National Geographic : 1956 Jan
Port Louis, Capital of Mauritius, Sprawls Around Its Racecourse On race days the island spills sari-clad Indians, beribboned Creoles, and Paris-frocked French-Mauri tians onto the wide Champ de Mars (pages 81, 94). Cupped by steep hills (lower right), the course occu pies the crater of a long-dead volcano. Mauritians have erected an obelisk (left) to a French governor, the Comte de Malartic (1792-1800), and a statue (center) to Britain's King Edward VII (1901-1910). the ship's ladder, awaiting passengers going ashore-nine of us all told. Cargo lighters already were off-loading mountains of goods. Mauritius, 1,760 miles from Durban, South Africa, 570 miles from French Madagascar, must import manufactured necessities as well as most of its food. More than half a million people crowd the island's 716 square miles. Not that this rugged volcanic outcrop, 40 miles long by 27 miles wide at its broadest, is not fertile. But its sprawling fields and great plantations grow one main crop-sugar - in rich lava soil (page 88). Half a million tons of sugar, squeezed from thick stalks of cane in Mauritian mills, are shipped out each year. On the price it brings depends the island's prosperity. Most of it goes to the United Kingdom. Sugar Tolerates Hurricanes This all-eggs-in-one-basket situation pre vails simply because no other major crop will yield so bountiful a return as sugar cane and also recover so quickly from damage done by the dreaded Indian Ocean cyclones. The smell of sugar met my boat halfway to the landing. Big flat-roofed warehouses lined the waterfront. Quays were piled with fat bags of sugar. My first impression of Port Louis was that it had seen better days. Once-elaborate old mansions now sagged behind peeling paint and rusting iron grillwork; other buildings were sheathed with flattened gasoline cans. In the commercial section, shops and office entrances crowded together. People hurrying to work filled the narrow streets. Taxi horns brayed. Hucksters hawked bargains. Sugar brokers' clerks carried twisted paper cones holding samples. In the Place d'Armes facing the harbor stands a bronze statue of Mahe de Labour donnais, "Founder of Mauritius," one of the most remarkable colonizers France has ever produced. He holds an unfolded chart of the "Ile de France," the name the French gave to Mauritius in 1715, five years after Dutch settlers abandoned the island. The French East India Company in 1722 sent colonists from near-by Bourbon (La Reunion). In 1735, when fewer than 1,000 people lived on Ile de France, Labourdonnais arrived as governor. Port Louis was only a hut encampment, and in the hills roamed wild "maroons," runaway slaves of the Dutch. Labourdonnais built a capital at Port Louis, constructed roads and fortifications, also ships and a harbor. He subdued the maroons, en couraged sugar cane cultivation, and founded the island's future. "We could use a bit of the old boy today," said Harry Ardill, government education offi cial who joined my party. "The population keeps growing, but the output of the planta tions has a top limit. It would take Mahe there to find the solution!"