• Chamarel – AN INTRODUCTION

    Chamarel became a part of Bel Ombre Sugar Estate in 1961, when the company acquired the areas known as Nuage (625 acres), Eden (500 acres), St-Denis (600 acres), and Jacoby (312 acres), totalling the area to 4,138 acres under the same ownership.  The evolution of Chamarel prior to this time period is similar to that of other areas of Mauritius: successive attempts at sugar production followed by diversified agricultural developments. However, its landscape lends it some unique features which have most likely greatly shaped the local culture and folklore.

    Indeed, Chamarel is similar to Bel Ombre in its geographic isolation. Situated slightly downward from the plateau of Plaine Champagne and cut off from the rest of the South by a series of mountain peaks, it was, along with Le Morne and the forests of Bel Ombre a prime spot of hiding for maroon slaves. This remoteness has also served as the grounds for the development of illicit activities such as alcohol and marijuana contraband. This past has created an aura around the village and fuelled many stories that swing between historical fact and myth.

    A village of now 783 inhabitants, Chamarel has retained this unique character that differentiates it from other villages, with tables d’hotes serving local game and cuisine, its seven coloured earth and waterfalls, as well as the coffee plantations that have been present since its integration to the Bel Ombre Estate.

CHAMAREL – The namesake family, De Chazal de Chamarel


Chamarel gets its name from two Frenchmen named Toussaint-Antoine and Charles-Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel, who received a concession of land otherwise known as Le Nuage; the two men were respectively born in 1770 and 1772 in then Isle de France. The two Chamarel boys lost their father early on, and their story is similar to other Mauritian-born Frenchmen of the time: going back and forth between France and Isle de France, stints in the military and acquisitions and sales of land in order to ensure the prosperity of their family. After the French Revolution began, Charles Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel returned to Mauritius, and together with his brother inherited the lands known today as Chamarel from their stepfather, Mr. Lousteau.


First agricultural developments

It has been reported that C.A. de Chazal attempted to develop the land by cultivating sugar cane, cotton, coffee and indigo. However, he did not adapt well to life in the colony,  returned to France in 1815 and never returned. The land was sold to another family in 1844 but was re-acquired by his son-in-law Amédée Perrot in 1852, where he and his wife Amélie, daughter of Charles Antoine, settled with their family. Eight years later, a sugar factory was installed on the property.


A financial struggle and simple life

After the death of her husband, Amélie tried her best to administer the property, which unfortunately did not fare well financially. In order to maintain the property, she had to sell plots of forest land and became indebted, borrowing money from the Ceylon Company while awaiting the repurchase of forest lands by the government.  She described in a letter to her son the loss of the family fortune and her simple living conditions: “You see, dear child, that I am not so much to be pitied, I have enough, I think, of good: 45 $ a month, my cows, my pigsty and my poultry”. In this same letter, she related of the cold weather, her woollen socks and a small heater keeping her warm while keeping a positive attitude “Misery still has its charms, but it is a relative misery because I have more than I need - that your poor heart recovers - it is better to lose fortune than loved ones.” Amélie finally decided to leave Chamarel in 1875 and died in a convent a year later in Port-Louis after a full life. [1]

Bringing an end to the Chazal tenure of Chamarel, the property was purchased in 1891 by the The Mauritius Estate & Assets and the sugar factory was renovated in 1894, before stopping its operations in 1897.[2]



The production of coffee is intimately tied to the colonial history of Mauritius, beginning under the French. Chamarel remains the last bastion of this production, the latter having been revived in the late 1960s and conserving a “savoir-faire” that has been lost in all other areas of the country. Coffee was first introduced under Labourdonnais and aimed to respond to the market demands of the time: coffee was becoming very much in demand in Europe along with indigo, cotton and sugar and possibilities to extend the market to the Middle East were being explored. This part of Mauritian history even gave the name to another village: Moka, which was chosen as a prime site for coffee cultivation due to its micro-climate.

The variety of coffee plants introduced came from Mocha in modern-day Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, introduced by Guillaume Dufresne in 1715. In 1723, 13 concessions of land had been granted in the Moka area for the production of coffee. Later around the 1740s, Labourdonnais then discouraged the plantation of coffee as the world market price was declining, and coffee production was being consolidated in neighbouring Bourbon. The production of coffee continued nonetheless on the island during the French period, and gradually declined with the rise of the sugar industry.[3]


From sugar to coffee

In 1872, the Chamarel estate covered 2,949 acres out of which 450 were under sugar cane production. Unfortunately, despite the renovation of the sugar factory in 1894 which required much effort to bring the machinery up to Chamarel, sugar yields were so low that production was discontinued a few years later. It is not until the late 1960s, however, the Chamarel started coffee production anew and on a larger scale. The development of coffee production was helped by Mr. Oswald du Chasteleer who had been cultivating coffee in the Belgian Congo, who noted that: “Arabica coffee as opposed to other varieties is much sought after for its quality and requires very specific climatic conditions that exist in only certain areas of the globe. These conditions exist in Chamarel”. [4] Production therefore began in 1967 by Case Noyale Ltd under the Compagnie Sucrière de Bel Ombre.


Present-day production

Coffee production has since remained a constant in the village for the past four decades. Covering a surface area of 16 hectares, coffee trees are grown in an area known as “Les Rouleaux”, not too far from the Seven Coloured Earth and sheltered by the Petite Riviere Noire peak.  The coffee beans are collected by hand and are transported to Case Noyale, where they are soaked, fermented and dried. The sun and climate in Case Noyale provides an ideal climate for this purpose. After the drying period, they are finally roasted at 200 degrees celsius for  twenty minutes to produce the coffee that is sold on the market [5]



The history and culture of Chamarel is interspersed with legends and stories that give the village and area an aura of mysticism, but also ties it very closely to the history of slavery and maroonage on the island. The geographic location and topography of Chamarel is such that it was auspicious for runaway slaves. Located at 250m+ altitude and nestled in a valley, it provided along with Le Morne and the surrounding forested areas an ideal place for hiding. This history of resistance paved the way for this village to become a preferred place of settlement upon the abolition of slavery and has led the village to become known by some of the locals as “the Valley of the Blacks” [6].  This in turn has fuelled a number of stories surrounding these times of oppression.


Madame Bell

Legend has it, that in an area known today as Madame Bell, resided a woman who owned slaves. It is said that the spirit of the slaves roam at night in the area along the pathways. Jean-Pierre Lenoir, whose family has close ties to Chamarel and author of Bel Ombre, entre mer et montagne has reported that, upon spending the night in a small cabin he shared with his wife that was built on one of these pathways, he was woken up in the middle of night by the sound of bells, coming from the forests that spread over several tens of kilometres up until Bel Ombre, and where there was no church. The confusion and fear was further augmented by his dog who started barking incessantly at the pathway until the bells stopped. The legend was confirmed by a villager and friend the next day[7].



As a place of resistance and maroonage, the valley and forests of Chamarel have aptly lent themselves to local Rastafarianism, a religion based party on the premise of Black resistance and pan-Africanism. Since the 1980s, it is  quite natural, that Rastafarians established themselves in Chamarel and set up a place of worship in an area known as Triangle or La Rosselière[8]



The history and culture of Chamarel cannot be explored without mention of its culinary culture. Although the same culture is present throughout Mauritius, it has been gradually lost throughout the years. Chamarel remains a bastion of this culture in part thanks to the presence of chassées (game reserves), forest game and its agricultural landscape but most importantly its people and history. Chamarel is known today as a “terroir” where tourists and Mauritians alike come from far and near to enjoy delicious meals in small Table d’Hôte and upscale restaurants.


Hardship and scarcity

Although foraging has been a part of the culture of inhabitants in the hills of Chamarel for most of its history, the most recent period of severe hardship dates to World War II. During this time, villagers had to rely on their own farming and foraging for their subsistence. Since staples such as rice were not available, locals began planting maize, which were crushed using small hand-operated mills. Rosaline Boswell in Le Malaise Creole: Ethnic Identity in Mauritius recounts the story of Roland born in 1934, who had to forage for roots and grass for the family pigs and chickens. In addition, fishing, hunting – and poaching in private game reserves – became a way for many to survive. Fish and crayfish found in rivers as well as wild boar, deer, tandracs or tanrec, bats and even monkeys at times along with maize became staples for survival.



The culinary culture of Chamarel would not be complete without mention of Tilambik, a raw fermented sugar cane juice resulting in unrefined rum. Production of alcohol served as one of the first reasons for sugar cane cultivation on the island, and artisanal  tilambik was deemed illegal, partly because of its high alcohol content. It has been said that most people on the West coast were involved in Tilambik production in one way or another. As it had to be hidden from authorities and from opportunists who might steal the brew; villagers collaborated to guard the brew while it cooled. Retailers were responsible for the bottling and transporters got a commission as well. Earlier last century, a bottle could be sold for Rs. 50, and helped many people  make ends meet.[9] Tilambik long remained a part of social life, perhaps to face the hardships that  came with working on plantations or to celebrate life events during long sega nights. It has been replaced today by refined rum, which visitors can taste in the Rhumerie de Chamarel.



One of the attractions of Chamarel aside from its forests and food is the seven-coloured earth, a unique geological feature showing earth in red, brown, green, yellow, blue, purple and violet tones forming exposed ‘dunes’ amidst dense forests.  The area is only 7,500 m2 and these land formations result from the action of water and rain, creating these dunes described as “gently convex slopes and rounded interfluves” in between which the rainwater flows.[10]


Debated origins

The origin of this exposed and wavy multi-coloured soil is debated but a few hypotheses have been put forward. The geological features have often been described as resulting from the erosion of volcanic ash rock, known as tuff. Some geologists dispute this claim, saying that it confuses erosion with weathering or alteration of the rock in place. Instead, it is likely that weathering of basalt itself as opposed to tuff is the process responsible for creating the formations. Although the site is considered “natural”, geologists are now discovering that much of the gullying found around the world – as shown in the gentle slopes in the site – is a result of modification of the land surface by human activity. A resulting hypothesis is that this specific area was cleared by humans to grow crops or for other reasons and soon after a severe storm resulted into the complete removal of the top soil.[11]



Erosion of basalt results in clay. The climatic conditions of the area – hot and humid - have led to further transformation of the soil into ferralitic soil through hydrolysis (the chemical breakdown of a compound through reaction with water). Thus, the chemical weathering of basalt has led to two dominating elements in the soil, namely iron and aluminium resulting in red/anthracite and blue/purple colours and tones respectively.   It has been said that even when one mixes all colour sections of the soil together, they would eventually separate.


[1] History of De Chazal Family, retrieved from

[3] Sydney Selvon, A New Comprehensive History of Mauritius. 2012

[4] Jean-Pierre Lenoir, Bel Ombre, entre mer et montagne, Editions du Corsaire

[5] “Café de Chamarel – de la cerise à la tasse”, Weekend Scope, May 1, 2014

[6] Rosabelle Boswell, Le Malaise Creole: Ethnic Identity in Mauritius. New Directions in Anthropology, 2006.

[7] Jean-Pierre Lenoir, Bel Ombre, entre mer et montagne, Editions du Corsaire

[8] “Chamarel: le Nyahbigni Tabernacle profane”, Le Mauricien, 20 February 2016

[9] Rosabelle Boswell, Le Malaise Creole: Ethnic Identity in Mauritius. New Directions in Anthropology, 2006.

[10] D. Newsome and C.P. Johnson “Potential Geotourism and the Prospect of Raising Awareness About Geoheritage and Environment on Mauritius”, Geoheritage 5, no.1  (2013): 1-19

[11] H.C. Sheth, C.P. Johnson and C.D. Ollier “The seven-couloured earth of Chamarel, Mauritius”, Journal of African Earth Sciences 57, no.1-2 (2010): 169-173

Related Articles