Charles Telfair

  • Early Life and entry into the Royal Navy

    Charles Telfair was born in 1778 in Belfast. He studied chemistry then medicine. In 1797 he joined the Royal Navy which was battling Napoleon’s military throughout the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  His training soon landed him the post of surgeon on the Renommée, and he was assigned to a number of ships in this position. Telfair had a keen interest in Natural History and started documenting plant and animal species from his earlier travels. He made his way to the Indian Ocean aboard the HMS Leopard in 1808, first through Cape Town, and eventually to the Mascarenes at a time when the British were hoping to recapture these islands.

Arrival in the Indian Ocean

A few years later, aboard the Bodicea when Bourbon (Réunion) was captured by the British, he was nominated as assistant to the Colonel Keating in Saint-Paul then Chief Secretary of the government. During his time in Bourbon, Telfair attempted to initiate legal reforms to ensure better treatment of slaves and created a garden bearing fruits and vegetables as well as decorative plants. In 1812, he studied the volcanic eruptions of the Piton de La Fournaise alongside Governor Farquhar.


Telfair in Mauritius

He was nominated in Mauritius in 1812 for the post of Chief Secretary to the Government. However, both his professional and personal activities and interests went beyond this position: he was simultaneously Curator of Vacant Estates (1812-1833), and Registrar of the Vice Admiralty Court (1813-1823). He led the Committee of Public Instruction, was a member of the Oval Table, the Colonial Committee and one of the founding members of the Natural History Society that still exists nowadays under the name of Royal Society for Arts and Science.  He also took charge of the management of the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden for a few years. [1]


Estate ownership and management

Telfair owned several estates throughout his time in Mauritius, where he resided until his death in 1833. His first place of residence and one he kept until his death was in Bois Chéri, Moka, where he was said to have grown a beautiful garden and where he introduced plants such as the dwarf banana tree. He also owned land in Bon Espoir, Beau Manguier and Bel Ombre. Telfair is a key historical figure in the development of Bel Ombre as his tenure brought a number of very important developments and grew the estate from a shabby farm to a thriving sugar producing plantation.  



Although Telfair trained as a doctor and occupied various military and government functions, he is most remembered today for his contributions to natural history and botany. His records of plants and animals during his travels contributed to reference a number of newly discovered species, while he also introduced species in the various countries he resided. Several endemic species of Mauritius bear his name, such as the Telfair skink. He is also remembered in Mauritius for his relatively socially progressive views and attitudes at a time when slavery was still ongoing.


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

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