Flat Island is located 11 kilometres from the northernmost point of the island of Mauritius, Cap Malheureux, in latitude 19°52’ S and longitude 57°39’ E. With a surface area of about 253 hectares, it is the largest of the small islands lying around Mauritius. Together with the two islets in its immediate vicinity, Gabriel Island and Pigeon House Rock, and those further out to sea, namely, Gunner’s Quoin, Round Island and Snake Island, Flat Island forms a unique ocean archipelago that is located outside the lagoon encircling Mauritius with its coral reef barrier.
View of Flat Island from Gabriel Island
Although it is generally quite flat, hence its name, the island is flanked to the south-west by a craggy bluff topped by small volcanic outcrops culminating at about a hundred metres with a precipitous drop into the ocean.
Pigeon House Rock
The narrator in The Quarantine, Léon Archambau, gives a clear summary of its geological origins. “Born of the mighty volcanic surge that raised the ocean floor ten million years ago, the island was first linked to Mauritius by an isthmus that slowly sank into the Ocean.” (Q, 53). On the highest part of the island is found a lighthouse with a circular tower, one of the two still in use in Mauritius. Built in 1855, its beacon, which is now automated and powered by solar panels, has a visibility range of about 45 kilometres.
View of Snake Island and Round Island from Gabriel Island
The island harbours the ruins of a lazaretto built during the French colonial administration in 1807, a cemetery, as well as the remains of the various buildings that made up the quarantine station set up by the British in the 19th century. Between 1834 and 1925, following the abolition of slavery, the British colonial authorities brought indentured labourers, otherwise known as coolies, from India to Mauritius to provide an abundant, amenable and cheap labour force to work on the Mauritian sugar estates, in other words a traffic in human beings which would give rise to serious abuse. For reasons of public hygiene, the local authorities obliged the new arrivals, mainly the coolies who were treated like pariahs, to stay for a period of time in the barracks on Flat Island because of the smallpox and cholera epidemics that were rampant throughout the Indian peninsula. The narrator writes: “Jacques told me about the thousand immigrants who had come from Calcutta on the brig Hydaree, and who were dumped on Flat Island because both smallpox and cholera were present on the ship. […] Nearly all of them died from illness and deprivation.” (Q, 149). The island served later as a quarantine station for livestock imported to Mauritius.
Today, Flat Island has become a nature reserve. In 1998, cats, mice and rats were all eradicated and there are now no rodents or herbivorous mammals there. At present uninhabited, the island harbours a temporary station for the Mauritian coast guards and welcomes day visitors coming over in catamarans. Its endemic flora is very rich while the forest cover of exogenous species occupies some thirty hectares. In 2002, work was started to restore the indigenous plants and fight against invasive species. The botanist, John Metcalfe, one of the characters in the story who falls victim to the quarantine, writes his observations in his “botanist’s diary” (Q, 60 et al.). His knowledgeable discoveries of plant varieties and medicinal plants that actually grow on the island punctuate the novel.
View of Gunner’s Quoin and Mauritius from Flat Island
Gabriel Island (19°53’ S, 57°39’ E) lies close to the south-east side of Flat Island. The two islands share a small, shallow lagoon that is used for anchorage as it leads to a pass to the open sea. Also of volcanic origin and quite arid, Gabriel Island extends over 42 hectares and is bordered by a long sandy point to the south, and to the north, basaltic rocks assailed by the ocean swell. Its flora and habitats are better conserved than those on Flat Island. Colonies of tropicbirds, both red-tailed (Phaeton rubricauda) and white-tailed (Phaeton lepturus), nest there. At the time of the novel, a semaphore was set up on its heights to enable communication with Mauritius. “The little island is deserted, devoid of any trace. Only a monument in hardened lava marks the tomb of a Horace Lazaret Bigeard, who died of smallpox in 1887 at the age of seventeen.” (Q, 488). Nearby to the north of Flat Island, Pigeon House Rock (19°51’ S, 57°40’ E) is a lava prism with inaccessible vertical walls, and the surrounding sea, known as the Shark Pit, is a favourite haunt of sharks and amateur deep-sea divers. This “pyramid-shaped basaltic rock, rising separate from the most eastern tip, serves as a shelter for birds.” (Q. 53). A lithographed map, drawn up in 1857 by T. Corby, land surveyor for the British government, shows in detail the trio of islands making up this tiny archipelago. (Q, 10-11).
Since 2015, Flat Island is the subject of a multidisciplinary research programme, in particular archaeological digs, to study the infrastructure and living conditions at the time when the island was designated as a quarantine station (1856), because of its size, position and isolation. The contribution to knowledge with respect to the history of indentured labour should further the classification of the island as a Mauritian heritage site.
Together, these geographical and historical features make up the matrix of the robinsonade that The Quarantine evokes. Le Clézio confines in a mandatory health stop European travellers and immigrant coolies with their diverse and conflictual conditions and imaginations on an isolated island which “is just a solitary black peak emerging from the shining Ocean, beaten by the waves and worn down by the wind, a wrecked raft in front of the green line of Mauritius.” (Q, 60). In this infernal tropical island snare where fevers, malaria, smallpox and cholera wreak havoc, these exiles will live a violent and tragic confinement. The narrator writes: “Several died, others lost their minds. We will never be the same.” (Q, 399).
Translation: Patricia Day-Hookoomsing
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© Photos: JC Castelain