When I told a Mauritian acquaintance that I planned to carry out
research on mixed marriages in Mauritius,
he laughed sadly and said that the best place to investigate this
phenomenon would probably be near the Pont Colville Deverell - the
highest bridge in the island, which has been a favoured spot for
double suicides by young couples unhappily in love, unable to marry
each other because of rules of ethnic endogamy and, sometimes, caste
endogamy. In this article I shall try to show why my acquaintance
was wrong (although he was also right in certain respects) through
accounting for the current growth in the number of interethnic marriages
in Mauritius and indicating some possible long-term effects on ethnic
categorisation and organisation in the island.
When dealing with this kind of issue, it can be highly instructive
to focus on some of the variations and changes in the experienced
structures of relevance (Schütz & Luckmann 1979) or life-worlds
Mauritians live within and act upon. A main task here must be to
indicate which paths of action different agents are able to take
from where they stand in terms of their personal experiences, their
surrounding social environment and their perceived opportunities;
to put it differently, how their actions are generated by a combination
of variables intrinsic to their life-worlds. This kind of approach,
which sheds light on intentional elements rather than causal links,
does not encourage the development of deterministic or predictive
models, but it may enable us to isolate variables which are particularly
important for the direction of thought and action.
No serious scholar, it seems, would today defend the classic view
that modernisation inevitably leads to the eventual disappearance
of ethnic distinctions and ethnic boundaries. On the contrary, the
doctrinaire view on the relationship between modernity and ethnicity
is presently that modernisation in important ways inspires and contributes
to the intensification of ethnic identifications (see e.g. Nash
1988, Roosens 1989). A variety of explanations are offered to justify
this position, which is supported by a wealth of empirical cases
worldwide (see e.g. Horowitz 1985). It has been shown that cultural
homogenisation (usually within the framework of a state) very often
leads to traditionalistic counterreactions from groups which feel
that their political interests and/or their sense of self (or identity)
is threatened. It has also been argued that modern education and
capitalist labour markets encourage the formation of collective
ethnic identities and indigenous models of ethnic groups as imagined
communities, chiefly because such large-scale processes of standardisation
enable persons to perceive themselves as members of anonymous communities
comprising a multitude of persons whom they will never know, but
with whom they share fundamental characteristics (Gellner 1983,
Anderson 1991). The dimension of collective nostalgia has also been
prominent in some studies; how people in situations of modern alienation
develop an intense longing for a mythical Gemeinschaft past and
recreate an "authentic" culture in a modern context (A.P.
Cohen 1985, Giddens 1990). Further, the functional aspects of political
ethnicity have been studied by many scholars, who have indicated
that ethnic symbolism and ethnic principles of political organisation
are both politically and emotionally functional in situations of
rapid social change - they create political legitimacy and simultaneously
provide symbols of social identity (A. Cohen 1974, Eriksen
Notwithstanding its obvious merits, this view to the effect that
modernisation more or less inevitably leads to ethnic revitalisation,
needs closer scrutiny. In the following examination of some dimensions
of Mauritian culture and society, I shall challenge this view, showing
rather that revitalisation and homogenisation or creolisation are
two complementary, and sometimes opposed, dimensions of the same
process, and that it is too simplistic to claim merely that ethnic
revitalisation is a necessary outcome of modernisation.
The poly-ethnic character of Mauritian society and politics
The southwestern Indian Ocean island society Mauritius is often
described as a quintessential plural society (Benedict 1965, Simmons
1983, Bowman 1991, cf. Eriksen 1988).
The island, located just inside the Tropic of Capricorn about 800
kilometres east of Madagascar, has no indigenous population, and
its present inhabitants are the descendants of fairly recent immigrants.
Frenchmen, Malagasy, East and West Africans, Indians from both northern
and southern India, and Chinese arrived in successive waves and
for a variety of reasons from the early eighteenth to the early
twentieth century to Mauritius, which in colonial times served equally
as a port midway between the Cape and India, and as a sugar colony.
Mauritius has successively been a Dutch (1670--1710), French (1715--1814)
and British (1814--1968) colony. The French influence remains the
strongest of the three, not least due to the fact that planters
of French origin dominated public life in the island before and
throughout British rule.
The ensuing cultural complexity of Mauritius has frequently been
commented upon. It is an island where fifteen languages are said
to be spoken (cf. Souchon 1982), but where the official language
(English) is scarcely used, where four world religions rub shoulders,
where the currency is the rupee and the national anthem is usually
sung in French. The Mauritian population of slightly over one million
is composed of something between four and twelve ethnic groups,
the number (or rather, the level of segmentation) depending on the
situation. Officially, four "ethnic groups" existed until
they were removed from the censuses in 1983, but they still exist
in folk representations: the Hindus (52%), the Muslims (17%), the
Chinese (3%) and the "General Population" (28%). However,
most Mauritians would agree that Tamils (7%), Telugus (2.5%) and
possibly Marathis (2%) should not be lumped together with the majority
Hindus from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in northern India, and that
the residual category of "General Population" really encompasses
at least three distinctive categories; the Creoles of African and
Malagasy descent (23--24%), the Franco-Mauritians of French descent
(2%), and the gens de couleur of mixed descent and French language
(2--3%). When asked about the number of ethnic categories, most
Mauritians would immediately list the Hindus, the Tamils, the Muslims,
the Creoles, the Chinese and the Franco-Mauritians. In certain situations,
for example concerning marriage, the number of endogamous groups
is higher still, as caste and clan membership may be relevant.
As can easily be seen, the criteria for distinguishing between ethnic
groups are not consistent. One group, which contains both Catholics
and Buddhists, is designated on the basis of geographic origin:
the Chinese. Two groups are designated on the basis of religion:
the Hindus and Muslims; but the Hindu minorities are distinguished
on the basis of ancestral language and geographic origin. The fourth
official category, the General Population, contains people of various
origins and varied physical appearance, but usually Catholic religion.
Several factors have ensured the continued ethnic segregation of
the Mauritian population up to or nearly up to the present, although
the importance of some of them has been decreasing (see Eriksen
1988, Bowman 1991, Keng 1991 for details). The division of labour
has traditionally been ethnically based. The Franco-Mauritians have
composed the upper managerial levels in the sugar industry and the
highest bureaucratic positions. Most Hindus and Muslims have been
field labourers and smallplanters, although there exist a few wealthy
Muslim trading families. Most Chinese have been involved in retail
trade. The gens de couleur have dominated the liberal professions
of lawyers, journalists and the like, while the Creoles have been
artisans, factory workers in the sugar industry, fishermen and hawkers.
This ethnic division of labour is still discernable, but it has
in important ways been modified since independence in 1968. Notably,
the civil service is now dominated by Hindus. The growth of the
tourist and textile industries in the 1980s and 1990s has created
new job opportunities for many Mauritians. The official unemployment
rate in January 1986 was 23%, whereas two years later there was
a shortage of labour. In the mid-nineties, Mauritius is importing
labour (from Madagascar, China and India) and exporting capital
and industries (to Madagascar). The hotels and factories tend to
employ their staff according to qualifications rather than ethnic
membership, and many of them have foreign managers with no ethnic
loyalties in Mauritius.
Religion is also an important ethnic marker in Mauritius. There
is a sense of solidarity among Catholics, Hindus and Muslims, and
although there is not a one-to-one relationship between religious
affiliations and ethnic ones, there are strong correlations. Although
some Creoles have converted to Islam and some Tamils and most Chinese
have converted to Christianity, the general picture is that religious
groups are associated with ethnic groups. The largest ethnic groups
in Mauritius - the Hindus, Muslims and Creoles - each represent
one major religion, even if there exist anomalies such as Christian
Hindus and Muslim Creoles, and even if the main categories are to
some extent internally divided by sects and heterodoxies.
Language is a more complex matter than religion. Nearly every ethnic
group has its own ancestral language although, as Hookoomsing (1986)
has shown, there is no exact one-to-one relationship between ethnic
membership and language. Indeed, since the official abolition of
ethnic groups in Mauritian population censuses in 1983, "ancestral
language" (which was retained in the censuses) has virtually
become a synonym for ethnic membership in everyday speech. However,
many of the ancestral languages are no longer in active use, and
tend to serve as emblems of ethnic membership rather than being
vehicles of communication. In practice, a growing majority of the
Mauritian population speaks Kreol most of the time or all the time,
a French-lexicon creole developed in the second half of the eighteenth
century. In rural areas, Bhojpuri (a Hindi dialect) is still spoken,
but few young Mauritians speak it at home. French is the dominant
language of the media (and American films are dubbed in French),
while only the Franco-Mauritians and gens de couleur speak it at
home. A fairly large proportion of Sino-Mauritians still speak Hakka
(a southern Chinese language) and read Mandarin. However, most (or
nearly all) Mauritians are also fluent in Kreol, which has a triple
role of ethnic language (for the Creoles), mother-tongue (for most
Mauritians) and lingua franca (for all). Presently, it has no official
status, although powerful political groups tried to gain official
recognition for it during the 1970s and early 1980s and briefly
succeeded in 1982.
Party politics has been organised on largely ethnic principles since
the electoral reforms and extension of the franchise in 1948, since
when Mauritius has in practice been a parliamentary democracy. Important
political parties in the brief history of independent Mauritius
have been Labour (Parti Travailliste), which is strongly associated
with the Hindus, the Creole/Coloured/Franco-Mauritian Parti Mauricien
(later Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate), and the Comité
d'Action Musulman (Muslim). Already in the late 1960s, however,
there were attempts at breaking with the ethnic logic of Mauritian
politics, when the MMM (Mouvement Militant Mauricien) was formed
by a group of young students and immediately became an important
political force. The aim of the MMM was to become a truly national
(in the meaning of supra-ethnic) movement, and it did succeed in
this for a few years (Oodiah 1989, Bowman 1991). However, since
the latter half of the 1970s, the MMM has increasingly in practice
become the political vehicle of the non-Hindu populations of Mauritius.
Nine months after the 1982 general elections, where the party won
a devastating victory, the MMM split into two factions: the MMM
"proper" and the new MSM (Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien),
the latter being largely a Hindu based party. Later developments
in Mauritian politics have been marked by various more or less enduring
alliances - one sometimes gets the impression that every leading
Mauritian politician has been allied with every other politician
at least once - but the fundamental ethnic logic of party politics
and voting clearly prevails in the mid-1990s. Alliances tend to
be interethnic, not supraethnic.
I have identified four important structuring principles for ethnic
identity and boundary maintenance in Mauritius: the labour market,
religion, language and party politics. When, as is the case today,
one or several of them changes in overall significance as an ethnic
mechanism, it is highly likely that there will be repercussions
at the level of the overall system and at the micro level. Notably,
a move away from ethnic organisation gives people new experiences,
which may not support an ethnic world view; and creates new possibilities
for action. Below, I will consider some consequences of these changes.
Non-ethnic aspects of Mauritian public life
When dealing with a complex society like Mauritius, it would be
simplistic to argue merely either that ethnic distinctions are simply
being reproduced or that they are gradually disappearing. Both kinds
of processes can be observed, and I shall later indicate how they
articulate with each other. At this point, let me briefly mention
a few social fields and arenas where ethnic boundaries are either
seriously challenged or irrelevant.
Spoken language is generally irrelevant as an ethnic marker in everyday
situations. Although it is true that the vernaculars of the Sino-
and Franco-Mauritians set them effectively apart, an increasing
number of Sino-Mauritians today speak Kreol at home and fail to
teach their children to speak Hakka and to read Mandarin. Among
the larger groups, Kreol, French and English hold comparable positions
(although, it must in all fairness be said, Bhojpuri is still quite
widely spoken in rural areas). Kreol is the language spoken most
of the time by most Mauritians (Eriksen 1990). French is the preferred
written language of most Mauritians, while English is the language
of the bureaucracy and the state. Significantly, Mauritian fiction
tends to be written in French while political memoirs are usually
written in English.
The major sports clubs were traditionally organised along ethnic
lines and were called Hindu Cadets, Muslim Scouts etc., but removed
the ethnic epithet due to political pressure in the mid-eighties.
Although the connection between ethnic membership and sports club
membership or support is still evident, there is a clear tendency
for teams to become multi-ethnic. Recent international sports events,
such as the regional Jeux des Iles de l'Océan Indien, have
also contributed to the development of a shared Mauritian identity
(Eriksen in press).
With recreational youth clubs, the tendency is the same. Although
they still tend to be organised on ethnic lines, the non-religious
clubs have been strongly encouraged to accept members (sometimes
spoken of as hostages) from another ethnic group than the dominant
The educational system, further, definitely serves to homogenise
the Mauritian population. Core curricula are largely uniform cross-ethnically,
and pupils from different ethnic groups compete for the same scholarships
and, increasingly, for the same jobs. In urban Mauritius outside
of the capital Port-Louis, neighbourhoods are segregated by class,
not by ethnicity; whereas many rural areas are still largely mono-ethnic.
As a result, many Mauritians from different ethnic groups share
many of the same childhood experiences as they go to school together.
The recent changes in the Mauritian labour market (from the early
1980s onwards) points in the same direction (Eriksen 1994). Recruitment
to the labour market no longer clearly follows ethnic lines, and
moreover, the state is replacing kinship and ethnic networks as
a provider of welfare benefits.
There are also several other fields where the impact of ethnic distinctions
may seem to diminish. Trade unions in tourism and the textile industry
are not ethnically based; feminism and environmentalism are becoming
political movements which naturally create loyalties which cross
ethnic boundaries; leisure activities are increasingly disengaged
from ethnic or religious organisation; and national TV encourages
the development of fields of shared discourse (Eriksen 1992b).
Although the MMM may not in the long term have succeeded in its
"battle against communalism", it did succeed in placing
problems of ethnic injustice and ethnic particularism permanently
on the agenda. In the 1990s, there is a very open discourse about
ethnicity in Mauritian mass media and in many kinds of formal and
informal social contexts. For example, the popular press now publishes
"scandal stories" about ethnic manipulation in politics,
people may be inclined to sue employers if they feel bypassed, and
a main preoccupation in public debate - from the Legislative Assembly
to the pub - is the relationship between the salade de fruit, where
the "components" remain discrete, and the compôt
de fruit, where they are forcefully mixed together. There are contemporary
social and cultural processes supporting both tendencies. In some
respects and among some persons, Mauritius is experiencing a powerful
ethnic revitalisation; in other respect and among others, ethnicity
is becoming irrelevant as a principle of social organisation.
The increase in mixed marriages
The foregoing sketch has provided an overview of some main elements
in Mauritian social organisation. From the perspective of the individual
agent, ethnic boundedness has appeared "natural" and rational
throughout Mauritian history. Many, if not most, important resources
have traditionally been channelled through of ethnic and kinship
organisation: employment, material and social security, group belongingness,
"old age insurance", marriage and political influence.
I shall now indicate further that this is changing, by focusing
on one important, visible and quantifiable change in the interethnic
behaviour of Mauritians; namely, the current changes in marriage
strategies and criteria for spouse selection. In 1960, the number
of interethnic marriages was nearly negligible; in 1982, the number
was 497, while in 1987, the number had risen to 989 cases, being
8.8% of the total number of marriages contracted in the island (Oodiah
1992:59). The number of divorces is also increasing significantly,
and doubled from about 300 in 1982 to about 600 in 1992, which also
indicates that the social significance of marriage and the family
institution is undergoing a transformation in parts of Mauritian
In most of Mauritian history from the 18th century on, different
kinds of resources have been bundled together in social networks
and organisations based on kinship and ethnicity. The family remains
very important, and when asked, many young Mauritians will say that
they cannot marry outside their ethnic group "even if I wouldn't
mind myself", because the family would reject it. In a society
where employment opportunities and financial support is channelled
through kinship and metaphoric kinship organisation (that is, ethnic
organisation), it can be a very serious thing indeed to disobey
parental orders. Although the marriage pattern is changing and that
individually based "love marriages" (as opposed to arranged
marriages) are now widespread, even among Hindus and Muslims, parental
authority remains strong.
How do interethnic marriages function in a society where ethnicity
is the most important criterion for ordering the social world? There
is no simple answer, but through discussing a few selected cases,
I hope to indicate the circumstances under which mixed marriages
can be viable as well as some variations, and will finally suggest
some possible consequences for Mauritian ethnicity in the twenty-first
Case 1. Marie-Claude (née Gita) and Jean.
The couple lives in a coastal village dominated by Creoles, but
with a sizeable Hindu minority. They were married in 1976 and have
three children. She runs a tabagie (sweetshop), and Jean works at
the small coffee factory nearby. When she was baptised as Marie-Claude
at the local church in order to marry Jean, her widowed mother did
not attend the ceremony, and has since remained adamant that "her
daughter is no longer her daughter", meaning that Marie-Claude
is not allowed into her home and has little contact with her family.
Her younger brother Ram explains that he has nothing against Creoles,
but that Marie-Claude is responsible for her social alienation herself,
since she can no longer be a member of a Hindu family after converting
to Christianity. Jean's family, who are Creoles, were only mildly
opposed to the marriage, and are on reasonably good terms with their
son and daughter-in-law.
This "openness" of the Creole ethnic category requires
some comment. Creoles may describe themselves as a "mixed"
people since they have no single shared tribal or geographic origin,
speak a "mixed" language (sometimes described as a language
composed of French words and East African syntax) and have few if
any ancient folk traditions exploited in ethnic boundary processes.
In addition, the Creoles do not form corporate groups at the lineage,
family or ethnic level (Eriksen 1988:121--134). Compared to the
other ethnic groups in Mauritius, the Creoles command few corporate
resources. This suggests that there are few strong reasons for Creoles
to be endogamous, and indeed they have no strong rule of endogamy.
On the other hand, Creoles tend to stress their cultural values,
including Christianity, and for a non-Creole affine to be fully
accepted in the group, he or she must usually convert to Catholicism.
Relatively speaking, the Creoles are more open at the social level
than at the cultural level.
The case of Jean and Marie-Claude is interesting in at least two
respects. First, Jean was a nonconformist already as a teenager,
and had few close friends. In other words, he did not have to worry
about losing his primary peer network, which is usually a very important
source of recognition and personal identity to a Creole, through
marrying a Hindu girl. Second, Marie-Claude quickly became economically
independent through setting up her tabagie immediately after marrying.
Had their personal circumstances been different, the marriage might
never have succeeded. It should also be noted that mixed marriages
have always occurred in Mauritian villages and that this one had
little connection with the ongoing changes in Mauritian society.
It was locally perceived as an anomaly, perhaps even as an aberration,
and the couple itself did not challenge the ethnic logic of the
village organisation as such. They admitted having broken the rules.
Case 2. Françoise and Mahmood
This is a very different case. Françoise was an upper-middle
class Franco-Mauritian girl who fell in love with a lower-middle
class Muslim boy. When her family found out, she was sent to live
with relatives in France for a year so that she might change her
mind, but upon her return, she immediately re-established clandestine
contact with Mahmood, and with the help of friends, they arranged
to spend two weeks together in the neighbouring island of La Réunion,
a French département-d'outre-mer. Despite very strong warnings
from Françoise's family, they married five years before I
met them. They live in a flat in central urban Mauritius.
Mahmood's family were critical of the marriage, but they eventually
accepted it and, Mahmood admits, were "both ashamed and proud"
that their son should marry a white girl from a posh family. She
converted to Islam, but they both describe themselves as "indifferent
Muslims". They have one child who has a Muslim name and who
will be brought up as a Muslim, although they admit he will not
be a "complete Muslim". For Mahmood, the cost of marrying
Françoise was minimal, and since she has converted to Islam,
she is accepted as a member of his family. He has a clerical job
in his uncle's firm in Port-Louis.
To Françoise, the choice was a more consequential one. She
lost her birthright to a secure and predictable life surrounded
by material wealth and a tight network of Franco-Mauritian friends
and relatives. She says she has very few, but very loyal friends
left, and that she is often spoken of in Franco-Mauritian circles
as a tragic example of a woman gone astray. At one of the last family
gatherings she attended, she wore a sari, and her mother commented,
"You are dirtying the blood of your family". Later, her
mother said, as an argument against the marriage, that Françoise
apparently "did not want any friends". She retorted that
she did indeed have some friends, whereupon the mother remarked
that they were either not from ta societé ("your society",
referring to both class and race) or nonconformists (single, gay
or professionally idiosyncratic). At the final quarrel, Françoise
says, the mother said that she would rather see her daughter as
a drug addict than as the wife of a Muslim. Most of the Mauritian
Muslims are descendants of indentured labourers, who were servants
and labourers working for the Franco-Mauritians, and many Mauritian
Christians, like many European Christians, regard Islam as a threat
and as an inferior religion.
Since Mahmood and Françoise do not live with his parents,
her personal freedom is greater than it would have been otherwise,
but she admits that she cannot smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol
at home even if she would have liked to. (Being "indifferent
Muslims", they serve alcohol to guests.)
The case of Françoise and Mahmood exemplifies a number of
general points pertaining to the viability of interethnic marriages.
First, the question of religion can be crucial. She herself remarks
that if she had been strongly religious (Christian), the marriage
would not have been possible. (This is not a question of gender.
A Christian man would also have been obliged to convert.)
Second, if she had regarded herself as socially, psychologically
and economically dependent on her family and "sa societé",
she would not have been able to marry Mahmood. Her practical and
reflexive ability to sever her ties with her family (which she was
on basically good terms with until the dramatic events) was a necessary
condition for the marriage.
Third, the most difficult aspect of mixed marriages in this kind
of setting - the self-defined plural society with no hegemonic group
- may be the identity of the children. As Françoise and Mahmood
admit, they are worried about their children, who will grow up as
anomalies in a society where ethnic distinctions are seen as nearly
as fundamental for a person's identity as gender distinctions.
Fourth, this example may remind us that it is nearly tautologically
true that to "marry down", classwise, is socially much
more problematic than to "marry up", and this pertains
to men as well as to women. This variable does not have a strong
bearing on interethnic marriages as such, and is just as relevant
in monoethnic mixed marriages between bourgeois and proletarians.
In Mauritius, where the correlation between class and ethnicity
is traditionally strong, the two kinds of variables are often difficult
to distinguish. Consider, for example, the elderly Franco-Mauritian
who can frequently be seen roaming the streets of Beau-Bassin on
his old moped. He carries a revered aristocratic name and belongs
to one of the island's most powerful lineages. When, in his youth,
it became known that he had fallen in love with a Coloured girl,
he was disinherited and literally thrown out of his family, and
has since made his living as a junk merchant. Regarded as an anomaly
by everyone, he has no primary network.
Finally, it should be noted that there is no convincing sociological
explanation for the fact of Françoise and Mahmood falling
in love. Neither of them were "misfits" or "radicals"
in their respective social environments. The act of falling in love
seems to be an independent variable in this regard, but the realisation
of their marriage was, as we have seen, dependent on other factors
which needed not be present.
Case 3. Vishnu and Shalini.
This third and final example brings out a further dimension of the
issue, and can serve as a starting-point for a general discussion
on social and cultural dynamics in contemporary Mauritius. Vishnu,
who is classified as a Tamil, has petit-bourgeois and proletarian
family origins. He grew up in the cosmopolitan town of Rose-Hill,
and due to a combination of family efforts and his personal grantwinning
abilities, he was able to pursue university studies in France. Upon
returning, he was an underemployed intellectual for several years
until, in the early 1990s, he became a successful consultant for
private enterprises. Shalini, who is a Hindu (in Mauritius, as noted,
Tamils are not considered Hindus in an ethnic sense) of high-caste
origin, comes from a wealthy merchant family. She and Vishnu had
been sweethearts since their teens, studied together in France,
and married shortly afterwards. What is striking about their case
is, in the Mauritian context, that it is entirely unspectacular.
Neither of the two families was opposed to the marriage, although
Shalini's parents were for a long time slightly suspicious of Vishnu
- more or less in the same way as an upper-middle class European
family would have been ambivalent towards the long-haired, but obviously
kind and intelligent radical courting their daughter. Vishnu explains,
"I have never thought of us as a mixed couple. We have grown
up in the same town, been to university together, shared the same
experiences and so on." In certain periods, they have depended
on Shalini's family financially, and there is no indication that
their marriage has weakened kinship bonds.
This example adds several further points to the discussion.
First, and most obviously, the very notion of "mixed marriage"
presupposes an ethnically informed epistemology. When I interviewed
a married couple of political activists, asking them a naïve
question about their mixed marriage, they quickly retorted: "What
do you mean, 'mixed marriage'? We have the same class background,
the same kind of education and the same political views. What do
you see as 'mixed' about our marriage?"
Second, the case of Vishnu and Shalini exemplifies that Mauritian
ethnicity is in many regards a matter of degree in the sense that
the perceived distance between groups varies. There is no doubt
that some groups perceive themselves as closer than others, and
that a Hindu--Tamil alliance is less controversial than a Hindu--Creole
or Creole--Muslim alliance would have been. Had Vishnu been a Creole,
Shalini's family would probably, despite their liberal attitudes,
have been emphatically unenthusiastic about the alliance.
Third, the case indirectly brings out some of the complexity of
Mauritian society and the ensuing difficulties in generalising about
Mauritian ethnicity. Within the life-worlds of Vishnu and Shalini,
the Mauritian white-collar world of university academics, writers,
journalists and businessmen, "primordial identities" do
not necessarily make up an important dimension of social organisation.
Such identities can be activated symbolically, which they are in
some cases: Hardly anywhere in Mauritius does one see more young
women in saris than at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, a research
institution near the university. However, and that is the point
here, in this kind of environment, ethnic identity is not perceived
as "second nature"; it has to be chosen self-consciously.
Fourth, the very question of ethnic identity as opposed to other
forms of identification is made explicit by Vishnu, Shalini and
many others in a similar kind of situation - not just urban intellectuals
living in mixed marriages, but by others with comparable experiences
and outlooks. Vishnu says that when asked what his ancestral language
is, he replies that it is Kreol. The next question is, "but
aren't you a Tamil?". His answer would be: "My mother-tongue
is Kreol. My parents' mother-tongue was Kreol. My grandparents may
have known Tamil, but I always heard them speak Kreol. Why do you
think I should go further back than that in order to find my ancestral
language?" This exchange brings out the main contradiction
in current Mauritian identity politics - which can be described
as a tension, sometimes a contradiction, between an orientation
towards the past and an orientation towards the present and the
future. Unlike Françoise and Mahmood, Vishnu and Shalini
do not worry about the ethnic identity of their children. Rather,
their main concern is that the children should have a good education.
The three examples discussed above reveal great variations between
interethnic marriages. In relation to identity politics, which is
our main concern here, they could perhaps be graded on a scale.
Jean and Marie-Claude are trapped inside an ethnic system of signification
and organisation, and have improvised considerably to carve out
an anomalous existence outside it - at a significant cost. The system
of ethnic distinctions is able to absorb a great many marriages
of this kind, bringing light-skinned Creole children into Mauritian
society (who nevertheless remain Creole children), without changing
in its structure and modes of legitimation.
Mahmood and Françoise are actively rejecting and opposing
practices of ethnic segregation, but are nevertheless faced with
subjectively perceived dilemmas of belongingness, personal sacrifices
and the children's social identity. They recognise the continued
importance of ethnicity and willingly pay a price for deviating
Vishnu and Shalini, for their part, do not see themselves as being
"up against" anything. To them, marriage appears as a
voluntary contract between two individuals, which does not necessarily
involve families or other groups. Their professional networks, informal
social life and perspectives on the future do not necessitate collective
organisation based on shared ancestry or ideologies of shared culture.
It is important to note here that the differences between the three
marriages cannot be reduced merely to "personality differences",
but must be seen in relation to differences in life experiences,
generating different structures of relevance and different perceived
possibilities of choice. In a sense, the outcome is identical in
the three examples - an interethnic marriage - but both the social
consequences and the very meaning of the term "interethnic
marriage" (mariaz miks) varies with the context.
Creolisation and revitalisation
Let us now move a step further, and reflect on the aforementioned
tension in Mauritian society; the opposition between what Hannerz
(1990) has labelled, in a comparative vein, "cosmopolitans
and locals". First of all, it should be emphasised that there
is little to be gained from viewing this tension in evolutionary
terms. Some individuals define themselves, and act as, "cosmopolitans"
because their interpretations of their experiences and life-projects
imply that they do so; whereas others define themselves as "locals"
for the same kind of reasons. The point to be made in the context
of current changes in Mauritian society is that an increasing number
of young individuals experience the world and their own lives in
ways encouraging a "cosmopolitan" interpretation of their
own identity and the surrounding social environment. To rephrase
some points made earlier about social change in Mauritius: Many
Mauritians nowadays spend their Sundays in front of the TV set,
in the shopping mall or at the beach instead of going to a place
of worship; they read French photo-novels rather than the Bible,
the Gita or the Koran; they go to cafes and discos where they meet
other adolescents with a lifestyle similar to their own but a different
ethnic identity; they compete on a par with everybody else for jobs
and grades; and they end up working next to, and taking lunch breaks
with, persons of different ethnic membership.
This "cosmopolitan" tendency is underpinned at the institutional
level by new forms of economic organisation, by the increasing application
of principles of meritocracy in the educational system and the labour
market (particularly in the private sector), by the growing secular
public sphere (cafes, newspapers, magazines, professional organisations
etc.) and by increased contacts with the outside world through incoming
tourism and economic diversification.
Equally importantly, the importance of kinship and family in the
social organisation of Mauritius is decreasing because of the individualistic
and meritocratic tendencies in the labour market. Just like work,
marriage is becoming a relationship between individuals rather than
a relationship between groups.
One immediate outcome of this situation, which is no longer a mere
scenario but which is visible (and quantifiable) in urban Mauritius,
is the growth of the "Creole" ethnic category. As remarked
earlier, the Creoles make up an ethnic category which is not based
on shared descent, but on "family resemblances" (Wittgenstein
1983) pertaining to their general lifestyle. Ethnic anomalies therefore
tend to be classified as Creoles. "Creole" as an ethnic
label in Mauritius is actually a "catch-all" label; a
truly residual category absorbing everyone who does not fit well
into the other categories, which are legitimised through references
to notions of purity and descent. The children of a Chinese--Muslim
marriages (a few exist) tend to be categorised as "a kind of
Creoles", despite the fact that Creoles were initially defined
as Mauritians of wholly or partial African or Malagasy descent.
Through this absorbent quality of the Creole social category, it
may be remarked, the native term Kreol (when used about people,
not about language) is superbly compatible with the analytic term
of "creolisation" as used in the work of Hannerz (1992)
and others, where it is conceptualised as a continuous process whereby
distinctive "packages" of cultural signification melt
into new forms. A possible definition of "a Creole" in
Mauritius could be "an individual who holds that his or her
ancestral language is Kreol" (note that this is my suggestion,
not a local one), thereby acknowledging that his or her origins
are mixed - if not genetically, then at least culturally. This option
is, of course, open to Hindus as well as Muslims, who thereby do
not become fully-fledged Creoles, but "Creolised Indo-Mauritians"
whose children may be regarded as Creoles. The Creole category is
thus open in several respects, but it remains bounded at least partly
because most Mauritians define themselves as non-Creoles.
The next logical step, exemplified through Vishnu and Shalini (and
many others), transcends the ethnic logic altogether, rejects "Creole
identity" for being a residual category created by an obsolete
ethnic logic, and claims Mauritian citizenship as the only rational
basis for political identity. Within this world view or structure
of relevance, shared culture is caused by the ability to communicate
rather than by shared origins. It would be possible to argue, in
this respect, that the cultural distance between a rural, proletarian
Hindu and an urban middle-class Hindu is greater than between an
urban middle-class Hindu and an urban middle-class gen de couleur.
Many thousands of Mauritians today live within an experienced reality
of this kind, which was impossible only thirty years ago, when the
main social institutions of Mauritius were still tightly tied up
with ethnic distinctions. In contemporary Mauritius, the boundaries
have become fuzzy. Of course, most Mauritians still think and act
largely within an ethnic mode of thought. Still, Creoles may bitterly
complain that tu pu malbar ("Everything is for the Hindus")
when explaining why they can never expect to find employment in
the civil service. And still, a Hindu may tell a visitor that "it's
funny, but nowadays, a lot of Creoles look almost like Hindus".
However, it can also be observed that a lot of Hindus look almost
like Creoles, and this, perhaps, pertains especially to the young,
who are constantly exposed to the same influences as Creoles in
terms of music, dress, food and so on. However, it is clear that
Mauritian ethnicity is in the middle of a phase of transformation
where ethnicity is changing in significance and relevance. If the
tendencies I have sketched were the only ones, the end of ethnicity
might have been imminent. But there are other strong tendencies,
and I shall briefly describe their relationship to the processes
of creolisation taking place in the economy, in the media and in
the intimate sphere.
Until a few decades ago, ethnicity was firmly embedded in politics,
the economy and informal social interaction in Mauritius. Ethnicity
was highly hierarchical. The changes in post-independence Mauritius
have been no less than spectacular. The ethnic foundation of politics,
although still strong, has repeatedly been challenged. Principles
for recruitment to the labour market are no longer unambiguously
ethnic. Educational opportunities have spread and have levelled
out some profound (including linguistic) cultural differences. New
arenas for informal networking, such as discos, have appeared. Most
households now have a TV set, and follow the same programmes. And
- as an objective marker of the change - today, nearly ten per cent
of Mauritian marriages are ethnically mixed. Far from everybody
views this development with delight, and the pressure towards conformity
and cultural homogenisation is met with powerful counterreactions
from different quarters.
Religious leaders from Hinduism, Christianity and Islam preach tolerance
and simultaneously stress the importance of having one faith. Some
high-profiled political leaders have also campaigned more or less
openly for ethnic solidarity in recent years, and are gaining support.
One of them, a Hindu leader, spoke at a public meeting in 1992 about
the decline of Bhojpuri, linking it to urban decadence, the replacement
of the sari and incense with jeans and the pill; and called for
a revitalisation of ancient Hindu values. In line with this logic,
a Franco-Mauritian whom I met at a party argued that in Mauritius,
one had avoided violent ethnic conflict because one had - up to
the present - avoided mixed marriages. (Another guest commented,
angrily, that this was tantamount to defending apartheid.) "Traditionalism"
and the search for roots takes a number of other forms as well.
These kinds of counterreactions against the homogenisation of identities
indicate that many Mauritians today reflexively fashion ethnic identities
as self-conscious responses to the tendencies towards blurring identity
boundaries and cultural creolisation. Why?
There seem to be two distinct kinds of motivation for subscribing
to essentialist, ethnic notions of identity in the current situation.
Most obviously, there are large groups of people who have vested
political or economic interests in some kind of ethnic segregation.
A rich ethnic group such as the Franco-Mauritians is a very clear
example - in their case, the very colour of their skin is a ticket
to privilege - but among many Hindus, there is also fear that their
privileged access to positions in the civil service is threatened
by individualism and meritocracy. Through linking these tendencies
to a moral decline, they try to gather the support of people who
are concerned with leading a decent life in accordance with established
values. During a recent electoral campaign, thus, a false rumour
to the effect that Prime Minister Jugnauth's son was engaged to
a Muslim girl (the Jugnauths are Hindus) was heard in many Hindu
dominated villages. It is not adequate to view this kind of rumour
purely as an attempt to discredit the Prime Minister as a moral
person, a good Hindu and so on. Economic and political interests
are also involved, since rural Hindus remain socially and economically
organised on the basis of lineage and kinship. To marry a Muslim
therefore, in this kind of context, implies selling out the ethnic
estate of Hindus (seen as a metaphoric kin group), which amounts
to very real economic interests.
This is not to say that purely instrumental motives underlie ethnicist
counterreactions against individualism and meritocracy, but findings
from parts of Mauritius where the employment structure is different,
indicate that the economic dimension is an important one. If no
economic and political resources were channeled through ethnic organisation,
it is unlikely that calls for ethnic purity would have mass appeal.
At the time of writing, it is still uncertain whether they will.
A different context of ethnic revitalisation is found in the urban
middle classes. Often accounted for as nostalgia and romanticism
in the professional literature, this kind of ideology has a strong
appeal in urban areas in Mauritius. Many Mauritians, among them
many urban "cosmopolitans", feel an increasing attraction
for their ancestral culture as they approach middle age, many even
making pilgrimages to their areas of origin in India. The erosion
of the past is countered by a reconstruction of the past, whose
architects do not necessarily turn this into a political programme
aimed at defending their rights at the expense of the rights of
This way of reasoning, which is symmetrical or complementary to
creolisation, globalisation and cultural homogenisation (cf. Friedman
1994), seems more difficult to undertake in Mauritius than in many
other societies. For one thing, few Mauritians are able to trace
their origins accurately. About three quarters of the population
are the descendants of either slaves or indentured labourers, and
their genealogies usually vanish into the mist of myth after a few
generations. Others, including many who are opinion leaders by virtue
of being writers and journalists, have origins so mixed that any
call for purity would seem absolutely meaningless to them. One of
them counts as many as eight different sources of origin - from
Wales to Canton.
The dual character of contemporary cultural dynamics
Processes of globalisation and creolisation of culture, moreover,
are not intrinsically opposed to ethnic fragmentation, and indeed,
cultural creolisation or hybridisation can fruitfully be analysed
as complementary to ethnic revitalisation. Groups may become more
similar at the level of culture, lifestyle, worldview and so on,
while simultaneously strengthening their ethnic (social) boundaries
and vice versa (Blom 1969). Finally, the contemporary situation
of increased social scale in many societies and the introduction
of immensely efficient mass communication technology has led to
a vast increase in the sheer quantity of ethnic encounters. Where
groups could formerly live in a greater or lesser degree of isolation,
they are now increasingly brought into contact with each other.
They thereby become culturally more similar and, frequently, more
aware and more self-conscious of their differences. They start to
compete for the same scarce resources, and an ethnification of politics
frequently results (see e.g. Young 1993). Cultural homogenisation
may in this way inspire ethnic revitalisation.
These and similar general insights into the mechanisms of modern
ethnicity, many of them indebted to the perspectives developed in
Barth (1969), are very valuable, but they should not disable us
from seeing different and sometimes contradictory processes. A real
danger when the analytic focus is placed on ethnic revitalisation
is neglect of the far less spectacular, but often no less important
processes of cross-ethnic integration, which may also be an outcome
of cultural homogenisation (see e.g. Roosens 1989). I have therefore
chosen to focus on circumstances under which ethnic identities and
the reproduction of ethnic boundaries actually do become less socially
important, and have also indicated how the dissolution of ethnic
boundaries in some fields is intrinsically related to the upsurge
and revitalisation of ethnicity in others in the context of the
modern state and capitalist economic system. I have also argued
that it is by no means granted that the ethnification of politics
and identity is bound to win in the end in every society, and that
Mauritius may conceivably become a post-ethnic society in a couple
of generations - although, of course, it is impossible to predict
the outcome of this kind of complex identity proces. Nonetheless,
it is intellectually and politically important to make this point
at a time in history when ethnic determinism seems to have become
an important folk (and analytical!) model in many societies. By
focusing on central dimensions of the life-worlds of differently
positioned actors in a single society, I have argued that personal
experiences may indeed contradict ideologies and practices which
reproduce and strengthen ethnic boundary processes - and that the
long-term result may be a fundamental transformation of ethnic relations.
Despite the arguments against ethnic revitalisation on a large scale,
and despite institutional changes militating against a new strengthening
of ethnic organisation in Mauritius, experiences from other parts
of the world tell us that objective processes of homogenisation
and individualisation are not necessarily sufficient to level out
ethnic distinctions. From the analysis presented in this article
and elsewhere (Eriksen 1988, 1992a, 1994), a likely scenario for
Mauritian politics in the near future may depict it as a tension
along two axes: One axis divides the population in ethnic groups
with assumed opposed corporate interests. This is the classic plural
society model, which still holds good for the civil service, the
sugar industry and religion. The other axis, however, divides the
population between "cosmopolitans" and "locals";
between post-ethnic and ethnic principles of organisation and signification.
The non-ethnic fields include the new urban space of informal interaction
(such as shopping malls, fast food restaurants, discos, cafes and
clubs), the textile and tourism industries, and the educational
system. The media and party politics are at the crossroads between
the two logics. Individual life-worlds and social taxonomies may
draw on both sets of fields, but in some concrete situations, relating
to, for example, marriage and employment, persons may have to choose
between the two. If a sufficient number of Mauritians choose to
act on a non-ethnic basis (because such a world makes the most sense
to them), the accumulated outcome will be a fundamental change in
the organisation of Mauritian society. It is indeed difficult to
envision a society where, say, over half of the population are "ethnic
anomalies" of some kind or other, and where the cohesive and
divisive principles of ethnicity (kinship, shared origins, shared
ancestral culture) are still functioning for a majority of the population.
Such a change, which I have argued the possibility of, would be
comparable to the Copernican paradigm shift, where the number of
epicycles and anomalies became too large to handle within the existing
conceptual framework. A taxonomic system which is continuously contradicted
by experience cannot survive indefinitely.
The general points made here could be relevant for, and could indeed
be adapted to, many societies in the world. To mention but the most
obvious example in contemporary European identity politics: One
interpretation of the current war in southeastern Europe, which
is supported inter alia by intellectuals in cities like Zagreb,
Ljubljana, Belgrade and Sarajevo, is that the conflict is not really
an ethnic one, but should rather be seen as a conflict between an
ethnic political logic and a non-ethnic one. The conflict, seen
in this way, divides the people who justify the war through their
actions from those who oppose it. Similarly, it has often been remarked
in Mauritius that although the two main communalist political leaders
- one Hindu, one Creole - are bitter enemies, they are surprisingly
similar in their rhetoric and presentation of self.
It may also be a general point with respect to complex modern societies
that individualist career structures and the diminishing importance
of religion (both as religious content and as ethnic marker) are
necessary conditions for mixed marriages to be stable and successful.
However, they are not sufficient conditions. The situation in Mauritius
is currently characterised by a tension between ethnic and non-ethnic
forms of identification, but it is by no means certain that a logic
of social classification not based on metaphoric kinship (i.e. an
ethnic logic) will win in the long run. One insight from the last
thirty years of ethnic studies which remains valid and important,
is that ethnic symbolisation and organisation is incredibly malleable
and adaptable. However, we should be careful not to conclude that
the mere fact that ethnic categorisation and social organisation
may reappear at any time, means that it is bound to reappear. In
Mauritius, it is a real possibility that ethnicity as we know it
today will actually disappear in a few generations. This does not
mean that kinship, "race" and religion will be unimportant
in the classification of people, but that the categorical fluidity
which is already apparent, eventually will make it conceptually
and practically impossible to develop enduring corporate groups
and unambiguous myths of origin which reproduce the system of mutually
exclusive identity categories characteristic of the "plural
society". Instead, a variety of criteria will determine a person's
social position, and it may well happen that only a small minority
of Mauritians will be able to draw on metaphoric kinship (ethnicity)
for their group belongingness. Such a change would not, it should
be noted, be a direct product of bureaucratic rationalisation, but
would have to be accounted for by investigating the life-worlds
and experiences of actors. Ethnicity will become less important
only if a decreasing proportion of individual experiences lends
credibility to an ethnic taxonomy of the world. Thus, we should
be careful not to generalise about "Mauritians" from a
limited number of detailed cases. Their experiences differ systematically,
and although essentially non-ethnic life-worlds are spreading today
with urbanisation and globalisation, ethnic bases of identity and
social organisation remain strong in other life-worlds.
Thanks are due to Vinesh Y. Hookoomsing, Cora Govers and Hans Vermeulen
for their insightful and useful comments on an early version of
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