There are around 179 national monuments in Mauritius and half of them or 79 are located in the City of Port Louis. They are protected by law under the National Heritage Fund Act of 2003. Essentially, what is heritage?
According to Professor Nigel Worden of the Historical Studies Department of the University of Cape Town and a South African heritage expert:
?Heritage is a construction, a selection of objects, monuments, images and identities drawn from the past in order to inform and shape the present?
The national monuments are special places of shared history and shared heritage which form a major part of our tangible cultural heritage. These rare sites, structures and lieux de memoire which were built by the slaves/ex-slaves/maroons, indentured labourers/ex-indentured labourers/vagrants and some of their descendants. They bear testimony to the rich and complex historical, social and cultural evolution of Port Louis under French and British colonial rule or over a period of more than two centuries.
These national monuments form an integral part of ?Old Port Louis? or ?Historic Port Louis? which hopefully may someday be inscribed on UNESCO?s World Heritage List
● World Heritage Site Buffer Zone
The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site was first outlined in 2004 and covers an area of less than one kilometer square in the city centre of Port Louis. It still needs to obtain legal recognition and protection by the Government of Mauritius which should be taking place in 2009. It contains some of the city?s important national monuments as indicated above and provision will be made for a heritage conservation area.
● The Genesis of Port Louis, c.1735-1745
During the Dutch period and the early years of Ile de France, Port Louis was known as Port Nord Ouest or Port North West. In 1715, Captain Dufresne D?Arsel claimed the island in the name of France and King Louis XV when he dropped anchor in Port Louis. In December 1721, the first French colonists landed on the island from Reunion Island and established their camp in Port Louis. In 1730, Governor Nicolas de Maupin recommended the transfer of the colony?s seat of administration from Vieux Grand Port to Port Louis to officials of French East India Company. This recommendation was accepted and gradually implemented during the 1730s by his successor Governor Labourdonnais.
● The Genesis of Port Louis, c.1735-1745
Between 1735 and 1746, Governor Labourdonnais, the ?father of Colonial Mauritius?, imported thousands of Mozambican and Malagasy slaves as well as dozens of skilled and semi-skilled carpenters and stone masons from Pondicherry, Karikkal, Madras, Bengal and other parts of India for the construction of Port Louis. By the sweat of their brows, they were the were the true builders of Port Louis and Isle de France or French Mauritius. Between the 1750s and early 1800s, the work of Labourdonnais continued with Governors Desforges-Boucher, Intendant Pierre Poivre, Governor-General Decaen and Governor Farquhar.
The Construction of Port Louis from Trou Fanfaron Bay in 1738.
● The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site
The Aapravasi Ghat is the only World Heritage Site in Port Louis. It is a unique heritage site in the world. It became operational in 1849 and was formerly known as the Immigration Depot and Coolie Ghat. Between 1849 and 1912, more than 350,000 indentured workers or more than 70% of the ancestors of the present-day Mauritian population passed through this site.
For more than sixty years, it formed an integral part of the social and economic life of Port Louis. The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site was decreed national monument in April 1987. Less than 30% of the site has survived. Between 2004 and 2008, almost the entire site was conserved through the Aapravasi Ghat Conservation Project under the aegis of the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund. It became the first indenture site to be inscribed on UNESCO?s World Heritage List on 16th July 2006
● The Labourdonnais or Military Hospital
It was one of the first major construction projects of Governor Labourdonnais and consisted of three large stone buildings and associated stone structures. Around 40 Mozambican and Malagasy slaves were used to built the hospital and its construction lasted between 1736 and 1740. More than a dozen Indian free stone masons and carpenters were also employed. It was the oldest hospital in Mauritius and was operational between 1740 and 1890 or over a period of 150 years. It was a modern, well-organized and clean hospital in its day. Slaves, indentured workers, free coloureds, soldiers and free colonists were given medical care there. It was decreed a national Monument only in 1999.
● The Casernes Centrales
The construction of the Casernes Centrales began during the 1730s and 1740s under Governor Labourdonnais. Most of the stone complex was completed during the 1750s and 1760s under Governor Desforges-Boucher through the use of Mozambican and Malagasy slaves. Between the 1760s and 1920s, or over a period of more than 150 years, it served as the headquarters to the French and then the British colonial forces specifically the army. In 1922, it was converted into the colony?s police headquarters. It is perhaps the largest stone structure ever built in Mauritian history.
● Government House
Between 1735 and 1741, Governor Labourdonnais through the use of Mozambican, Malagasy and Indian slaves began the construction of Government House or l?Hotel du Gouvernement on a structure called ?La Loge? which has been erected by Governor De Nyon in 1732. During the 1760s/1770s, early 1800s and 1810s/1820s, Government House was greatly expanded and renovated by Pierre Poivre, Governor-General Decaen and Governor Farquhar. It was seriously damaged during the Port Louis Fire of 1816
During the rest of the 1800s and 1900s, frequent repairs were carried out on the structure. For more than two and a half centuries, it has served as our country?s seat of government.
● The Bagne Prison
The Bagne Prison was constructed between 1767 and 1772. From the 1770s until the 1830s or for more than six decades, it served as the main place of imprisonment for tens of thousands of maroons or fugitive slaves in our country. Between December 1821 and February 1822, Prince Ratsitatane, a Malagasy commander, nobleman and the brother-in-law of King Radama I of Madagascar, was held there as a state prisoner until his escape.
During the late 1830s and 1840s, thousands of indentured labourers were incarcerated there as vagrants. It served as the colony?s first vagrant depot. A commemorative plaque was unveiled there on 1st February 2008 in memory of Prince Ratsitatane and the maroons.
Between 1847 and 1849, the Bagne was converted into the Civil Hospital of Port Louis at a cost of more than 15,000 pounds sterling. The original structure was massively altered and greatly expanded.
Between the 1850s and during the early 1900s, the Civil Hospital served as one of the important hospitals of Port Louis. It was a place where operations were performed and also served as a morgue for the Labourdonnais Hospital. Ever since the 1970s, it served as offices for the island?s postal department. Between 1995 and 2008, it served as the Postal Museum.
By Satyendra PEERTHUM
(Continued next week)