On the Eastern slope of the mountain which rises behind Port Louis in Isle de France, one can see the ruins of two small huts on a land which formerly used to be cultivated…
The entry line of a beautiful novel staged in Mauritius in the mid 18th century.
Everyone knows Romeo and Juliet. Well, Mauritius also has it’s own impossible love story; written by the french author Bernardin de St Pierre (1737-1814) in 1788, in the form of a short novel Paul et Virginie (Paul and Virginia) is our local version. The book, probably the best he wrote, recounts the story of 2 children, Paul and Virginia who are raised as brother and sister on Isle de France (the name of Mauritius at the time). Everything becomes more complicated as they reach their teenage years and fall in love. Virginia is then send to France by her mother to keep them separated and preserve her good name. She comes back to the island in 1744, but the St Géran wrecks on the sharp reef of Isle de France. She refuses to take off her clothes in front of the sailors and tragically dies on the ship. Paul, who is waiting for her on the shore, sees the ship go down and the love of his life dies while he is watching. He too dies of despair not long after.
The book was a huge success at the time. A predecessor to romanticism and exoticism. In the 19th and early 20th century it was encouraged for young people to read the novel because it praises modesty and virginity to the point of the main character dying. It is today considered a classic and a novel many young people would read in France as part of their studies (or just for fun, of course). It has been translated to several languages.
Paul and Virginia, as well as the St Géran are widely remembered on the island today. There are many places where we are reminded of the fate of these two young lovers. The statue on the cover of my english copy can be seen in the Pamplemousse gardens, for example.
The St Géran was built in France in 1737 and was part of the naval fleet of the French East India Company.
The St Géran wrecked on the Northern Coast of the island, as it crashed outside the small village of Poudre d’Or. 149 sailors, 13 passengers and 30 slaves died (notice how slaves are not really passengers…) but let’s keep it historically correct (even if not politically correct). In the book the author wrecks the ship on 25th December, but the event actually took place on 18th August 1744.
The monument to commemorate the Saint Géran can be found in that little village, Poudre d’Or. It was erected in August 1944. The site is not very big, but it is an important part of the history of Mauritius. The ship was bringing machinery for the first sugar cane refinery on the island. Only 9 persons survived – 8 crew members and 1 passenger. Nothing was said about the slaves.
There is a little walking path behind the Anglican church that will take you to the hospital of the village. It is a nice little stretch for the legs and gives you some other views of the area with small prayer places, as usual.
The Shipwreck – Le Saint Géran
There was a diving expedition in 1966 that brought up many things found on the wreck. These things are on display at the Naval Museum in Mahébourg. 28 of the cannons can also be found there and others at the Blue Penny Museum in Port Louis. As with many wrecks around the island it is possible to dive on the St Géran.
Related post: The Blue Penny Museum