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The railways and the sugar industry

BREEJAN & PEARLISHKA BURRUN

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“The sugar estates have had great influence on the transport systems of the island. Originally sugar was often brought round the coast to Port Louis by boat, particularly from such places as Souillac on the south coast. Mules formed an overland method of carrying the sugar. Later came the railways, set by engineers from Britain in the 1860s.

1.Old sugarcane train with its load moving to the sugar factory.

The fate of the sugar industry loomed large in the policy framed towards the middle of the nineteenth century to equip Mauritius with a railway network. In fact, the major factor that was at the very basis of surveys conducted to determine the viability of the railway in the island, was related to the need to improve, for the very survival of the sugar industry, the transportation of sugar towards Port Louis harbour. « It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that men of Mauritius turned their minds to the benefits of a railway system for the country. There is no doubt that the primary motive inspiring investigations into the possibilities of building a railway in Mauritius was the vital necessity to improve the means of getting the sugar crop down to Port Louis..”(1)

It is worthwhile to observe that the sugar industry has had a great bearing on the development of transport in general on the island. “The sugar estates have had great influence on the transport systems of the island. Originally sugar was often brought round the coast to Port Louis by boat, particularly from such places as Souillac on the south coast. Mules formed an overland method of carrying the sugar. Later came the railways, set by engineers from Britain in the 1860s. The eventual system comprised lines radiating from Port Louis to the heart of the island. From the main lines the sugar estates ran their own small railways between the rows of cane, tracks which can still be seen even today…”(2)

In practice, the transportation of sugar was then confronted to two major constraints: the sugar factories were scattered throughout the island and the existing means of transport were laborious and slow. The transportation of sugar to the harbour was to a large extent dependent on carts pulled by mules and horses. That was not an easy task for the sugar producers who had to ensure that the 125 000 tons of sugar manufactured were sent in time to Port Louis harbour. “At the time there were 262 sugar estates producing annually a crop of 125 000 tons. These estates were widely scattered and depended upon a laborious system of mule and horse cart transport over roads that were certainly not first class.”(1)

Carriages, carts, mules and horses for transport

The island possessed a fleet of about 4 500 carriages and carts, 4 000 mules and 2 000 horses for the transport of passengers and goods. Obviously, this was quite insufficient in an economic context marked by an increase in trade in general and sugar production in particular. « Vers 1850, il existait à Maurice environ 4 500 voitures et charrettes ainsi que 4 000 mules et 2 000 chevaux pour le transport des passagers et des marchandises et cela s’avérait insuffisant avec l’accroissement rapide du commerce en général et de la production sucrière en particulier. »(3)

Definitely the introduction of railways contributed to a large extent towards the improvement of transportation of sugar from the mills to the harbour. This was a vital improvement when it is considered in the light of the fact that the volume of sugar had to be conveyed to the port in a period of not more than four months. “The Railway has to carry the yearly sugar crop within a short period of 100 to 120 days.”(4) This feat has been qualified as “quite remarkable”. A.J.F. Burning wrote:

“The operation of carrying the sugar crop in the compressed period is one which is quite remarkable for any form of transport. Admittedly the distances are comparatively short but the tonnages are very high and in the interests of the sugar industry, in order to save double handling, the Railway supplies wagons at the sugar factories in direct relation to the sugar as it is milled.”(Ibid)

The Railway, a necessary booster

for the Mauritian economy

Towards 1950 the volume of sugar transported by train rose up to 450 000 tons. No doubt the then existing road transport would not have been able to handle such a voluminous tonnage. “This very considerable tonnage compressed into the short season of movement places a most unusual burden upon transport, this burden the Railway bears to the satisfaction of the sugar industry and it is perfectly clear that it could not possibly be borne by road transport until at least both the road system and the organization and operation of road transport within Mauritius has been completely revolutionized and organized upon sound lines.”

2.A restored narrow-gauge locomotive that once pulled sugar cane trains. Exhibited in Casela Bird Park, Cascavelle.

It is quite obvious that the railway network has been instrumental in the expansion of the sugar industry, and has allowed the island to earn more foreign currencies in this respect, thus giving a boost to the Mauritian economy. That the railway would contribute towards a boost up of the Mauritian economy, was a fact which had been recognized even before the network was established on the island in the 1860’s. Not only the transportation of sugar but also of sugarcane as well as “vegetables and other produce for daily consumption” (5) would be ensured once the railway would be operational.

While projections for the railway were made for the Northern Line and its Branch, a return from the Colonial Secretary’s Office indicated that in those regions 2, 385 Indians were engaged in agricultural and milk production. “It becomes easy, therefore, to estimate what immense advantages would be afforded to all classes in these districts by Railway communication, inasmuch as their produce could be brought into town much cheaper, in a shorter time and in a better condition.”(Ibid)

References

1. Jessop, Arthur, ‘A History of the Mauritius Government Railways: 1864 to 1964”, 27 pages, Government Printing, Port Louis, Ile Maurice, octobre 1964.

2.Wright, Carol, ‘Mauritius’, 179 pages, 1re édition, 1974, Latimer Trend & Cie, Grande-Bretagne.

3.Paturau, J. Maurice, ‘Histoire économique de l’Ile Maurice’, 304 pages, août 1988, Henry & Cie Ltée, Pailles.

4.Bunning, A,J.F., Report on a visit in Mauritius for the future of the Mauritius Government Railways, 29 pages, Juin 1950, Port-Louis.

5.Morris, James, “Mauritius and the Mauritian Railway”, 1857, L. Channell.

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