Mauritius and Mark Twain – the first American ship in Port Louis

Mauritius, for such a small land mass, has an astonishing amount of history contained within its sun-kissed borders. In 1786 it received its first American ship, the Grand Turk, which was under the command of Ebenezer West and William Vans and, in 1896, it played host to the eminent American writer, Mark Twain. The twelfth of April 1786 stands out in Mauritian naval history as the date on which Port Louis harbour first welcomed an American ship. In November 1784, the Grand Turk left America on a successful voyage to the Cape of Good Hope. Just over a year later, it repeated the voyage, but found the markets in the Cape less favourable than had been anticipated and so continued on to Mauritius, which was at the time under French control. The ship remained harboured at Port Louis for about a month, before setting off for China. Just over a century later, the American author Mark Twain arrived by ship in Port Louis, as he notes in his diary, at two o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, the fifteenth of April. His first impressions of the island, which was still under French rule, appear to have been positive, describing it as a ‘hot, tropical country’ with ‘ragged clusters of crags and peaks, green to their summits’. Just a few days after arriving in the country, Twain commented with some acerbity on the Mauritian character, apparently more than just a little piqued that his opinion of the island had not been sought, but that he had been given many opinions by the local residents instead. His entry for the eighteenth of April states the oft misquoted passage comparing Mauritius to heaven: ‘From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius. Another one tells you that this is an exaggeration; that the two chief villages, Port Louis and Curepipe, fall short of heavenly perfection; that nobody lives in Port Louis except upon compulsion, and that Curepipe is the wettest and rainiest place in the world.’ One gathers his initial enthusiasm for the island was soon dampened. By the time Twain came to leave the island, however, he seems to have regained his equanimity as his final words regarding Mauritius are that it is beautiful. As his words are far more poetic than mine, I shall give him the final say: ‘You have undulating wide expanses of sugar-cane – a fine, fresh green and very pleasant to the eye; and everywhere else you have a ragged luxuriance of tropic vegetation of vivid greens of varying shades, a wild tangle of underbrush, with graceful tall palms lifting their crippled plumes high above it; and you have stretches of shady dense forest with limpid streams frolicking through them, continually glimpsed and lost and glimpsed again in the pleasantest hide-and-seek fashion; and you have some tiny mountains, some quaint and picturesque groups of toy peaks, and a dainty little vest-pocket Matterhorn; and here and there and now and then a strip of sea with a white ruffle of surf breaks into the view. That is Mauritius; and pretty enough. The details are few, the massed result is charming’.

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Mauritius and Mark Twain – the first American ship in Port Louis by
Sarah Townshend

Sarah Townshend

Copy writer and translator on a freelance basis for Isla-Mauricia.

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