Helen Morgan - Snapperup of unconsidered trifles

Speech given at the launch of Blue Mauritius

Friday, 20 October 2006, Blue Penny Museum, Port Louis

Blue Mauritius, blue ribbons

Thank you Alain for those kind words, and thank you everybody for coming along this evening to the launch of my book.

I first visited Mauritius six years ago with my Mauritian husband, mainly to meet my new extended Mauritian family - many of whom are here tonight - and to learn more about the country my husband came from. I'm an art historian by training and also a professional archivist, so have a keen interest in the visual and written record.

In the six weeks that I was here in early 2000 I visited the beach only once - I am not your typical tourist. There were not so many museums in Mauritius then as now - more my interest - and the main one at Mahebourg was closed for renovations. Thank goodness then for the Postal Museum!

Here I found the history of Mauritius displayed in miniature on the walls - a lot can be learnt about a country by what it chooses to commemorate on its stamps. But what also intrigued me was a small display on the first stamps of Mauritius, from 1847, the Post Office issue. What really fascinated me was the story of the French schoolboy, who had discovered three of these stamps 100 years earlier from an inspired piece of rummaging, it is said, through his family's business archives. Archives! That magical word! When I returned to Australia and started investigating the Post Office stamps I learnt that their story had been well known around the world in the 19th century and at least a good half of the 20th, although it seemed to me that outside of Mauritius itself, and Germany - for most Germans know about die Blaue Mauritius - and a confined circle of philatelists. The story of the Post Office stamps had faded somewhat from popular memory.

This and the fact that parts of the story as recorded didn't seem to add up to me were enough to get me hooked on finding out more, so I began working on this project to revisit the Post Office story for a general audience and hoped to find something new for philatelists too.

One of my tasks as an historian was to test the assertions of previous writers, to sort the fact from the fiction - but not necessarily to denigrate the myths around the Post Office stamps, because they are an important part of the story too. Half of the Post Office stamps in existence, including the two fine specimens here at the Blue Penny Museum, were found by one woman, Madame Borchard in Bordeaux. Nobody had done any work on her, so this was one important area I investigated - the commercial relations between Bordeaux, the Borchards and Mauritius in the 1840s. The earliest biographer of the stamps, the Belgian dealer Moens in 1899, criticised Madame Borchard for being careless when she removed the stamps from the letters, and for not keeping one or two herself. But I discovered, through the Bordeaux census, that when her husband died in 1869 and she had quickly to sort through all the family's business records before moving, she had at least five children to look after. Nobody with five children has time to worry about stamps! These are the human stories I enjoyed uncovering in my research.

An interesting discovery I made relates to the small copper plate used to print the Post Office stamps. Where do you think it would be found? In the possession of the Mauritius Government of course, perhaps in the Archives? No. It was found in private hands in London in 1912. It changed hands several times, before disappearing in the 1930s. Its whereabouts are now unknown. When I visited the Royal Philatelic Society in London, I uncovered there a copy of a report of an enquiry into the disappearance of the plate from Mauritius, set up by the Mauritius Government in 1914. This introduced a whole new cast of characters to the Post Office story, including some potentially dubious postal employees who may have stolen the plate. But the enquiry finished on an unsatisfactory note, unable to determine how the plate ended up in London, and the Mauritius Government never retrieved its property. It will be interesting to see what happens if the plate ever surfaces again. It should be returned to its rightful owner - the government and people of Mauritius.

The existence of the plate and uncertainty about when it was actually discovered (a date as early as 1892 was given in the enquiry report), plus the enormous value of these stamps naturally raises the question of forgery. I learnt during my research that there were rumours about at least four of the Post Office stamps being forgeries, but nobody had been willing to state this publically, only in private correspondence. I couldn't ignore this, so devoted a chapter, called Million Dollar Questions, to dealing with this. Because I have not, nor indeed has anybody, personally examined all the Post Office stamps, it is impossible to be conclusive about the issue of forgery. But the question has now been raised.

I was recently in London and there met Monaf Fakira, formerly mayor of Port Louis. He'd read my book and asked me what I hoped the book would achieve. I had to think for a moment - no one had asked me that question before. I tried in the book to give the reader a sense of what Mauritius in 1847 had been like. My own sense of this had been derived from reading contemporary travel narratives, mostly in English, some in French, and from immersing myself in the newspapers of the time - Le Cerneen, Le Mauricien and The Mauritius Times. And not only contemporary accounts. Michael Malim's book The Island of the Swan, written in the 1940s, helped give me an insight into Mauritius now and then. Much of this research I was able to do in Australia, where the National Library of Australia holds a magnificent collection of books and pamphlets in its Mauritius collection, acquired from a Mauritian bibliophile in the 1960s. Up to 20% of this collection is missing from Mauritius's own National Library. Indeed, the library in Australia even holds the personal bound copy of The Mauritius Times once owned by Lady Gomm - so famous in relation to the Post Office stamps. Other research I did here in Mauritius at the National Archives and National Library, using the primary sources of original records and newspapers. There is an extensive notes and sources section in my book documenting this.

My hope foremost for the book is that people enjoy it, but what I hope the book achieves, to answer the question posed me, is an increased awareness of the wonderful and fascinating history of Mauritius, and the sources that make discovering that history and writing books like this possible. There is a wealth of material in Mauritius in the holdings of its museums and particularly at the National Archives and National Library. I hope that this material will become increasingly valued, used and accessible, and that more stories about Mauritius will be told, that the collections don't go the way of so much of Mauritius's built heritage - replaced by soulless concrete, lost to the future.

In closing, I would like to thank Alain Huron and the Blue Penny Museum for organising this launch. I could think of no better place for it. I love this museum! I love the views of Port Louis in the 19th century, I love the stamps, and encourage you to visit the exhibits later upstairs. I would also like to thank Mico Antoine and Patrick Kwan Cheung from the Mauritius Philatelic Society for unfailing support and unflagging enthusiasm for this project. Staff at the National Archives and National Library of Mauritius were also most helpful. I would also like to thank Christian le Comte for his enthusiastic response to my book and for taking on the task of distributing it in Mauritius.

Finally, although he was not able to come with me to Mauritius on this occasion, I would like to thank my husband, Mike Pursad. Had I not met Mike, I would never have come to know and love Mauritius - or to taste my mother-in-law's wonderful ton vindaye - and I would not have written this book. In particular I thank him for willingly spending time on my behalf on his visit here in 2004 at the archives and library in Port Louis, when he could have been at the beach!