Although sugar takes a predominant place in the agricultural history of Mauritius – and considerably shaped its landscape up until this day – the prevalence of sugar cane was not always as ubiquitous as it has been until the end of the 20th century. The first agricultural developments of Bel Ombre most likely comprised of food crops, as food security had been promoted under Mahé de Labourdonnais. But Mauritius was also a key player in the spice trade route and as such had much interest in producing some of the much sought-after commodities of the time. These included tobacco, coffee, cotton, indigo and spices such as cloves.
Already, around 1775, Wilkinsky describes the Savane district as being largely still a forested area, interspersed with coffee and cotton plantations. In 1817, there were 7 sugar factories producing around 305 tons of sugar; 14 distilleries, 715,500 litres of arak, 13 coffee plantations having an annual production of 27.5 tons of coffee, 8 clove plantations with 4 tons of cloves and one indigo plantation producing 525 pounds of indigo. 750 tons of grains were also produced. Most notably, forestry was an important source of revenue, with wood bringing 55,000 piastres every year.
Indeed, the forests were a very important source of wealth in Bel Ombre. In 1819, Telfair mentioned the sale of timber as earning him 24,000 piastres a year. With his penchant for technological feats, he imported a tool which could uproot trees with a power of 90 tons and cranes to lift the logs from ravines. To carry out this heavy work, he recruited 100 lumberjacks. Despite these important advances, Telfair encountered challenges in the transport of logs, so he had a railway constructed between the forest and the coast, the first rails in Mauritius.
Although Mahé de La Bourdonnais had promoted the cultivation of crops for the local market, these gradually gave way to crops used for export as described above, such as coffee, cotton and indigo. Telfair held a similar way of thinking as La Bourdonnais and believed in the importance of growing food for local consumption. This is exemplified in a Bel Ombre location known as “l’Abbatis des Cipayes”, where staples such as rice, corn, maize, lentils, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beetroot, arrowroot, cassava, ginger, peanuts and other food crops were grown. This area was also planted with fruit trees like banana, jackfruit, coconuts, mangoes and even grape vines.