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Western Islands of the Indian Ocean: The Mountain Landscape of Mauritius

Robin Hallett describes how, when the maritime powers of Europe were battling for supremacy in the Orient, the isles of the Indian Ocean played their part in history.

Scattered over the western half of the Indian Ocean he divers islands or island-groups bound by their history more closely to Africa than to Asia. They range from Zanzibar and Pemba, only half a day’s sail from the African mainland, to the Chagos Archipelago, remotest of the Lesser Dependencies of Mauritius, islands that are “truly oceanic.”

Included among them are Réunion and Mauritius, the Comoros and the Seychelles. Zanzibar, Pemba and the Comoros possess an ancient Muslim culture; the other islands, previously uninhabited, have been drawn into the orbit of human history only by European enterprise. For them all Africa provided, at least until the middle of the nineteenth century, the homeland of the majority of their inhabitants.

The larger islands display an astonishing natural beauty, idyllic, paradisal: the scented tropical languor, the gentle caerulean sea, coconut palms elegant over white coral beaches, vegetation of a lush and luxuriant green. But the smaller islands, set in “a strange solitude,” also exert a powerful fascination.

“As we coasted along this island,” Sir James Lancaster wrote of Agalega in 1602, “it seemed very faire and pleasant, exceeding full of fowle and coconut trees; and there came from the land such a pleasant smell, as if it had been a garden of flowers.”

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