This article by Lindsey Collen, WHAT IS "MAURITIUS"?, was published in L'Express on 8 August, 2007. We have pleasure, with her permission, in reprinting it.
Recently I gave a lecture to Upper Sixth pupils at one of the "star colleges". They were very bright, and had clearly benefited from fantastic teachers. During the course of the lecture, I conducted a brief written survey to get an idea of these students' ability to explain a simple concept: "my country".
I asked them all to write down an answer to: "My country: What is it? Just a paragraph." I added. "You can use any language." I repeated the word "country", emphasizing it repeatedly.
I received 104 responses, which I converted to percentages for easy comprehension.
84% made the conceptual error of describing the country as "an island",
16% of replies did not contain this error,
0% explained with any degree of accuracy what her "country" is.
There were two interesting replies, though. One wrote: "It is a small island, then had added the word "country" above the word "island", .." Another wrote "Mauritius is an island", then as an afterthought squeezed in: "and its neighbour, Rodrigues".
Ah, these are the two brilliant thinkers: they had begun to see the conceptual problem I was testing.
The question is why? Why on earth should all students at the very end of 12 years' schooling, now at an elite college, have no clear concept of their country in their heads?
Would all these pupils have made the same conceptual error had their education been in the mother tongue? I think not. It is, after all, through the natural use of the mother tongue that at school we develop what Prof Jim Cummins in his seminal studies calls "Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency" that is to say, high-level linguistic proficiency, as opposed to the capacity for Basic Inter-personal Communication Skills. Given that these two capacities seem to be able to develop separately, and given that we deprive our children of the advanced facility, we risk damaging their conceptual-linguistic development.
The 100% inability to describe "my country" may also be due partly to intellectual colonization in the sense that some of us end up expressing ourselves in ways that give comfort to our oppressors. It may also be due partly to the stubbornness of "dead metaphors", just as we say "the sun rises" when we actually mean "the earth has turned". And it is likely to be a bit of all three. The latter is hard to change. The one in the middle, we can overcome through clear political stands and struggles, while the first one needs a change in the medium of education.
Whatever the causes, it is of concern that 100% of pupils in Upper Sixth a prestigious college should make this mistake when formally requested to give a simple definition or description. But they are not alone. In the academics Sheila Bunwaree and Roukaya Kasenally's study "Mauritius: Country Report Based on Research and Dialogue with Political Parties" (IDEA, 2006), a serious research document, a "country report" to boot, we find right at the beginning these same erroneous words, "Mauritius is a small island .."
Surely this error on such a wide scale unveils a psychosocial pathology with lexical implications. Let us explain.
IS THE COUNTRY "AN" ISLAND, IN THE SINGULAR?
We often call the whole country "L'Ile Maurice" or refer to it as an "island", while the definition of "an island" is well known. It is "A piece of land completely surrounded by water."(2)??
MP's, Presidents of the Republic, Ministers, top academics, the whole lot blather on, not noticing that they are exposing to public view the fact that they have no internal representation of the country they live in as a polity. Not noticing that they cruelly write off as non-Mauritian all Rodriguans, Agalegeans, Chagossians, and residents of St Brandon. No matter that they are repeatedly putting a rubber stamp on the violent "forcible removals".
People who use the words "an" and "a" in the context of Mauritius being "an island" or often obsequiously as being "a" small island, know very well that words "an" and "a" denote something in the singular. They know very well that the State consists of islands in the plural. They are familiar with the lexical item "archipelago" that would be less inaccurate, though not correct. (3).
Yet, they persist in referring to the whole country or the State as "Lil Moris" in Kreol, as "L'ile Maurice" in French, and as "the Island of Mauritius" in English.
We hear well-educated people making statements that are highly improbable and scientifically fallacious, like: "The Chagos Archipelago is in the Island of Mauritius." This is the kind of statement Frantz Fanon rightly considered a symptom of the psychopathology produced by colonization.
THE LAW OF THE LAND
The error persists despite legislative clarity. Even before the 1991 Republic amendments that said, "'Mauritius' includes (a) the islands of Mauritius, Rodrigues, Agalega, Tromelin, Cargados Carajos and the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia and any other island comprised in the State of Mauritius " (4), previous legislation referred to Cargados Carajos Archipelago, Agalega, Tromelin and the Chagos Archipelago for fishing rights." (5)
THE SNEAKY DEFINITION AT INDEPENDENCE
However, the Independence Constitution left by the British, was very sneaky. Perhaps this is the document that exposes that it was not pure coincidence that there was confusion about what Mauritius exactly is.
We quote from the 1968 Constitution: "In this Constitution, unless the context otherwise requires - ... "Mauritius" means the territories which immediately before the 12th March 1968 constituted the colony of Mauritius." (6) Not exactly a clear, good, public declaration of what a newly born state comprises, nor of where its boundaries are. It is no less than outrageous.
And it is not a drafting error either. It is designed, amongst other things, to hide the 1965 excision of Diego Garcia and the whole of the Chagos Archipelago. Note the word "immediately" in the phrase "immediately before the 12th March"; this exposes the illegality of the excision because it is against the UN Charter to dismember a state as a condition of Independence.
History shows a gradual change in the way the British authorities, for example, referred to their Indian Ocean multi-insular colony. These changes reflected the colonial power's needs.
First the colony was invariably referred to as "The Mauritius" (7), short for "The Mauritius Islands", much like The Seychelles is short for The Seychelles Islands, and this terminology was preferred throughout most of the British colonial times, from the very beginning in 1810 to as late as the 1950's. And it was always very clear which islands were part of the whole in both cases, that of The Mauritius and that of The Seychelles.
Then, curiously, in the 1960's, we start getting the ascendancy of another term, simply "Mauritius", without the article. This clearly meant, through gross manipulation, that the colony was "an island". The word "an" implies a singular, that is to say "only one Island".
HOW OUR LANGUAGE COVERS UP FRAUD AND CRIME
This conscious or unconscious manipulation of the very name of the place was one of the things that conveniently helped to throw a cloak of confusion over the geography. This would, in turn, contribute to permitting the British State to enact all sorts of political frauds against "The Mauritius" as a whole, and to perpetrate inhumane crimes against the people of the outer islands. It would also permit the Mauritian political elites, one after the other, to connive with the British and US leaders so as to get trade advantages in exchange for keeping quiet about the crimes that become clear once many islands are acknowledged to be contained in the word Mauritius.
The crimes are of different kinds.
There was the denial of the right to vote to all the inhabitants of the Rodrigues Island until as late as 1967 (8), and the denial of the right to vote to all Agalega Inhabitants until the year 2000.
Then there has been the "Bantustan-like" policy of ongoing discrimination against civil servants from Rodrigues Island, recruited into the Rodrigues Establishment (which exists in Edith Cavell St) and then not allowed the same free movement and transfers as their colleagues of the Mauritius Island. (9)
The use of the singular has also exposed the country, Mauritius, to the threat of dismemberment by a Mayotte-type operation by the French State. Around Independence and on a few occasions after Independence, there were threats by the right wing PMSD and Gaetan Duval to separate Rodrigues from Mauritius, so as to make Rodrigues a French colony, on the lines of Reunion Island.
Then, as another sign of our language covering up all kinds of ills, there was the notorious illegal detachment in the run-up to 1968 Independence, of the entire 65-island Chagos Archipelago that formed an integral part of "The Mauritius", as part of the conspiracy with the United States Government to set up a massive military base on Diego Garcia, one of the Islands. This involved the forcible removal of thousands of Mauritians from one island to other islands. This plot has now been thoroughly exposed, even at an international level, especially since with the end of the 30-years-secrecy laws in Britain allowing the Bancault Court Cases in the British Courts in 1999-2007.
It is worth mentioning that often scientists as opposed to social scientists do, in fact, to refer to Mauritius as "The Mauritius Islands". We are putting the examples we have found into footnotes (10).
It is important that we, ordinary people, let alone our intellectual elites and social scientists, tighten up our language and our thinking in the same way that scientists do. We need to describe Mauritius accurately even in our every-day speech, let alone in school and in "country reports". This is not to say that we need a "police of language", but that we need to learn to spot where there is manipulation in the language that we "inherit". And, more than anything else, we need to fight for the natural language of the students to be used as medium in schools. This will benefit not only those who have learning difficulties, but even the most brilliant students, in developing their cognitive language proficiency to its highest possibility. This is important not just for getting good marks in school. It is important for the thinking that is necessary if we want to save Mauritius from the kind of economic and social crisis it will soon be facing.
For LALIT, August, 2007 (11)
2 The Oxford English Dictionary
3 Mauritius consists of islands and archipelagoes.
4 1991 Amendment: Chapter XI Miscellaneous Section 111 Interpretation
5 Fisheries Act, 1980 Section 3
6 Schedule to the Mauritius Independence Order 1968 [GN 54 of 1968. The Order was complemented in the UK by the Mauritius Independence Act 1968]"Chapter XI Miscellaneous Section 111 Interpretation (1).
7 Notice the title of the 1940 letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonies: "A Letter to the Rt Hon Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Colonies upon the Policy of Permitting Emigration from the Continent of India to the Mauritius".
8 When this was subject of a Supreme Court case, it turned out that the Colonial authorities were considering setting up a base, but did not yet know where exactly, so they did not want the inhabitants of the outer islands to have the right to vote.
9 This was the subject matter of an important Constitutional Case brought by the Rodrigues Government Employees Association, and by Alain Tolbize and Merline Gontran, its Secretary and President. The case dragged on in the Supreme Court for the most part of the 1990's, and was unfortunately finally lost. The judgement handed down was very poorly argued indeed.
10 a) The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future by WM H. Kotke, Arrow Point Press: "The now extinct dodo bird of the Mauritius Islands in the Indian Ocean had a unique relationship with the Calvaria tree. The tree fed the dodo and the dodo transported seeds for the tree. The heavily coated seeds of the Calvaria tree had to pass through the abrasive digestive system of the Dodo in order to germinate. Now that the dodo is gone the Calvaria trees are dying out. None have germinated for three hundred years since the last dodo died.3 It is probable that this tree has vegetation, insects or other animals that lived in association with it or the microclimate that it created. Those connections are being severed also ..."
b) The Organization for Bat Conservation "implements a variety of conservation programs geared directly toward saving bats. One such effort is to conduct seminars to help public and private land owners protect and/or provide suitable roosting habitat for bats. Another project is working with the Rodrigues fruit bats on the Mauritius Islands.
c) Even the right-wing Heritage Foundation when talking about economics "scientifically" says: "Economic growth, in all cases with the exception of city-states such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Mauritius Islands, has been driven first by high rates of increase in agricultural production."
d) Follow-on Discoveries from the 1999 Expedition: "... two students were instrumental in helping with work in the quarry. ... Anwar Janoo was a post-doctoral fellow in Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History. He hails from the Mauritius Islands in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar".
e) India has executed double taxation avoidance agreements with many countries, including the UK, the USA, Cyprus, Mauritius Islands, etc. Favorable tax treatment is available under these treaties. It is quite common for American companies to route investments through the Mauritius Islands in order to avail of reduced withholding taxes ..."
f) Birth of the Postal Stamp: "to adopt the glued postage stamp ... the Mauritius Islands in 1847 ..."
g) "In 1602, the ... Oost-Indische Compagnie is founded by the merchant cities of Holland and Zeeland ... the company obtains the monopoly of import of all Indonesian spices (nutmeg, pepper and clove), Chinese and Japanese vases, Indian fabrics. South Africa, the Mauritius islands, Ceylon and Indonesia are colonized.
11) This article includes references to LALIT article in DIEGO GARCIA IN TIMES OF GLOBALIZATION, LPT, 2002.