TEXT AND IMAGES BY ROLAND HANEWALD (GERMANY)
Few would expect to find a flourishing ship modelling industry located in a far-flung corner of the southern Indian Ocean. Yet, in Mauritius, the craft has a long tradition in a region where, during the late1590s, Dutch, French and British seafarers wrangled over the possession of that rather diminutive piece of terra firma.
And what the industry there manages to turn out is truly remarkable. The miniature ships are built with the greatest attention to detail. They find buyers from all over the world, primarily in France and Britain, but also in Germany, Italy, Russia and even China. Typically for Mauritius, a fairly inexpensive country by comparison to begin with, prices are within acceptable limits, which of course contributes to the popularity of the models launched there.
Ship modellers may be found all over the island, but the centre of the trade is in the provincial town of Curepipe, near the capital Port Louis. in Curepipe, which nicely translates as “pipe cleaner”, the Bobato (derived from the French for beaux bateaux, beautiful ships) company is the leading enterprise.
Officially, the business calls itself “La Flotte”, which sounds more distinguished. At 53A Sir John Pope Hennessy Street, owner and director Kadrass Soobaroyen, and his charming wife Priscilla, both, like most Mauritians, of Indian descent proudly exhibit a well-appointed workshop and many square yards of showrooms crammed with ship models.
For anyone interested, the shop may be reached by foot within half an hour of the central bus station. (Mauritius has an excellent network of bus lines reliably connecting all places in the island and obviating any need to rent a car). Bobato has been building models for the past twenty years, and presently employs eighteen people. Three work in an internal foundry producing, among other items, curious looking wheels out of zinc ingots and, at a lathe, miniature brass cannon - which may be bought individually by clients. Twelve men and women are tasked with the actual construction of the ships, from keelson to masthead. Three others handle customer services, which keeps them welloccupied, for business is brisk.
Bossman Kadress mentions, not without satisfaction, that the ships are built exactly to the original construction plans obtained from the Paris Maritime Museum. Occasionally customers will bring their own plans, which will naturally be accorded the same treatment care and a painstaking effort to maintain authenticity. And sometimes Bobato may go its own way, such as rebuilding the “Unicorn” (French, “La Licorne”) of the famous Tintin comic series, tracking artist Hergé’s drawings by the tiniest fraction of an inch, including Captain Haddock, in zinc. Tintin and the “Unicorn” also constitute the Bobato company logo, prominently displayed overlooking Hennessy Street. It’s most enjoyable to saunter through the wellstocked showrooms to view the countless models, all of which deserve the name beau bateau. Naturally, Kadress Soobaroyen takes great pride guiding his foreign visitors through the workshops, where politely smiling men and women beaver away, perhaps laying out one of the bateaux on the stocks, or attending to some complicated rigging jobs. The long, practical experience has led to an uncanny sureness in the building process, resulting in fast, clean and accurate work.
The author was fascinated mainly by those zinc wheels emerging from the smelter, looking like bicycle parts at first glance, until Kadress explained their purpose. The wheels are actually composed of small objects, including figures of seamen, arranged in a circle from which they could be broken out and installed in the models. All of that was described in fluent French. Whilst Mauritius’ other official language is English, most islanders prefer to speak French or Créole, a terribly garbled patois which even a Parisian might not understand.
It should be mentioned that Curepipe, located at about 1700 feet elevation, is the island’s highest situated town. This results in a pleasant climate, though a lot of rain can fall during the monsoon from October to January. And how does one get to Mauritius? From London and other major European airports, in some cases non-stop. Be prepared, then, to sit for at least ten hours in the box. But ample compensation would await you on arrival in the form of very friendly natives, beautiful beaches, mild breezes and accommodation that is generally more affordable than in merry old England. And perhaps a beau bateau in your baggage upon return? Rest assured that the Curepipers will see to it that it’s packed in an absolutely plane-proof fashion.