorts of hooks and carabiners and whatnot because you can. These bags likely have purified water, ration packets and ammunition in them. In Mauritius the cyclone box apparently has rum, cards and games and maybe some candles or something. So when Nature does its best to remind our species that we need to be put in our place, Mauritians know that it’s not a battle, it’s a break.

When you’re handed a shit situation, sit it out, don’t fight, just wait. I have some half cocked notion this is because of the Hindu character of the island. That it’s all a cycle when the cyclone happens, no pun intended. Things get destroyed, someone might die, everything will get fucked up, but there is nothing you can do and it will pass and then something else will come and then this repeats for millions of times ad infinitum. The ships come and the ships go. It’s all a cycle.

The whole reason I know anything about this place is because I’ve managed to become attached to two projects at Stanford University. So I went out there as they were going for meetings and research so I could do my own research on the place and how it wriggled its way around and through every bit of those two projects. One of the projects is about ships and what got them shipwrecked, the other about malaria and data.

One of the researchers on the trip was a PhD candidate and maritime archeologist at Stanford University. Her speciality is one of the cooler specialities there can be, which is diving shipwrecks. I can type. I can type pretty well and pretty fast. This is what I tell people I do for work which is true. I type a lot, especially for someone who is supposed to be a designer. She dives and pulls old swords and other amazing things out of the sea bed. Life is not fair like that. But the nature of her work is fascinating not just in the Indiana Jones sense of discovery and fighting nature to learn more about our past, but just the sheer badass-ness of it. You know compared to typing like me. She knows everything about the ship she dives. Everything. She named half of the crew of a ship sunk outside of Venice where she did much of her early work. She knew names, ages, what they did. Everything up until the time that they went to their watery graves.

Somehow we got to talking about tattoos. I have a couple of pretty bad ones that came out as I got to wear short sleeves and shorts for the first time in months and she said how she wanted to get one. I of course immediately suggested that she get one of the ship she dove for two years in the lagoon outside of Venice. She had spent so many years of her life dedicated to digging and diving up the remains of lost people, things and stories from the murky depths of history and surely this meant something.

I’m not sure it did. It was a ship. It was interesting. It brought Giovanni from his home in Padua to the navy and to the end of his life when the British sunk his ship. It was a ship, it was a temporary holder and transporter of things. It had a name but it was no more important or impactful than what its affect was. To Giovanni it meant something, but once the ship ceased, once that floating wooden world ceased floating, then did its impact on places.

A ship comes and a ship goes and you deal with what comes and goes with it. This is the story of Mauritius and its people. Someone, somewhere far away makes a decision or sees a way to make a buck and the small cast-off parts of the world and the people who ended up there are left to deal with it. The ships come and the ships go, and no one except those on the receiving end are any the wiser but just left to pick up the pieces.

We have to deal with what we’ve created with places like Mauritius that weren’t thought out. This is not likely to happen. We’ve not as a species learned to think things through. We’ve not had any sort of ability to realise that things do indeed last well beyond our lifespans and that there are repercussions. When you’re desperate for a thing and you do everything for that thing, other things will happen. This is the case with this little island the people who are way nicer than they should be to people like me who step off a plane to consume their sunshine and their story. I’ve brought my attitudes and my emissions and my curiosity blind to where they were all going and someone there had to clean up after me at some point. They will continue on living and smiling and evolving with what has been thrown at them and bless them for it.