The island of Rodrigues is situated in the Indian Ocean, 650 kilometres to the northeast of Mauritius in latitude 19°40” - 19°48” S and longitude 63°20” - 63°30 E. Together with Mauritius and Reunion Island, it forms part of the Mascarene Archipelago, in which it is the smallest and most isolated island in this remote stretch of the southern hemisphere. According to Le Clézio, “The island is like a raft lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean.” (VR, 33). With an area of 108 square kilometres, the island is 18 kilometres long and 8 kilometres wide. Its perimeter measures about 80 kilometres because its coast is split up into numerous points, coves and bays. Of volcanic origin as a whole, and petrified coral in its south-west region, the island has a rugged landscape scattered with basaltic peaks and hills, together with craggy cliffs, ravines and caves. Its valleys are old river beds that are often dried up. Its highest peak, Mont Limon, rises up to an altitude of 398 metres on the central ridge which crosses the island in a west-south-westwardly direction. Rodrigues bathes in a huge shallow turquoise lagoon, which is twice the size of the island, encircled by coral reefs and harbouring numerous islets. The island has a tropical climate tempered by the south-east trade winds, and from time to time it endures cyclones and spells of drought.
If we suppose that Rodrigues, then uninhabited, was spotted by the Arabs and the Indonesians during their voyages across the Indian Ocean before the ninth century, the island was not known to the West until its discovery on 4 February 1528 by the Portuguese navigator, Diego Rodriguez, hence its name. The Dutch occupied the island briefly from 1601 to 1611 to supply their ships, particularly with wood and tortoises. However, it was the French who took official possession of the island in 1638. A group of Huguenots fleeing persecution following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, François Leguat and his seven companions, were the first people to colonise the island, when they disembarked on 1 May 1691. They left three years later, because of the lack of women. Alexis says, “I found the story of François Leguat among my father’s books, and I read the passages describing the flora, climate and beauty of Rodrigues.” (CO, 170).
The island received the visit of the astronomer and mathematician, Abbot Alexandre-Guy Pingré, who had been sent by the French Academy of Science to observe the transit of Venus on 6 June 1761 and to establish the island’s exact geographical coordinates. The island was the lair of the pirates scouring the Indian Ocean during the period of the East India Companies in 16th and 17th centuries, from which grew several popular beliefs that persist to this day to the effect that fabulous amounts of treasure are still buried there.
Following the British takeover of Mauritius in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars, Rodrigues became a dependency of the colony of Mauritius, and then in 1968, an integral part of the new independent State of Mauritius. Since 2001, the island enjoys autonomous status within the Republic of Mauritius.
Before people started settling there, the whole island was covered by forests in which could be found many species of wood, including ebony and stinkwood (Foetidia mauritiana), as well as other endemic species that are today either decimated or extinct, such as the giant tortoises (Cylindraspis vosmaeri) and birds, in particular the solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria), a relative of the Mauritian dodo, all of which fell victim to the greed of the various passing navigators, pirates, corsairs and settlers, those “predators on the East India route” (VR, 41).
Rodrigues has a population of around 42,000 inhabitants, most of whom are Creole in descent and culture, and Roman Catholic in faith, with a few Chinese families and some rare Indian families. The Rodriguans are mainly descended from a few French settlers from Ile de France (Mauritius) and Bourbon (Reunion Island) who came to settle with their Malagasy and African slaves during the French Revolution. During the period of slavery and after its abolition by the British in 1835, both the runaway and the freed slaves took refuge in the heights of the island, where they reared livestock and cultivated food crops, while the settlers, the mixed race and their descendants remained in the coastal areas and practised fishing. “I learned how to be a ‘manaf’, to live like a maroon, hiding in the mountains” (CO, 202) Ouma tells Alexis, adding that her father “is a ‘manaf’, a hill Rodriguan” (C0, 206) and that her grandfather “was a maroon, along with all the maroons at Le Morne” (CO, 228).
Its hilly landscape meant that Rodrigues never had any colonial plantations. For a long time forgotten and so unaffected by the passage of time, Rodrigues has remained essentially rural and in tune with the sea. The island lives mainly off fishing with seines and creels on pirogues with triangular sails, catching octopus, an activity reserved for women (the octopus spearers), rearing livestock (pigs, cattle, goats and poultry), traditional crop farming (maize, beans, limes, chillis, cassava, pistachios, breadfruit, vegetables and honey), handicrafts (wickerwork using vacoas and latanier fibres and leaves, chutneys and other local products) and more recently, eco-tourism based on the authenticity of its Creole culture, the most homogeneous of the Mascarene islands, while giving priority to the protection of its environment.
The island’s capital is Port Mathurin on the north coast, where is also found its modest port, shopping centre, main market and administrative headquarters. Its tiny airport is at Pointe-Corail in the south-west. Rodriguan Creole is the language used by all the inhabitants. French is also quite widespread, while English remains the administrative language.
In The Prospector (Le Chercheur d’Or) and particularly in his journal Voyage to Rodrigues (Voyage à Rodrigues), Le Clézio, who had roamed all over the island, refers to the writings of Leguat, Pingré, his grandfather, Léon Leclézio*, former administrator and magistrate in Rodrigues, and the agronomist, Alfred North-Coombes. In so doing, he creates a unique, fictional portrait of Rodrigues, as a fantasy island “that emerged from the sea, carrying the history of the earliest ages” (VR, 23), with its harsh, primitive and wild nature, “far from the gentle lifestyle of Mauritius” (VR, 34). He writes: “There is something hard about this land, hard and hermetic”. (VR, 22), adding that “Rodrigues is a barren, spent and burnt rock that ejects humans” (VR, 33). He emphasises also the characteristics of its insularity. “There is here a feeling of slowness, remoteness and strangeness when compared to the world of ordinary people, which must also exist on St Brandon and Aldabra” (VR,34). He underlines the volcanic and mineral aspects of its topography. “The extreme erosion wrought by the sea has shaped these rocks that have sprung up from the ocean depths, has worn them down, polished and aged them. Yet, on each of them remains the mark of the fire that created them.” (VR, 33). Confronted with “this black stone landscape, where the light hurts and the wind burns. A landscape of eternal rejection” (VR, 71), he turns towards the sea and the sky of Rodrigues, which he describes as “free, vast and empty of humans and birds, far from any continent and far from the filth borne by rivers” (VR, 51). During his quest, following in his grandfather’s footsteps across Rodrigues, he asserts that the sea is “the only place in the world where one can be far away, surrounded by one’s dreams, at the same time lost and close to oneself” (VR, 51). What Le Clézio seems to retain in the end from this portrayal of an island of Rodrigues, and in particular English Bay (Anse aux Anglais) where Alexis goes hunting for the treasure, as somewhere sublime and out of this world, is “the pureness of this landscape that is so different from the places where humans live.” (VR, 134)
Translation : Patricia Day-Hookoomsing
*Both spellings are used in the family, which is known as Leclézio in Mauritius and Rodrigues.
BERTHELOT, Lilian, La petite Mascareigne : aspects de l’histoire de Rodrigues, La Tour Koenig, Centre culturel africain, 2002. IGN, Île Rodrigues, carte topographique au 1 : 50 000, Paris, Institut géographique national, 1982. LE CLÉZIO, J.-M.G., Le Chercheur d’or, Paris, Gallimard, 1985; Voyage à Rodrigues, Paris, Gallimard, 1986. LEGUAT, François, Voyages et aventures de François Leguat et de ses compagnons en deux îles désertes des Indes orientales, Amsterdam, Jean Louis de Lorme, 1708, tome premier (https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1040570n/f7.item), tome second (https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1040572g/f7.item). NORTH-COOMBES, Alfred, The Island of Rodrigues, Maurice, 1971. PINGRÉ, Alexandre-Guy, Voyage à Rodrigue le Transit de Venus de 1761, la mission astronomique de l’abbé Pingré dans l’océan Indien, texte établi par Sophie Hoarau, Marie-Paule Janicon, Jean-Michel Rancault, Paris, SEDES - Université de La Réunion, 2004. SADDUL, Prem, rédacteur en chef, Philip’s Atlas of Mauritius (for E.V.S and Social Studies), Maurice, Éditions de l’Océan Indien, Londres, George Philip Ltd., 1996. ST-PIERRE, Patrick, Trésor de Rodrigues : une découverte archéologique à Saint-François, Baie-du-Tombeau, lexpress.mu, 30 septembre 2019 (https://www.lexpress.mu/article/361767/tresor-rodrigues-une-decouverte-archeologique-saint-francois). VENKATASAMY, D. et MOREAU-LEGENDRE, C., Rodrigues, carte au 1 : 33 500, Londres, George Philip Ltd., 1992.
Places mentioned in The Prospector (Chercheur d’Or)
and Voyage to Rodrigues (Voyage à Rodrigues)