Werewolves and warning signs: Cultural responses to tropical cyclones in Mauritius
The role that culture plays in the way different groups experience, respond to, and recover from disasters has been widely discussed. Yet, while there is a considerable (and growing) literature of case study evidence for the need to account for culture in disasters, comparatively few studies take a long-term perspective on cultural interactions with disasters, resulting in a lack of exploration into the diachronic nature of these cultural responses, both past and present. The literature that does exist tends also to focus either on western cultures or on groups that pursue highly traditional livelihoods. Communities that call on elements of both local or vernacular knowledge and scientific or external knowledge are underrepresented.
This article presents an examination of cultural responses to tropical cyclones on Mauritius Island in the South West Indian Ocean over the long-term. We combine historical archive and contemporary interview data to uncover an extensive history of cultural responses to cyclones in Mauritius, including revealing the use of local knowledge, early warning signs, and superstitions surrounding cyclones in early Mauritian history and today.
Our research refutes the portrayal of isolated ‘episodes’ of cultural responses to cyclones, such as the reports of ‘mass hysteria’ following tropical cyclone Hollanda in February 1994, when a considerable proportion of Mauritians believed that a werewolf or loup garou was terrorising villagers. Whilst this experience has been portrayed – both at the time and currently – as an embarrassing and one-off incident, we show that this is rather part of a long pattern of cultural responses to tropical cyclones. Our results therefore have implications for how cyclones and disasters are understood and experienced.