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Gallanty of Mauritius: how a queen named a family

Gallanty of Mauritius: how a queen named a family

 A fallen handkerchief.

Gallanty of Mauritius: how a queen named a family


Chris Canter, 2014


Imagine you ran into a queen and she gave you a nickname which became your family name as well as that of your descendants. Here is the story of such a family.


Digital Capture


Three hither, three thither

Times were hard for Mauritian sugarcane planters – let alone the labourers they employed – in the latter half of the nineteenth century.. A malaria epidemic in 1867 carried off over a tenth of the population. Afterwards, there were repeated epidemics with high mortality rates. The disease took its toll on sugar production on the island, which by the 1860s had become the highest in the British Empire. This and other factors, such as a number of devastating cyclones, the competition from beet sugar and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 diverting trade routes away from Mauritius, impelled Mauritian planters to emigrate.


The six adult children of planter Jean Félix Borgnis Gallanty and his wife Amélie Dubled were amongst those who left for other parts of the Empire. Three of them, a sister and two brothers, packed for Australia with their families in the 1880s and became involved in the fledgling sugar industry in Mackay, Queensland. Three sisters went to Durban, South Africa, a known destination for Mauritians given its relative proximity. The intercontinental contact was eventually lost, but as must be the case with countless instances of family research, the Internet has enabled descendants to fit together pieces of the globally dispersed puzzle. In this case, it led me to compare three versions of an anecdote, handed down independently through oral tradition, which purports to explain the family name Gallanty.



Jean Louis Michel Gallanty (1894-1917), son of Mauritian immigrants, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and died in action in France


Monsieur Gallanty has to flee

I will give the three variations of the anecdote as an illustration of both the imprecision and the tenacity of family lore as a way to remember historical events. The only variation I knew for a long time was the one told by a relative in South Africa, Aunt Greta, a great-granddaughter of the aforementioned Jean Félix Borgnis Gallanty. In Aunt Greta’s variation of the anecdote, he was known only as Monsieur Gallanty (his children used the family name Gallanty without ‘Borgnis’). Aunt Greta had heard the story from her granny who, being the daughter of Monsieur Gallanty, had it virtually from the horse’s mouth.


Aunt Greta said that Monsieur Gallanty’s father was an Italian nobleman who had fled his country because he had been ‘too gallant’ to the Queen. It wasn’t his real name: he had adopted it because the Queen had said he was so gallant.


The anecdote leaves plenty of space for guessing. Which queen could have been meant? Which royal house could even have been meant, given that the supposed nobleman must have lived around 1800 and Italy wasn’t a unified state until the mid-nineteenth century? I asked aunt Greta, but she had no further information.


BERBEYER Alice Pierre Olius

Alice Gallanty (1855-1929), her husband Olius Berbeyer and grandson Pierre in Mauritius. Alice died in South Africa


Forms of gallantry

In 2009, the Internet led us to a Gallanty descendant in Australia. When she heard the anecdote, she was surprised and said a similar Gallanty story was passed down in Australia. The Gallantys were said to be from the De Borgnis family, and their ancestor was an Italian nobleman at the court of King Emmanuel. Due to his gallantry, he was named Gallant by the King.


The Australian version has a few details not present in the story remembered by Aunt Greta: the original family name is identified, and the royal – a king rather than a queen – is identified by name as well. Also, the implied nature of the act of gallantry is different: whereas the South African story suggests Mr Gallanty had made advances to the Queen, thereby giving an ironic twist to the name, the Australian story vouches for the man’s actual gallantry. As a consequence, this version does not require him to flee his country and does not explain how the family ended up in Mauritius. Our Australian supplier of the more ‘innocent’ anecdote did see how someone who was in trouble might end up in Mauritius, observing that the island seems to have attracted a lot of those ‘out of favour’ as a good place to lie low. As for King Emmanuel, could it have been Charles Emmanuel III, King of Sardinia from 1730 to 1773? There is a reference to a Mr Gallanty in Mauritius as early as 1751.


Chimney-sweeps from the Alps

The riddle had become only more complex and was clamouring to be solved. Once more the Internet came to the rescue: I found references to a certain Pierre Marie Innocent Borgnis Gallanty, son of Jean Borgnis Gallanty and Marguerite Borgnis. He was born in Craveggia and moved to Mauritius where he got married and lived until his death. Craveggia is a village in the Italian Alps, practically hugging the border with Switzerland. Many seasonal emigrants from this and nearby villages had been peddlers and spazzacamini, or chimney-sweeps, in Germany and France since the sixteenth century. France: now here was a possible link with Mauritius.


Asking around, I got in touch with Elia Borgnis, a resident of Craveggia, who was able to furnish a third version of the anecdote. He said that the elderly village folk remembered that the surname Gallanty went back to when the Borgnis family were introduced to the French court by the Mellerio family, who had become the King’s jewellers. At a court dinner, the Queen’s handkerchief fell to the floor and Monsieur Borgnis stooped to pick it up and hand it to her. She called him ‘très galant’ and voilà, a nickname and eventually a family name is born.


Asilo Infantile Mellerio Borgnis Gallanti

Nursery school ‘Asilo Infantile Fondazione Mellerio Borgnis Gallanti’ in Masera, Italy, built in 1897


A royal privilege

With this third version of the anecdote, the royal court shifts to France and the context in which members of the Borgnis family of Craveggia ended up in Paris becomes clear. The Mellerios who introduced them to the court had themselves been amongst the Italian chimney-sweeps who had taken the high road to Paris. They have an anecdote of their own to explain how they ascended from the sooty profession to the lofty one of royal jewellers: in 1613, a young chimney-sweep working his way down a flue in the Palais de Louvre overheard a plot to assassinate Louis XIII and reported it to the council of the Lombardy Community of Paris. They in turn informed the King’s Italian-born mother, Marie de’ Medici. As a token of gratitude for foiling the plot, the inhabitants of the villages of Craveggia, Malesco and Villette were granted a privilege to sell glassware and hardware under the protection of the King. The Mellerios eventually became leading Parisian jewellers and have remained an illustrious family firm to this day.


The Craveggian version of the anecdote is, like the Australian one, more ‘innocent’ than the South African version: no need for a rakish Monsieur Gallanty to escape to Mauritius to save his skin.


Borgnis coat of arms (source: De Maurizi)

Borgnis coat of arms (source: De Maurizi)


Marie Antoinette’s wedding cloak

Now which queen was on the receiving end of the act of gallantry? Apart from the anecdote, Elia Borgnis provided me with some scanned pages from a 1930 book about Craveggia by Giovanni de Maurizi, which goes into the Borgnis family. One of the oldest families of Craveggia, they would have been of Spanish origin. According to Mellerio family historian Joseph Mellerio, the Borgnis were amongst seven families from Craveggia who in 1200 founded the nearby village of Santa Maria Maggiore. The prominence of the Borgnis family, as well as the association with a royal court, would seem to be the reason why the South African and Australian stories speak of an Italian nobleman.


Four main branches of the Borgnis family are distinguished: Borgnis Tunaja, Borgnis de Bonelle, Borgnis Cicialino and Borgnis Gallanty. The latter, like the Mellerio family, were active as jewellers in Paris and were suppliers to the court. In 1771, the brothers Giovanni Maria and Giuseppe Borgnis Gallanty donated a silken cloak to the church of Craveggia; the story goes that Queen Marie Antoinette wore it on her wedding day. It is tempting to imagine that the fallen handkerchief that led to ‘Gallanty’ being added to the name Borgnis might have been the handkerchief of none other than Marie Antoinette… though if this were the case, wouldn’t her identity have been remembered, and why does the Australian story speak of a King Emmanuel?


BORGNIS GALLANTY Jean letter 1831

Start of a letter by Jean Borgnis Gallanty of Mauritius


Who’s who

One can go on to speculate that it was one of the self-same brothers, Giovanni Maria, who made his way to Mauritius. After all, the Italian immigrants in France tended to Gallicize their first and sometimes also their last names, and a Jean Borgnis Gallanty, the originator of the Gallanty name according to Aunt Greta’s story, lived in Mauritius in the early 1800s. He had his son Jean Félix Borgnis Gallanty by his mistress and fellow slaveholder Hélène Liste, or L’Isle. And then we have the Jean Borgnis Gallanty whose wife was Marguerite Borgnis and whose son Pierre Marie Innocent was born in Craveggia and lived in Mauritius. However, as said, there may have been a Gallanty in Mauritius as early as 1751. The exact relationship between all these persons still awaits untangling.


Some facts are lost to the fog of history forever, but in the case of the Gallantys the Internet made it possible to bring together elements from three continents which for a very long time had led separate lives. When dealing with family lore, which is often handed down inaccurately (and in which a noble pedigree is a conspicuous staple), it helps to collect and compare as many sources as possible to start making sense of the bigger picture. And sometimes that picture starts with an incident as light as a handkerchief floating to the floor.



* Ministry of Health & Quality of Life (2008), Malaria in Mauritius, at, consulted 29 May 2014

* Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (2009), Mauritius: Sugar, indentured labour and their consequences (1835-1910), at, consulted 29 May 2014

* Maria Grazia Borginis (2006) (editor), Villa Caselli e il suo parco, Milan: Centro Studi Val D’Ossola – Centro di Cultura Universita’ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

* Paul Caubet (1933), ‘La canne à sucre à l’île Maurice’, in Annales de Géographie, vol. 42, no. 239, at, consulted 29 May 2014

* Diana Guillemin (2001), ‘Mauritians’, in Maximilian Brandle (general editor), Multicultural Queensland 2001 : 100 years, 100 communities, a century of contributions, Brisbane: Multicultural Affairs Queensland, Department of the Premier and the Cabinet, at, consulted 29 May 2014

* William T. O’Hara (2004), Centuries of Success: Lessons from the World’s Most Enduring Family Businesses, Avon: Adams Media

* Giovanni de Maurizi (1930), Il nuovo comune di Craveggia in Valle Vigezzo, Domodossola: C. Antonioli

* Joseph Mellerio (1893), Famille Mellerio : Son origine et son histoire 1000 1863, Paris: Impr. D. Dumoulin et Cie, at, consulted 29 May 2014

* John E. Zucchi (1992), The Little Slaves of the Harp: Italian child street musicians in nineteenth century Paris, London and New York, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press

*, consulted 29 May 2014

* Personal communications from Mrs G. Fletcher, Mrs K. Lamb and Mr E. Borgnis


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