The First Newspaper in the Southern Hemisphere
In 1773 the first printed newspaper in the Southern Hemisphere was published in Mauritius. The tiny island of Mauritius may only seem like a verdant dot in the azure blue Indian Ocean, yet this country is rich in its diversity of culture of the people that settled here.
Mauritius is a volcanic island that was uninhabited by humans until 1598 when the Dutch occupied it and named it Prince Maurice after Prince Mauritz of Nassau. Dutch ships regularly docked to replenish stocks, but it was only in 1638 that the island was officially colonized by the Dutch. For almost 50 years, the Dutch occupied the island, until they finally evacuated in 1710. Five years later in 1715, the French arrived and renamed it Ile de France. On December 2, 1810 the French were forced to capitulate to the British, who named it Mauritius. An influx of slaves and indentured laborers from Africa, India and the islands of the Indian ocean added color and diversity to the population that can call themselves Mauritian today.
Cameras on display in the Photography Museum Mauritius (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius )
18th Century France
To understand the Mauritians’ need for news during the late 18th century, one has to look at political developments in France, the mother country. Louis XV reigned but he lacked the statesmanship and ambition of his famous grandfather Louis XIV. His reign was described as one of debilitating stagnation, characterized by lost wars, endless clashes between the Court and the Parliaments, and religious feuds. Jerome Blum described him as "a perpetual adolescent called to do a man's job”. Another characteristic remarked by contemporaries was his penchant for secrecy. "No one was a greater expert at dissimulation than the King", wrote d'Argenson, "he worked from morning to night to dissimulate; he did not say a word, make a gesture or demarche except to hide what he really wanted”.
Louis XV by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748) Louvre Museum ( Public Domain )
The Foreign Minister of France, Duc de Choiseul, had to save France’s reputation after its defeat in the Seven Years War (1756 and 1763). War is costly and France was crippled by very heavy debts, which remained a burden for most of the 18th century. By 1770 Choiseul had planned for an invasion of England to restore France’s honor. He had reformed the French military doctrine and ordered the building of a new fleet. However, Choiseul was dismissed in December 1770 and the king passed the leadership of the government to a triumvirate of three conservative ministers, led by his Chancellor, René de Maupeou, who installed reformatory measures regarding the Parliament of Paris and provincial parliaments. Abbot Terray, the new Minister for Finance, inherited the state’s budget deficit of 60 million livres, and a long-term debt of 100 million livres. By 1772 the navy had 66 ships of the line, 35 frigates, and 21 new corvettes, due to Choiseul’s preparation for war.
Seven Years War: Battle of Quiberon Bay by Richard Patton (1759) ( Public Domain )
Regarding international affairs, the king of Sweden had passed away in 1771 and Sweden risked being divided between Russia and Prussia. The Prince Royal, Gustav III of Sweden, who was staying in Paris at the time, appealed to King Louis for assistance to save his country. Although the French coffers were already depleted King Louis committed to helping Gustav III. With French funding, and assistance from Louis's personal secret intelligence service, the Secret de Roi , Gustave III returned to Stockholm. On August 19, 1772, the Swedish royal guard imprisoned the Swedish Senate, and two days later he was proclaimed king.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (18th century) ( Public Domain )
The French’s cultural landscape was influenced by a philosophical movement called the Enlightenment. One of the most famous philosophers of this movement, Jean Jacques Rousseau published Discours sur les origins et les fundaments de l'inégalité in 1755. He wrote the Contrat Social calling for a new system based upon political and economic equality, in 1762. His ideas were later adopted by the revolutionaries who overthrew Louis XVI in 1789 during the French Revolution. Voltaire, (François-Marie Arouet) initially supported Louis XV in his suppression of the parliaments of nobles, demanding that all classes be taxed equally. However, the king's lack of further reforms in his last years disappointed Voltaire. When the King died on 10 May 1774, Voltaire wrote of his reign: "Fifty-six years, consumed with fatigues and wanderings”.
So, by the end of the 18th century, trouble was brewing in the coffee shops in Paris, frequented by pre-revolutionary philosophers like Voltaire. But it was not only the rich aroma of percolating coffee that wafted through the windows. A dark undercurrent of discontent was permeating the late-night mist enveloping the streets of Paris and this spread to the colonized Ile de France/ Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
French map from 1791 depicting Mauritius (then called "Isle de France"). ( Public Domain )
Le Pain du Peuple
“L’Information est le pain du people” – “Information is the first food of the nation, if not informed, you are hungry,” the saying goes. On July 14, 1767 Mauritius became a crown colony of France, enjoying the status of a province of France. Supreme power rested in the person of the king, but it was delegated to the Governor who was responsible for all legislative, executive and judicial functions and a Financial Controller. By 1767 Governor Jean Daniel Dumas had established Mauritius as an industrious trading center. However, the French bourgeoisie in Mauritius were growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of information or news coming from France. Pending wars and financial troubles of France would impact severely on the lucrative sugar cane industry and the lives of luxury and opulence of these gentleman framers. Governor Dumas addressed this concern and in 1768 Mauritius saw the arrival of a printing machine, meant for the printing of a newspaper. This would replace the practice of posting news printed on posters on doors.
Tristan Breville illustrating the printing of the newspaper, using engraved blocks. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)
Chevalier Tristan Breville, (74) owner and curator of the Musee Photo Ile Maurice informs that a Mr Saunois, responsible for the press, decided to run a test on the machine and printed a poem dedicated to the first lady of France, Madame la Dauphine, the wife of Louis XV. A copy of this paper is proudly displayed at the Museum.
The poem dedicated to Madame La Dauphine, printed on the first press in Mauritius (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)
Governor Dumas was unpopular and in 1769 he was replaced by Francois-Julien de Dresnay, Chevalier Des Roches, who was in short succession replaced by Governor Charles Louis D’Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay and it was under his direction on January 13, 1773 that Ile de France / Mauritius experienced its very first edition of a newspaper, also the very first to be published in the Southern hemisphere, with India printing a newspaper in 1778 and South Africa only in 1800. The newspaper was published every Wednesday. The first edition revolved around the explanation of why it was necessary to publish a newspaper and cost two piastis. The newspaper consisted of 30 pages in A4 size and only the bourgeoisie had access to it, as the slaves and laborers could not read. The first editor in chief was Nicola Lambert and even in 2019 the ‘Nicola Lambert award’ is presented to the best journalist.
Copy of the first page of Annonces Affices, January 13, 1773 first newspaper in the Southern hemisphere. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)
Tristan Bréville’s Passion
Bréville explains Mauritius is innovative regarding culture, knowledge and information and since its independence on March 12, 1968 it has one of the greatest and most rare democracies in the world, that supports freedom of expression. Yet he pities the fact that there is no original of the first newspaper left, only copies. Thousands of old newspapers at the National Library may be in danger of extinction, like the Dodo, due to a lack of policy of preservation of these precious documents.
Interior of the Photography Museum in Port Louis, Mauritius (Image: Frédérick Bréville, ©)
Since 1994, Bréville , a former teacher, has bought many old printing machines and in 1996 when the government printing house was demolished to make space for the State Bank of Mauritius, many artifacts were destroyed, but he managed to buy the machines with the help of Roland Maurel of Domaine les Pailles.
The 1782 Old Archive currently housing the Photography Museum of Mauritius (Image: Frédérick Bréville, ©)
The current building housing the Photography Museum is located in the old center of Port Louis, capital of Mauritius, in what was once the archives of Pierre Poivre, the king’s administrator indendant, dating to 1782. Poivre, a horticulturist, was also responsible for the establishment of a botanical garden, the present-day Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden in Pamplemousses.
Examples of the Cinema cameras in the museum (Images: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)
The museum houses a collection of more than 2,000 cameras, printing machines and cine movie cameras. The oldest camera in the museum was brought into Mauritius in 1839, by Ferdinand Worhnitz.
The camera brought in by Ferdinand Worhnitz in 1839. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)
The daguerrian lens is signed by Charles Chevalier, dated 1834. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)
In 1995 the government of Mauritius nominated Bréville as commissioner to celebrate the centenary of cinema in the world. The first film was projected in 1895 in Paris and in Mauritius the first film was projected in the theatre in February 1897. The museum displays examples of copper and tin plates of the 19th century, a cinema projector of 1929 and lithographic stones, etched with acid, that were placed inside the printing machines, as demonstrated by an enthusiastic Breville.
Top Image: Chevalier Tristan Bréville, owner and curator of the Photography Museum of Mauritius Source: Courtesy Micki Pistorius
Interview Chevallier Tristan Breville. Musee Photo Ile Maurice.