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, starting in 1958, 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, curiouslooking 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