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Why is ‘Grand Port’ important?


Why is ‘Grand Port’ important?

History will always be a key subject for study because of the lessons the past can teach us, but the study of history will and should always engender discussion and controversy because of the many ways in which a single event can be interpreted.

The bicentenary has provoked a debate in Mauritius about the interpretation of the colonial legacy, and provided a platform for many critical voices to explore the re-evaluation of the past. This in itself is a positive development.

Looking back after 200 years now is surely an opportune moment to derive some useful lessons from the events of 1810.

Grand Port is a compelling example both of what we can learn from history, and how that history can be distorted.

What can Grand Port teach us and how, if the battle of Grand Port was fought today, would we view it?

Today, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the battle of Grand Port was a monumental exercise in futility which brought about a deplorable and unnecessary loss of human life. How it was dressed up by both sides as a glowing example of gallantry and heroism is a worthy subject of contemplation for critical students of history. What it tells us about the men who took part, and especially the commanders, is also instructive – above all, Grand Port serves as a powerful demonstration of VANITY, GREED, and BREATHTAKING DISREGARD for HUMAN LIFE.

The historical documents clearly indicate that the British were motivated by vanity and greed – their previous military successes had produced over-confidence, while their haste to attack the French frigates and to invade the Isle of France was determined by their desire to make money – by conquering the island before the arrival of reinforcements they would keep the lion’s share of the prize money. Vanity is also clearly demonstrated on the side of the French. In the aftermath of their victory at Grand Port, there was a sense of inviolability which probably contributed to the failure to capitalize on the advantages gained.

Another lesson of Grand Port is the example that it provides of how the vanity and greed of those in positions of influence impacts negatively on the powerless. A survey of the crews aboard both the British and French frigates reveals a striking proportion of individuals who were there involuntarily – captured lascars or slaves, or sailors from nations as far afield as America, Manila, Russia and Guadeloupe who were probably driven by poverty or forced into the naval service of the rival colonial powers. Many of those who died on the bloodiest day of fighting – 23rd August – were not British or French, and their deaths in such a vain cause provides a chilling lesson that the victims of war are almost always those who had the least to do with its declaration.

But the most important fact of Grand Port for Mauritians today was hinted at by one contributor to the debate who paraphrased Jean Paul Sartre to emphasize “quand deux blancs se battent, il y a toujours un noir qui meurt.”  It is a misapprehension to believe that the events of the bicentenary did not involve Mauritians. By their very remoteness from Europe, Indian Ocean states could never have functioned without local populations. By 1810 the Mascarenes had been long neglected by Napoleon – consequently both the sea and land forces were necessarily staffed by persons of African or Asian origin. And some of the key players in the Grand Port saga were slaves, lascars, and creoles. Their stories are worth recounting. And the tragedy of one man in particular, a slave of Mozambican origin who was Willoughby’s right hand man in all of the operations leading up to the battle and who was shot by the French for treason days after the defeat is surely a drama worthy of remembrance in the historical and literary record of the island……

See our books page for details of a new publication on the battle of Grand Port


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