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Sunday, 18 September 2011

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Islands in the Indian Ocean

Mauritius - Famed for Blue Penny stamps and dodos

Sri Lanka, is the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. I do not know who gave this honorific title to our little island. We think of Sri Lanka as a small island, but there are much smaller islands scattered in the Indian Ocean. I shall introduce those islands to you one by one.

Letís begin our cruise with a visit to Mauritius. Iíve chosen Mauritius for our first stop for a very special reason. Read on and you will know why.

Mauritius is a small island in the Indian Ocean, South of the equator. It is 500 miles / 1800 kilometres, east of Madagascar. Look up the map of the Indian Ocean. The exact location is 20 degrees South latitude and 57 degrees east longitude.

It is a very small island, much, much smaller than Sri Lanka. Mauritius is only 39 miles long and 29 miles wide. You can gauge how small Mauritius is by comparing its length and width with distances in Sri Lanka. Colombo to Avissawella is 36 miles, Mauritius is 3 miles longer. Its width is the distance from Colombo to Kalutara - 27 miles - plus another 2 miles say to Piyagala.

Mauritius is surrounded by coral reefs. The mountains make Mauritius a beautiful island. The coastal plain rises to a plateau which is bordered by small mountains, the highest rising 2,711 feet or 826 meters above sea level. Scientists say these mountains formed the rim of an ancient volcano. The rivers are very short - 14 miles and 22 miles. They are small streams in the dry season but torrential rivers in the rainy season.

Mauritius was probably known to Arab sea farers in the 10th century or earlier. Malays too came this way. Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Mauritius, but the first settlers were the Dutch who came in 1598. They named the island Mauritius after the statholder or Governor Prince, Maurice de Nassau.

The Dutch cleared some of the forests and planted sugar cane, which was the islands main crop until the 1970s. They also introduced cotton, domestic animals like the pig and the sambur, a long tailed dark brown deer and the mongose which is now a pest.

The French took the island in 1715 and changed the name to Isle de France. They introduced cloves, nutmeg and other spices and indigo, the plant from which the blue dye is obtained.

The French East India Company controlled Mauritius from 1723 and made this small outpost in the Indian Ocean a rich country. In 1767 the king of France bought over the island from the E.I. Company. The British who came after the French introduced tea, just as they did in our country. They too cut down the forests.

The more recent history of Mauritius is much like Sri Lanka. It was first under the Dutch and then under the French. British gained control of the island in 1810, five years before they took control of the whole of Sri Lanka and renamed the island Mauritius. The island gained independence from the British on March 12, 1968, 20 years after us and became a republic on March 12, 1992, again 20 years after Sri Lanka.

The British got down south Indians to work on our tea estates. When the African slaves in Mauritius were set free in 1830, Indian labourers were brought in. They mixed with the locals and now there is a large Hindu population - about half the population. (1/3 are Christians and the rest Muslims). Many have Indian names like Navinchandra, Ramgoolam, Arvin Boolell, Ramesh Jeewoolall.

Standard of secondary education is high. About 90 per cent of children are in primary school. Mauritius too has a Royal College for secondary and higher education. The University of Mauritius founded in 1965, has faculties of Agriculture Technology, Education and Administration.

Sugar cane is still the main export crop. Manufacture of textiles and garments, plastic and leather goods are important industries. Mauritius too has an Export Processing Zone like ours.

Tourism is a major earner of foreign exchange since the 1970s.

The air service from Sydney to Johannesburg touches Mauritius and many shipping lines call at Port Louis, which has an excellent harbour - a deep inlet one mile long.

The Republic is made up of Mauritius and a number of islands scattered over the Indian Ocean. They are Rodrigues 350m to the east, Chagos Archipelago 1,180 miles, North East Agalega ,58m and Cargodas Carasos 250 miles to the north.

Small as Mauritius is, the island has unique claims to fame. The Two Pence Postage Stamp - referred to as the Blue Penny is one of the most famous stamps. It was issued in Mauritius in 1847.

The Dodo - Dodo Raphus Cucullatus - was the islandís best known endemic bird. It was hunted by man and by the wild pig and became extinct in 1681. This has given us the expression, Dead as a Dodo , which means completely dead or lost forever.

Sri Lanka has a special connection with Mauritius. Ehelepola Maha Adikaram, the last Maha Adikaram or Prime Minister in the Sinhala Kingdom was taken prisoner by the British and sent to Mauritius - Murisiya in Sinhala - and kept imprisoned there until his death. A Sri Lankan, Palitha Weerasinghe, who went as an official delegate to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in 1970s took a photograph of the building where Ehelepola was kept a prisoner. It was then a home for Catholic nuns.


[Fact file]

Official Name: Republic of Mauritius

Head of State: President elected for five years by the National Assembly.

Legislature: National Assembly Political System: Westminster type of Parliamentary Democracy National flag: Four horizontal stripes of red. blue, yellow, green Area: Mauritius only about 720 sq miles. With island territories 860 sq miles Capital: Port Louis Population: Three fourths creole (of mixed French and African descent) Two fifths Indian. European and Chinese make up small communities. Languages: Official Language English. Most understood and spoken language Creole. Then French other languages - Hindi, Urudu, Telugu, Tamil, Marati and Mandarin. Currency: Mauritian rupee Climate: Hot November - April cool May-October Time: Four hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

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