- History and Culture
Due to its remote location and difficult accessibility inland, Bel Ombre presented a strategic location for the British to enter inland Mauritius with less fear of being caught. The British had been eying takeover, in order to limit the expansion of the Napoleonic Empire, and reduce the terrible impact that corsairs had on their fleet in the Indian Ocean. Any landing of the British was therefore seen as a sign of invasion and was met with fierce military – and sometimes civilian response.
It is therefore not entirely surprising that when Captain Matthew Flinders landed in Baie du Cap on 15 December 1803, he was welcomed with a high degree of hostility. Captain Matthew Flinders crossed the Indian Ocean from Australia aboard the Cumberland, a relatively small boat weighing 29 tons and measuring a few tens of feet long.
When news of the arrival of Flinders came to Port-Louis, Governor Decaen almost immediately ordered Flinders to be taken to the capital to be imprisoned and assigned him to house arrest at the Jardin Despeaux in the northern outskirts of the city. Flinders was suspected of espionage. His choice to berth in Baie du Cap rather than Port-Louis as well as his lack of adequate paperwork in times of war supported that assumption. Decaen imposed exile upon Flinders.
With support of fellow naturalists and friends as well as benevolent inhabitants, Flinders was moved from house arrest to the residence of Mrs Marc d’Arifat in the Henrietta region, but still could not return to England, until 1810, when the governor released him in an attempt to coax the British, unsuccessfully.
After the British took over the then Bourbon Island in 1808; 1810 was the year of conquest of its neighbouring Ile de France. Several aborted attempts were made including the landing of British troops through Bel Ombre. Captain Hugh Willoughby aboard La Nereide attacked Poste Jacotet. Upon accosting, Mr. Estienne Bolgerd – commanding officer of the district – was captured.by the British. Inhabitants revolted and rushed to defend the Jacotet post. Taken by surprise, Captain Willoughby released Estienne Bolgerd in exchange for food and left. Later, the English frigate Sirius also attempted to enter at Saint Martin. Again, local inhabitants rushed to drive the invaders out.
But the main feat of arms of this time remains the attack of the British ships on the South East coast:in an epic naval battle which lasted from the 22nd to the 28th of August that year. The French defeated their opponents and ‘Le Combat du Vieux Grand Port” went down in History as the only naval victory of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is engraved on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris amid the other victories of the Emperor.
These moves deterred the British from landing in the South. Captain G Victor Duperré, recently promoted to Rear Admiral after he had conducted the French forces to victory in Grand Port, relates the final taking over in his memories: “ …On the 29th of November 1810, at dawn, the enemy was flagged, up wind, 74 sails were numbered. During the morning they set anchor on the coast of Poudre d’Or and towards La Grande Baie. At 11.00 it was signalled that the troupes were landing at this spot. They could not have encountered any difficulties landing there.”
Thus,l’Ile de France became Mauritius.
Jean-Pierre Lenoir, Bel Ombre, entre mer et montagne, Editions du Corsaire