Mauritius And Reunion
( Originally Published 1904 )
WE are again on the Indian Ocean, steaming along toward the great island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa. Our ship is an English vessel from Colombo, bound for Mauritius, which belongs to Great Britain. The weather is warm, but we have awnings over the deck and enjoy a stiff breeze most of the way. We pass the Maldive Islands shortly after leaving Ceylon, going so close to them that we can see the cocoanut trees on their shores and the spray of the waves dashing up on the white beach. The Maldives are seventeen atolls, inhabited by a small population of Mohammedan Asiatics, and are of little commercial importance. They are ruled by a sultan under the protection of Great Britain. Very similar to them are the Lacadives, other atolls almost directly north.
Shortly after this we cross the Equator and go on to the southwest, between the Seychelles (sa-chef) and the Chagos Islands, two other unimportant groups belonging to the English, and finally come to anchor, about eight days from Ceylon, in front of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.
We are on the western side of the island, under the shadow of rough, ragged mountains, at the wharves of a little city shaded with cocoanut, mango, and other tropical trees. The vegetation reminds us of Ceylon. There are oranges growing in the gardens, and banana plants hang over the fences and whisper a welcome as we walk through the streets.
We are met on the docks by a motley crowd of East Indians, Arabs, Chinese, and black-skinned Africans, some of whom offer to guide us about. We see bags of sugar piled up on the wharves, and in some parts of the town the air smells like new-made molasses.
Mauritius is famous for its sugar. It was little more than a forest when it came into the hands of the English about a century ago, but they have turned it into a sugar plantation. They have brought laborers from India, Africa, and China to work the cane fields, and millions of pounds of unrefined sugar are now exported every year. The island is only about one fifth as large as Puerto Rico, but it is thickly settled on account of the rich soil. It has more than two hundred thousand Hindus, and a large number of Africans and natives of Madagascar. Many of the Hindus and Chinese have saved money and now own plantations themselves. They have stores in Port Louis, and much of the business is done by them.
We ride out on the railroads which lead from the capital to different parts of the island, now passing through a cocoanut grove, and now getting a glimpse of a vanilla plantation. Most of the way is through sugar estates, where dark-skinned men and women are working away plowing, planting, and cutting the cane. We stop at a factory to see the juice pressed out and made into sugar, and then return to Port Louis just in time to catch the boat for Reunion, a little island belonging to the French, 135 miles away and not far out of our route to Tamatave (ta-ma-tav'), the chief port on the eastern coast of Madagascar.
Reunion is of much the same character as Mauritius, save that it is a little larger, more mountainous, and less fertile. Its chief port is St. Denis, a city of about thirty thousand people, made up of East Indians and Africans, with many French merchants and planters. The language is French, and we find it hard to make ourselves understood.
We take trips out into the country, visiting the sugar plantations and also those which produce coffee, cacao, and vanilla. From the vanilla plant comes the extract which we use for flavoring puddings, cakes, ice creams, and candies. It is a climbing plant, with a long, fleshy, fruitlike pod from which the extract is made. The plants are grown from cuttings set out in the shade. They are trained upon stakes and carefully cared for. At three years they produce fruit, after which they bear for many years. We walk through the plantations under the trees, now and then pulling off a pod and biting into it, trying to imagine that it has the flavor of the vanilla ice cream which tastes so good at our homes, but which, alas ! it is impossible to get away out here in this hot Indian Ocean.