The Melting Pot of Mauritius?

Jessica Eise

Unlike the United States, Mauritius was virgin territory. There weren’t any native inhabitants apart from the birds and the bees. Safeguarded by a coral reef, the small island was protected even from waves and the crystal clear waters sparkled bright blue in the sunlight. The dodo bird was allowed to evolve into utter stupidity. With no natural predators, it had no reason to learn to fly and absolutely no reason to learn evasive tactics. From what? There weren’t even mice.

Without a native population to quarrel with and such a handy location in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius quickly bade their secret existence goodbye and upon discovery evolved into a trading port. Waves of colonizers passed through; the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French and the British. They brought rats and slavery and sugarcane and Mauritius was no longer, per se, virginal. The dodo bird was clubbed to death for tonight’s dinner and wily rats ate their eggs. The dodo, just like the island’s innocence, quickly disappeared into history.

I arrived in Mauritius late on a Sunday evening, exhausted and jet-lagged from 24 hours of travel from New York City. My layover flight from Johannesburg was delayed several hours due to a cyclone I wasn’t aware of until a harried South African Airlines agent briskly informed me.

Stepping out of the airport I was struck by two things; the hot, humid air that suffocated me like a moist blanket and the big smiles on the faces of the Mauritian airport personnel. Before long I was in a taxi bouncing off to the north of the island for a long awaited and much needed night’s sleep.

Situated near Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa, Mauritius is a small island known for high-end tourism or simply not known of at all. I confess that before accepting the assignment, I googled it online to make sure I knew where it was. My mother pulled out her atlas and exclaimed, “Well, it’s nothing but a dot on my map!”

Not many Americans ever make it to Mauritius. I was a rare commodity and it felt, in truth, damn good. I confess when the French manager of our hotel exclaimed, “Ooh la la, it eez an American! Très exotique!” that I couldn’t help but grin. There aren’t many places someone learns I’m American and calls me exotic, although I do hear a number of other names.

The entire seven weeks I was there working on our report, I was continually struck by the odd parallels between Mauritius and the United States, yet how different we fundamentally were.

Both the United States and Mauritius were formed by waves of immigrants from different ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds. Both countries share a dishonorable history of slavery. We both have democratic governance, although Mauritius instituted theirs a bit later than us.    

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, Dutch settlers colonized Mauritius to exploit the beautiful ebony trees and introduced sugarcane. They were responsible for bringing the first slaves to the island, principally from the nearby Madagascar. By the mid 1600s the Dutch began to leave the island due to hardship and the slaves they left behind became the first permanent inhabitants. Through forced immigration, these Madagascans became the first true Mauritians. 

When slavery was outlawed, the landowners thought that the former slaves would accept becoming indentured servants and they would continue to have a solid base of cheap labor for the sugarcane fields. But the emancipated slaves had other ideas. Almost en masse they immigrated to the south to become fishermen and work for themselves, subsisting day to day on what they could catch, but free.

In need of indentured servants to fill the labor void, Chinese and Indians replaced the gap of the former slaves. They slowly worked their way into different aspects of society. Today, Mauritians of Indian decent are the solid majority in government and Mauritians of Chinese descent generally work in merchandise or trade.

This Indian Ocean island generally breaks down their racial categories as follows: 60% Indian (either religiously Hindu or Muslim), 30% Creole (black African descent, principally Christian), 8% Chinese and 2% Franco-Mauritian (descendants of the French colonizers). There are some debates on the exact percentages but that’s the approximate reality and everyone is more or less aware of the breakdown.

That puts Mauritius and the United States about on par. Two thirds of each society is racially homogenous and one third are minorities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States is 64% white, 16% Hispanic, 13% black, 5% Asian and the remainder mixed. Native Americans form 0.9% of the population. For being the original inhabitants of the United States, numerically they are nominal for reasons we learnt shamefully in our history books.

To the point, Mauritius and the United States essentially have no indigenous population to base their culture on. They are both countries of immigrants with a relatively similar demographic breakdown, percentage-wise. That means that both our societies deal with the pressure of diversity. 

While I certainly believe we are enriched by our diversities, this comes hand in hand with the challenge of understanding differences. Lord knows we have a hard enough time dealing with our Democrat or Republican neighbor, let alone our Zoroastrian-Iranian-libertarian neighbor who shoots off fireworks on their New Year’s Eve in March? It takes more work to understand a religiously and ethnically different neighbor.

Not every country in the world faces these problems. Let’s take Europe for example. Just to toss out a few, Greece is 93% ethnic Greek, Ireland is 87% ethnic Irish, Norway is 94% ethnic Norwegian, Poland is 97% ethnic Polish, the Czech Republic is 90% ethnic Czech and Germany is 92% ethnic German.

I didn’t dare step behind the wheel in Mauritius because they drive on the left side of the road, a legacy of their British colonizers. I don’t count ambi-driving amongst my talents. During the week we had a driver to take us to our meetings and ensure we didn’t crash along the way. 

Our driver was a charming and spry Creole named Jean-Franqois. He patiently dealt with our unceasing questions and our prying into his personal business. Jean-Franqois is married to a Creole and has three darling little Creole children. When we went down South on the island to do some tours, all of our guides were Creoles.

When we interviewed government officials, nearly all of them were of Indian descent. When we interviewed the leading business groups in the country, without fail almost every single one was Franco-Mauritian. There was some overlapping, and amongst these groups there were some very successful Creoles, but the distinctions seemed pretty obvious to me.

For the first month, then 5 weeks, then 6, I pretty much just rolled with their rhetoric. They live in racial harmony, they live peacefully together, and they coexist with mutual respect and tolerance. I just shrugged and thought, they live on a teeny tiny island they don’t have much of a choice. Mauritius is not even 11 times the size of Washington D.C.

But then as work settled down and I refocused myself on the culture around me, pulling my head out of the business report we were working on, I could see that there were some idiosyncrasies. I was indeed impressed by the lack of crime, and didn’t detect strong racial tensions, but I began to see things in a different light.

Tourism is a pillar of the Mauritian economy. Everyone knows that a good part of the Mauritian welfare is dependent upon presenting a face of unity and safety to the international community. They realize that every foreigner who leaves Mauritius feeling everyone gets along, a harmonious and happy role model for the world, is a potential increase in GDP for the entire island.

In a way they are a role model. They are truly a multi-religious society and have managed to live in peace and become the most successful country in Africa (Mauritius, despite being an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is technically considered part of the African continent). They are ranked number one in ease of doing business in Africa. Their population is multilingual and they, as a general rule, are remarkably friendly, family-oriented, and polite.

But no one, not one, would talk about their racial problems. Although not overwhelmingly, their racial problems were obvious. The black population, the Creoles, is clearly the poorest. We drove circles around the island and they were the only people I saw living in shanties. Soon I began to identify different spots or cities as being principally “Indian” or “Creole” or “white”. It eventually came out that the Franco-Mauritians, descendants of the French colonizers, lorded it over the rest of the population, of a darker skin tone than they. 

I read an article online by Pamela Wade called, “Mauritius the Melting Pot”, and I scrunched up my eyes cynically.  he wrote, “Generations of intermarriage between African, European, Indian and Chinese people have resulted in a society that's harmonious, yet not boringly homogeneous.” I wondered if she was on the payroll of the Ministry of Tourism. Then I looked down at the bottom and saw her trip was hosted by Air Mauritius and a large Mauritian resort company.

If she wanted to be accurate, she should have called it “Mauritius, Peaceful Coexistence,” or “Mauritius, Harmony in Diversity”. I don’t think any Mauritian would agree that there have been generations of extensive intermarriage between the different races in Mauritius. How can you explain that I didn’t meet one Franco-Mauritian married to someone other than a Franco-Mauritian? But tolerant they certainly are. 

I wish I could cite an official percentage of intermarriages in Mauritius. But there are none to be found. After seven weeks in Mauritius, and questioning many different Mauritians, I got the consistent answer that it was 2%. Although on everyculture.com in an article by David Matusky, he wrote, “Most marriages in Mauritius occur within the same ethnic group; only about 8 percent of marriages are interethnic. Those couples who do intermarry usually take on a single ethnic identity for their children. Those children in turn usually associate with that ethnic group and marry within it. Ethnic identification is considered to be more important than class and is the single most examined factor in selecting a mate.”

We all know that we aren’t living in perfect racial harmony in the United States and we’ve got a lot to work to do, at least we all ought to know that. But I also know that a lot of young adults in America don’t need to be with the same color or religious upbringing to feel comfortable. According to a Pew Research Center study, about 15% of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, more than double that in 1980 (6.7%). 

What became clear to me was that Mauritius and the United States confront their ethnic diversity problems differently. Mauritius shoves them under the rug and tries to ignore them, focusing on the fact that things are working pretty well right now. The United States, in turn, makes a big fuss out of them, forcing them into our social consciousness. Race is a topic we discuss politically every day, it’s something parents talk about to their children, and we form groups in university for minorities. A journalist arriving in the United States could get a feel for our race relations a lot faster than a journalist in Mauritius. 

Although I could easily be accused of subjectivity, I’m rather partial to our way of dealing with it. Perhaps it is unfair to compare as we are a giant landmass spanning 3,000 miles and Mauritius spans a mere seven, but compare I shall. Unlike homogenous societies in Europe, racially diverse countries like Mauritius and the United States face the unique challenge of making a country work by mixing together a bunch of different people.

Names changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, I was in a meeting with the CEO of a prominent business group.  Let’s call him Xavier. Xavier was younger and seemed willing to be open about his culture, so we started to chat about the racial reality of Mauritius. I pressed him for a real assessment of their cultural reality.  Xavier is Franco-Mauritian.

Xavier gave a beautiful monologue about the cultural harmony of their country. He even referred to his childhood birthday parties being full of “children of all the colors of the rainbow,” I can assume he wasn’t counting green or blue. Then he fed me some lines about interracial marriage being so low in Mauritius because each race tended to feel more comfortable marrying into their own culture. Although he does work with a black man who married a Chinese, or maybe it was the other way around…

Sitting in his office, it was tempting to want to believe his flawlessly executed speech. Okay it makes sense that people would feel more comfortable with those of the same religion and it would make the whole wedding ceremony a lot less controversial. 

But then I remembered my own cultural heritage. The United States is a mix of cultures and races; black and white and every shade in between. Sometimes we even get a few who are lobster red when they’ve been in the sun for too long. We’ve got Muslims and Christians and Zoroastrians and people who go around knocking on our doors trying to get us to change our minds.

Sure, I’m a white female and I was raised Catholic. Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin I can guarantee you that my birthday parties were certainly not all the colors of the rainbow, and I don’t feel like I need to spout that crap because the bottom line is I’m not looking for someone who is racially and religiously similar to me to marry. 

A pleasant man who’s American might be nice, though.