Nostalgic Old Trades Facing Extinction in Mauritius, Like a Doomed Dodo
Tinker, tailor, blacksmith, barber, butcher, baker, mason, candlestick maker and carpenter; all old trades that served the seafarers of the 18th century on the trade route to India and the sugar plantation owners of the 19th century in Mauritius, may soon be facing extinction like the doomed dodo.
Scene depicting tradesmen in Mauritius. Taken from “The Dodo and its Kindred” (1848) ( Public Domain )
Spanning the Dutch occupation from 1598, including the French occupation lasting from 1715, until the British colonisation from 1810, the island was a slave owning society. Slave labour was used to build settlements, forts, docks, a shipyard, canals, expanded roads and always, like a ravenous beast, the sugar cane fields consumed slave labour at a never-ending pace. But slaves were not the only workforce in Mauritius. Under French governorship of Mahé de Labourdonnais from 1742 to 1746 many free Indians were allowed to settle and trade in Mauritius. Tinsmiths, jewellers, wig makers, tailors and cobblers catered to the needs of the well-to-do haut monde .
Governor Mah é de Labourdonnais, Midas of Mauritius. (Image: L’Aventure du Sucre.)
The Birth of Port Louis
Labourdonnais was the visionary governor who decided to move the capital from the Dutch site of Vieux Grand Port in the east, to the more natural harbour of Port Louis in the west. Around the port he designed the emerging town, and divided it into sections for commerce, administration and residential areas. Merchants’ warehouses, fresh produce markets and pungent reeking meat markets were located adjacent to the harbour to serve the ships. In the alleys and back streets around the warehouses the shopkeepers, tradesmen and artisans set up shop. The outer circle of development, the residential areas, comprised a white city for the aristocracy and a black city, demarcated into camps for state owned slaves, freedmen, Indian, both Hindu and Muslim and Chinese. Today, none of the segregation exists and Mauritius is a peaceful state, drawing cultural nourishment from its multi-racial ancestral roots.
The derelict ruins of the Labourdonnais Hospital, awaiting restoration. (Image: Courtesy of the author)
In 1740 a hurricane completely destroyed the old hospital and Labourdonnais had a new hospital built in the Trou Fanfaron area. The first wing was completed in 1740 and could accommodate 240 beds. There was also a pharmacy, a laboratory, nurses’ quarters, kitchen, store rooms, bathrooms, a chapel and a wing for the mentally ill. In the 19th century, under British rule it was converted into a Military hospital.
Dilapidated interior of the Labourdonnais Hospital. (Image: Courtesy of the author)
This hospital was situated next to the Bagne, or old prison for marooned or runaway slaves, but the Bagne Prison was demolished by the British and a Civil Hospital was built in its place in 1862. Descendants of slaves and indentured laborers were treated here and in 1867 victims of a terrible malaria epidemic were admitted, but still thousands died. The old Civil Hospital is now part of the Post Office.
The old Civil Hospital, (1862) built on the site of the Bagne, a marooned slaves’ prison. (Image: Courtesy of the author)
The Midas of Mauritius, Labourdonnais created wealth and in its wake, Port Louis became urbanized. Commercial enterprise was encouraged. By the late 18th century cobble stones replaced the marshy muddy streets. Inhabitants and traders were responsible for the maintenance and hygiene of the streets. A regulation in 1769 compelled them to level the streets and the streets were widened. By 1775 an ordinance ordered the building of pavements. Since each shopkeeper was responsible for the stretch of pavement in front of his shop, presently one still finds the pavements of downtown Mauritius an obstacle course to be negotiated requiring fine navigational skills. Lopsided steps, uneven paving, protruding stones, bridges, bollards and water furrows can trip and maim the unsuspecting or hasty pedestrian.
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By 1784 fruit and vegetable sellers were forbidden to sell their wares on the pavements and it was ordered that rubbish be placed outside to be collected and eventually transported by boat for dumping in the sea. However, by 1829 the filth caused by animals in the town reached alarming unhygienic conditions and in 1832 inhabitants had to fence and enclose their properties and each property owner had to plant fruit trees along his property border. In 1839 construction on the Port Louis Central Market commenced and it was completed in 1845, alongside the Stone and Iron Works. The market had different sections catering for vegetables and fruit, meat, fish, shops and a food court and is still in operation today.
The fresh fruit and vegetable market in Port Louis (Image: Courtesy of the author)
Abolition of Slavery and Introduction of Indentured Labor
Apart from the free traders of the 1740’s, fate intervened to change the landscape of Mauritius’ labour force over the next 100 years. Supressed, maltreated and hungry, the bourgeois of the motherland France reached breaking point and simmering discontent erupted into the French Revolution of 1798. The French Revolution did not have much effect on its colony in Mauritius, except for one crucial factor. In the spirit of Liberté, Egalit é and Fraternit é the Revolutionary French Government decreed on 4 February 1794 to abolish slavery, which caused an uprising among the sugar plantation owners in Mauritius, who stubbornly refused to give up their labour force.
The Napoleonic Wars ensued and Napoleon reinstated slave trade in 1803, but this changed in 1810 when Mauritius capitulated peacefully to Britain and by January 1813 an Act on the Abolition of Slave Trading was registered in Mauritius – which had no effect on the sugar plantation owners and slave trading continued illegally. Eventually 800 000 slaves were freed in the west Indies and Mauritius between 1 August 1834 and 1 August 1835 and the owners were compensated for their loss. Slaves were still bound by a period of apprenticeship until 1837. Some slaves worked as domestic servants and coachmen on the plantations, but many wanted to get as far away as possible and became fisherman along the shores of Mauritius. Today many fishing villages, such as Pourde d’Or, remind one of the charm of yesteryear, where washerwomen still wash clothes by hand in the river and fishermen weave bamboo lockers.
Home of Indentured Labourers at the end of the 19th century. (Image: Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund)
Realizing they are facing a severe shortage of labour during an apex of sugar production, the sugar plantation owners decided to invest some of the compensation they received for freeing the slaves in the so-called ‘Great Mauritian Experiment Project’ of Indentured Labour, imported mainly from India, but also from East Africa, Madagascar, China and Southeast Asia. By 1838, 24,000 Indians had reached Mauritius in this labour scheme. A total of 68% of current Mauritians can trace their ancestry back to the Indentured Labour Force. The rapid expansion of plantation labourers attracted free merchants to the island to tend to the needs of the population and import Indian products, and so the tradesmen and artisans followed.
Nostalgia of the Tradesmen and Women
Wandering the little alleys and meeting the last generation of tradesmen and artisans of Port Louis revives a nostalgic touch. In shops, some literally set in alleys and others barely big enough to fit a chair and a table, with a street facing counter, to large warehouses, these men and women ply their trades.
In Farquhar street – named after the first British Governor – one finds the barber shop of Mohummed Bhurtin, age 71. As a descendant from Indentured Laborers hailing from Calcutta, he still owns the wooden chair with adjustable neck piece – a fine piece of carpentry - where his clients sit for a shave and cut.
The barber, Mr Bhurtin’s old chair with adjustable neck piece. (Image: Courtesy of the author)
Sharp aromas of spices and dried fish accost the unaccustomed nose and announce the tiny shop – slightly more than just a pavement counter separating the pot of boiling oil from the public – of Mr Kishorsing Ramlagun, selling his chili bites for breakfast. Indian and Chinese bakers of old brought recipes of ‘gato pima’ (chili bites); ‘boulettes” (dumplings); ‘zinzli’ (Chinese sesame cakes); and ‘gateau gingeli’ (sweet potato, black beans and lentils) and ‘roti’ (Indian savoury crepe with various fillings) to gratify the yearning for homeland cooking. Mauritians eat street food, bought over the counter or at the door of these petit bakeries.
Around the corner, one finds the wholesale warehouse of the Ibrahim family who settled here in the 1890’s. The current owner is a third-generation descendant. Called Godams (Go-Downs) the building is a fine example of old Mauritian Georgian architecture where the ground floor was built with volcanic rock, hand-cut into rectangular blocks by stone masons, and the top residential floor where the proprietor lived, was built of wood. It was called a Godam, since the proprietor only had to ‘go down’ the stairs to work. Rickety wooden balconies lace the buildings, like icing on a cake. Due to fire hazard, ground floors had to be built from stone.
Wholesale store of Mr Abdullah Ibrahim, built of hand-cut volcanic stone, with the wooden residential first floor, called a Godam. (Image: Courtesy of the author)
In the 1860’s Muslim merchants found it difficult to travel to the mosque in their quarter five times a day, as it was unproductive to leave the commercial area. In 1859 construction commenced on a mosque within the commercial centre, and it was finally completed in 1895. Like the warehouses, the mosque was built with volcanic hand-cut stone. Even the roof tiles are hand-cut, and covered with tar and black paint to keep them waterproof. Tamils came from India to decorate the mosque, but as they only knew Indian architecture, the mosque is quite unusual as it resembles a temple. Tamil sculptures adorn the mosque. Inside one is quite surprized to find the trunk of a huge almond tree incorporated into the structure, until one remembers the law that each property had to have a fruit tree. In 1858 Mauritius had only three clocks – one in the central market, one in the old post office and one here in the Jummah mosque, but it is currently under restoration.
Tamil sculpturing on the roof of the Jummah mosque (1895). Even the roof tiles were hand-cut. (Image: Courtesy of the author).
Rhythmic tapping leads the ear to the shop of Mr Jacques, the 76-year old the tinsmith, who learnt the trade when he was 16 years old. The nature of his work has changed since his ancestors produced large buckets for washerwomen to tend to the laundry of wealthy households and milkmen who delivered milk in cans. Today aluminium has replaced the tin and he mainly produces toukbullets for making dumplings.
Tinsmith tinkering away at toukbullets for making dumplings. (Image: Courtesy of the author).
Four generations ago the Patten family bought a small shop in Etienne Anquetil street and opened their business as Tamil jewellers. The name Patten originates from Pather in Tamil. All jewelry is made by hand and no machines are used. Mrs Poospa Patten explains how her now-deceased husband, as a nine-year old apprentice, used to melt the gold in a pot, using a poukni, or blower, to light the charcoal until the gold melted and flowed like water. Then he had to roll and crush it manually with a hammer. Sitting behind her, a family member painstakingly creates an exquisite piece. In Tamil tradition, each family has its own design of wedding pendant, called thaali ( தாலி) in Tamil, which is worn around the woman’s neck on a yellow thread. The designs are registered in Mr Patten’s book. The Patten jewellers also fashion the vel - a skewer inserted in the body or tongue – for the pilgrimage from the river to the temple in honor of the god Murunga during the Thaipusam festival.
Mrs Poospa Patten displaying her fine examples of silver vels and skewers (Image: Courtesy of the author)
Mr Kadrass has been a typographer for 40 years and owns a letter press. Thousands of minute metal letters are arranged according to point size, bold, italic, fonts and upper and lower case and it is truly a marvel that the typographer knows the hiding place of each one. Many prominent businessmen, descendants from the first merchant families, take pride in still having their letterheads printed by hand at the typesetter. This is a dying trade as one letter can only be used 10 000 times and the person who owned the machine that manufactures these letters is no longer alive. Soon time will run out for the little characters and another trade will be lost.
Mr Kadrass, typographer in his old printing press. (Image: Courtesy of the author)
Preserving the Cultural Heritage
Such is the tragedy that many of these family businesses, stemming from the traders and artisans of the 18th and 19th centuries are fading. Impoverished parents worked hard to afford a better education for their children and the younger generation who qualified as professionals have left the island to make their fortunes elsewhere, or return but practice their professions.
The Aapravasi Ghat Indentured Labour Museum and Interpretation centre was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2006. Cultural tourism accounts for 40% of world tourism heritage and Mauritius prepared a Local Economic Development Plan in 2016 to support the rehabilitation of the heritage in Port Louis. The National Heritage Fund takes it to heart to restore and preserve Port Louis’ historical buildings, but the trades may become lost forever. Companies like MyMoris promote cultural tours and support the local community.
Top Image : Downtown Port Louis, a blend of the historical and the new. (Image: Courtesy of the author)
David, J. 2010. Mauritius The Slave Legacy . Ajanta Offset and Packagings Ltd, India.
Forest, C. 2017. Heritage as a Key Contributor to Economic Development . Aapravasi Ghat Magazine, Vol 2. November 2017.
MyMoris. Retrieved 2018. From father to son: the jewelry workshop of the Patten family . Available at: https://www.mymoris.mu/en/blog/handmade-jewelry-tradition
Wright, C. 1974. Islands Mauritius . Stackpole Books.