Perspectives on the Mascarenes Islands: Mauritius and La Réunion

It is nearly impossible to divorce the concept of perception from the politics of stereotypes. The Eurocentric domination has long portrayed unsettling realities of the African continent starting from its early explorations depicted in processes of map-making or fictional narratives such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Yet, recognising that we could be contemporary oppressors through our perceptions, our choice of words, would allow us to create alternative spaces in which truthful narratives would be written, said, and heard.  Somewhat similar to my home country Morocco, and other previous French colonies, Mauritius has become a hub for cheap qualified labor in the finance and IT industries which serve a large number of foreign companies. A form of economic exploitation in the age of ‘globalization’ wrapped with successful development statistics.

The etymological development of the term ‘Africa’ had been a tool which determined subconsciously the ontology of not only creole identities in Réunion Island and Martinique but many other identities; Algerian, Swahili, Zulu, and Senegalese. These identities were reduced to mere subjects of colonization, and to victims of a violent reinforcement of white supremacy.  By framing the world through ‘a whole set of forces’ as described by Edward Said in Orientalism, language and culture assimilation were among the ways in which France, as a colonial empire seeking to expand its territories overseas, delivered its hegemonic ideologies on the islands, Réunion and Martinique. In this setting, Creoles, as people of African slave descent, became subject to internalized racism and started perceiving, unwillingly, the world around them through a caucasian tinted lens.

If taking into account my positionality, I have many elements in common with some of the different ethnic groups that inhabit Mauritius; African, Arab,  brown-skinned, and Muslim by birth. And yet, when I first arrived three years ago, I, too perceived the people of the island through a colonial lens. I didn’t attempt to understand the individual subjectivity and the experience of the Creole people. I was unable to see a clearer picture on the existent nuances and the hegemony of French neocolonialism on my thinking, perception, and ways of seeing the world. I, too, was a product of a duplicated French system with unfettered exposure to Western ideologies which did not provide any tools that teach the art of considering the other as a comrade in the struggle for decolonial liberation. It was rather done through a lens of objectification, mockery and inferiority.  

My engagement with this specific subject matter would not have come through had I not happened to be part of the Mauritian context, living the experience within this nation all the while attempting to understand the different structures place. My curiosity rose when I started witnessing, day after day, the repercussions of French and British colonialism on the Creoles of Mauritius through alienating doctrines.

I now speak some Creole words, I can converse with local Mauritians, I can see beyond the labels that I had first carried in my suitcase three years ago. I have dropped them all. I am exploring an unheard reality, using an English tongue, but hopefully contributing to a much larger and bigger discourse on non-fictional experience.
In my opinion, it is clearly visible that the representation of race and blackness have been deeply embedded in the global north’s imagination —as they seemed to seek justifications for their colonial invasions of the African continent. The usage of degrading and absurd jargons such as “creatures,” “unhappy savages,” “grotesque,” and “brutes,” to describe unknown nations, has allowed a discourse of white  superiority, as polygenists insisted on the existence of multiple origins, yet categorised individuals with darker skins as “subhuman”.

With the emergence of print-capitalism, the global north was able to consume and appropriate a standard understanding of the world eliminating all that doesn’t fit into the parameters of that knowledge. The industrial revolution during the 18th century allowed European imperialism to reinvent the Southern part of the globe to feed its greed. Submerging into “new worlds” to extract resources, colonial powers like the Dutch Empire and France imported slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique, forcing them to work in sugarcane plantations in Mauritius and Réunion Island. This has resulted in an emergence of ethnocentrism and contributed to the creation of a space for deeply rooted institutional racism in which Europeans ironically claimed to colonize countries with an aim of bringing civilization and progress to the “primitive” natives.

Colonial house in ruins. (Source: Amina Soulimani)

Since the abolition of Slavery in 1835 in Mauritius, the French Colonial institution has been assimilating the people of Réunion island— a society fully produced by colonization,— as well as its other overseas departments (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guiana...) into the French culture and language.The descendants of Malagasy and Mozambican slaves were considered as animated objects for a long time. They were still perceived as a potential labor force that could benefit the colony when necessary and were provided with a limited education in order to do so.

I couldn’t but agree with Frantz Fanon, the Martinique born afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, when he discussed the literary representation that had been used as a way to influence psychologically, and politically the colonial subject in The Wretched of the Earth. From a young age, children learned to feel inferior due to their dark skin and developed self-hatred and feelings of inadequacy in a  white world. This was partly due to the books, newspaper, and cartoon images they had access to. In the midst of this, the children learned about the world through storybooks, which scarcely mentioned them and glorified purely white protagonists and characters. French, tantamount to English, became a symbol of conquest and domination.

But in Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (1939,) —a masterpiece in which Aimé Césaire incorporated the battle of an intellectual dark-skinned man on his return to his homeland, Martinique— Césaire called upon his people to take pride in their Negritude, and to reject the cultural dilemmas that stood as barriers to their self-love, and worthiness:

et le nègre chaque jour plus bas, plus lâche, plus stérile, moins profond, plus répanduau dehors, plus séparé de soi-même, plus rusé avec soi-même, moins immédiat avecSoi-même,j'accepte, j'accepte tout cela  _______
and the Negro degraded more each day , more cowardly, more impotent , less profound, less contained, more disembodied from himself, Less honest with himself, less immediate to himself, I accept, I accept it all

While Césaire used the oppressor’s language to convey his profound message to the west, and to his people; the Creole language, emerged as a counter response to colonialism, and a sign of resistance to the French assimilation in Haiti, Mauritius and Réunion island. The Creole cultures became cultures of survival that established unique alternatives of culture production, and proposed different ways of thinking and understanding. Yet, language was still a discriminative tool that defined who was worth being heard. Since the Creole inhabitants of Réunion island were not allowed to speak any other language but French, they witnessed the gradual dissolution of their own culture  in favor of the oppressor’s. And still, they had to show appreciation and gratitude for being qualified to be part of the worlds of both la “Francophonie” and la “francophonie”. The first one referring to the geopolitical entities, and the other, to the group of people who spoke the French language on a global scale, and were both considered as the “peaks” of human civilization.

Similar to the African-American counterpart or that of the Black Atlantic, the consequences of the ‘western’ hegemonic influence on its colonial subjects could be perceived from two perspectives:  
I perceive the first perspective to be one that allows us to look at the perception which the Creoles adopted for themselves due to the representation and forced epistemologies received through education, literary narratives, and media. In the words of Joseph Ki-Zerbo, a Burkinabe Historian, “when we deprive children of their historical roots, it may depersonalize the people.” The Creoles found themselves dwelling in hopeless vicious circles, uncertain of their identities, devaluing all the potential paths they could take to transition from their passive submission to active agencies that exercise the act and art of “becoming.”In many cases, some of the Creoles rejected their own and denied the existing affiliation between their skin complexions to the countries from which derived their ancestors. They lost patience to all that claimed to be “African.”  

On the other hand, the second perspective could be perceived from a decoloniality stance, in which subjects questioned who they identified with, whose ideologies they upheld, which images they consumed,  whose language they spoke, and who they saw themselves as in the first place. Through the development of the decolonial mindset, Creoles had been, are, and will create a world in which people can look at them, beyond their black or mixed colored skin with “new eyes.” Their divorce from the modes of seeing and being related to whiteness was triggered by the fact that it had made them doubt their “sense of place” and brought feelings of alienation and dislocations. Yet it gave birth to an unprecedented nostalgia to the ancestral lands, in this case, Madagascar and Mozambique, as they became more than mere dwelling places or archives of imagined histories.

As a matter of fact, the ancestral lands became crucial sites of collective memory,  which sought to negotiate the boundaries of dispersed communities. Moreover, the decoloniality discourse allowed the creation of coalitions between black people living on the African continent and creoles when thinking about the “other.” It has also allowed them to look at one another, not as “the violent subject,” rather, a subject whose heritage —within its numerous pasts — had been denied, and pulled into an amnesiac state by the systems in place that focused on imposing one singular historical narrative.

The agency of the postcolonial subject within the European self-centrism enabled a projection into a world which provided spaces to elaborate new identities and  new strategies of belonging and resistance as continuously repeated by Françoise Vergès. This translated to “Creole Cosmopolitanism” that considered fighting to introduce the world to the different realities of its citizens an urgent necessity. An island like Réunion has  never been a post-colony. And the discourse is of global value, and engages, until today, the people of the many other departments of France around the world. The notion of nationalism for the francophones in these islands had been forming a double consciousness within its geopolitical boundaries. Within it, the culture was said to be fueled with self-consciousness, created under political and ideological forces. Hence, the existence of these places within the European imagination can only be due to the fact that they are tangible confirmations of sovereignty, and evidence of the successes of the French Empire in expanding its territories.

The politics of liberation on the African continent have been perceived as incomplete since the islands of the Indian Ocean were and are still under colonial control. The patriotism of Kwame Nkrumah sought to unite the lost territories under one umbrella — that of unification, considering the process of decolonialism as a conscious responsibility rather than erasing the existence of these spaces from our imaginations as young Africans dreaming of freedom.

Peak of Le Morne Mountain in Mauritius (Source: Sepiso Mwamelo)

The people of Mauritius have been resisting the cultural oppression and violence. Listening to the joyful rhythms, and sad lyrics at times of Sega music stands as a clear evidence of 500 years of resistance, and could be comparable to the emergence of Jazz music in North America. While Sega music was given birth under a Banyan tree in the south of island, it is now a cultural symbol of an entire nation, referred to as “rum that is drunk with the eyes and the ears” as says a famous Mauritian proverb.

Yet, a discourse that questions the extent to which the populations of Réunion island is still colonized by France, and whether or not its peoples may be ready to include decolonization as part of their  daily life to give a different meaning to nationalism and patriotism, remains without any quantitative answer. As it is a space in which creolization is “one of the many products of different globalizations linking many islands of the continents together, and cancelling all notion of monoculture.

Coming across language resistance in Mauritius allowed me to reflect on the journey of Tamazight, a language spoken by the Imazighen population of North Africa. And while the context is different, Tamazight was only considered an official language in Morocco as of 2011, and Créole in 2014.

Mauritian Créole is now taught in schools, used in billboards, and in public spaces.  This pushed me beyond what I had known before. I can’t stop but think critically about what it means to overlook the privileges of ‘owning’ a language, of freedom, and of the power dynamics of one social, ethnic and political group over another. The Creoles knocked through walls of concrete and bricks to have their voices heard. Their language, a language of resistance and rhythmic tonations was finally recognised and is currently spoken by all the ethnic groups on the island.

From my humble perspective, learning Créole allowed me to step into a culture of adaptability, in which Créoles live next door to Hindus and Tamils in a street with a Muslim name in the centre of a Chinatown. It is not only a revolution of resistance, but of tolerance, beyond borders and imaginations.