A bit of history

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My good friend Alex in Madagascar looks after the British War Cemetery in Diego Suarez, which unsurprisingly, therefore, is immaculate. Buried there are the soldiers who died liberating Madagascar from the French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in May 1942, an episode I wasn’t even aware of till I visited. You might think this is surprising, since the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was anchored nearby to provide support, and on it was my dad. But like many of his generation, he didn’t speak much about the war, and Diego Suarez, though important, was one among several engagements in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Nor did he actually land in Diego, as he was a Telegraphist Air Gunner and despite the loss of a couple of aircraft, aerial combat itself was not extensive. Just as well perhaps – instead of hearing me tell his story, Alex might have been looking after his grave. Walking round Diego today, it’s difficult to imagine how strategically important it was back then – but a visit to the cemetery brings a sombre reminder.

Previous operations in Africa involving the Free French forces having not gone well, de Gaulle wasn’t informed of the attack on Diego – a slight which had lasting repercussions on his later dealings with Britain and America.The whole of Madagascar didn’t come under Allied control until November. Administration was then returned to the Free French, but the events of the war loosened their grip over the country, and in 1947 the Malagasy were emboldened to rebel. Their bid for independence was brutally crushed, with an estimated 30,000 dead. While the wars of independence in Algeria and Indo-China have received a lot of attention, the Malagasy uprising has been practically airbrushed out of French History. Strange, n’est-ce pas?

Thursday Interview: Deirdre Dodo

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Dodo as drawn by the naturalist Miscellany (1793) http://www.sommeil-mg.net/

– Well, I interviewed Dead Rat a while ago and he was pretty dead, but you’re much deader, Deirdre. Dead as a dodo, in fact. How did it happen?

– Dutch.

– I’m sorry?

– They ate us all. There we were in Mauritius, 17th century, bothering no one, along come the Dutch and eat us. Mass genocide. We never stood a chance. Space of a few decades, we’re gone. They didn’t even bother to stick around after that, went to South Africa instead. Mauritius wasn’t interesting enough, they thought. Well, of course not! Not once we’d all been eaten.

– You say you didn’t stand a chance. Why was that?

– OK, partly our fault, I’ll admit. We never learnt to fly – couldn’t see the point. Had everything we needed on the ground, no predators – why bother with something as strenuous as flying? We weren’t that much into working out either so the BMI was way off the scale – the biggest among us were 20kgs. That’s a lot of meat.

– Which the Dutch apparently appreciated.

– We weren’t even afraid at first. Went up to them thinking, ‘Hey ho, here’s something interesting, first time we’ve ever seen one of those.’ Up till then we’d had the place pretty much to ourselves. So we were hospitable, you know? Sent out a welcome delegation offering to show them around and then wham! The whole delegation’s been decapitated. After that it was sheer pandemonium, the rest of us scattering in all directions looking for somewhere to hide. But they weren’t in any hurry to come after us, they knew we had nowhere to go. A bunch of us went south and launched themselves from the top of the cliffs in a last ditch attempt to learn to fly. Soon there were bodies strewn all over the rocks but others kept on trying, hoping they might succeed where everyone else had failed. And then some tried to swim to safety but that was doomed as well. The rest of us hid in the forest till we were caught. We desperately tried to get those wings to work, but by then it was too late.

– You’re far from alone, of course, if that’s any consolation.

– Meagre. It would be nice to think our disappearance served a purpose but I don’t even think it did. Biodiversity’s shrinking now even faster. Latest high profile victim’s the Northern White Rhinoceros. Not a snowball’s chance in hell, I’m afraid. Before very long there’ll be nothing left but Dutchmen.

– We do have lots of other nationalities, you know. It’s just that the Dutch happened to be the first to land in Mauritius.

– Yeah, I know. Some say the French or English would have done just the same. But I just can’t help it, I still have this lingering resentment towards the Dutch. I mean, they’ve never even recognised the genocide. I was really pleased when they got knocked out of the last World Cup.