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Culture in Mauritius

While many countries claim they are cosmopolitan, only a few really qualify. Mauritius is one of the rare authentically cosmopolitan societies. Where else could so many towns and villages boast of a Catholic church, a Muslim mosque, and a Hindu temple within walking distance from each other? And if you are lucky, you might even find a Chinese pagoda in the vicinity! One little-known cemetery at Bambous hosts a burial ground with a Muslim and a ... Jewish section!!

A little history helps explain this peculiar mix. The French took over the island from the Dutch settlers (notorious for having eaten the Dodos down to the very last!) around 1715. The French brought over slaves from Africa (particularly from Senegal, Guinea, Mozambique and Madagascar) to work in the sugar-cane plantations. The Mauritian Creole, now in quasi-universal use on the island, probably evolved during those years as some sort of lingua franca between slaves
and masters.

The British became very interested in the island in the early eighteenth century because it provided the perfect transit for ships en route to India. The British eventually won the island over from the French in 1810. British rule was essentially administrative and the French colonists were allowed to stay. Things did not change much for the unfortunate African slaves until, yielding to the pressure of abolitionists, the colonists emancipated them in the 1830s-40s. To make up for this sudden labour shortage, the British brought indentured labourers from India (mainly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat) to the island. Within a few decades, people of Indian origin were a majority in the island.

The early twentieth century also saw the arrival of Chinese settlers (Hakka and Cantonese) who sought their fortune in retail trade. Mauritius earned its independence from Britain, following political disquiet in the 1960s. Since then the country has been under a constitutional rule particularly attentive to the political representation of the minorities and to their equal access to healthcare, education and employment. If anything, the twenty-five odd years since independence have seen a consolidation of ethnic identities, never, however, at the expense of the unity of the nation.

And if you are still wondering about the Jewish cemetery at Bambous, here's the story. Jewish refugees from East Europe (Poland in particular) tried to reach Palestine in the early 1940s to escape the Nazi persecution. They travelled down the west coast of Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean. They were taken by the British at this point, brought to Mauritius and made to stay there until the end of the war. Some of them died and were buried in Mauritius on a ground they share with Muslims.

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