Sainte Marie - Nosy Boraha is the largest amongst the chain of small islands located at the east coast of Madagascar. The island had been known as Isola Santa Maria since the 16th century when it was discovered by the Portuguese. Following their custom, the discoverers gave the name of the saint of the day to the places where they disembarked. They named Madagascar Isola Santa Lorenzo and when they saw Nosy Boraha, they baptised it Isola Santa Maria, a name which was later Gallicised as Sainte Marie when the French settled there in the 17th century.
The island of Sainte Marie is rich in legends and anecdotes: One early story tells the tale of a man who while sailing in his pirogue was carried far away by a whale, then miraculously returned to the island by a dolphin, a legend reminiscent of the story of Jonas and the whale. Another presents the island as an ancient den of pirates and buccaneers from where such famous names as Nathaniel North, David Williams, Thomas Tew, La Buse and Plantain operated. By the beginning of the 18th century, it was rumored that with their innumerable crews their number reached over a thousand.
But it was also the love nest of princess Betia, daughter of the famous Betsimisaraka king Ratsimilaho, and of the French corporal Jean Onésime Filet - nicknamed "the winkle". The marriage of the couple instigated a major resounding event when, on her husband's insistence, the queen ceded her island to France which thus became French territory in 1750. However, the island was reintegrated with Madagascar upon the independence of the country.
Thanks to their names the other islands also carry the traces of these various moments of history: Ile aux Forbans (the Corsairs' Island) and the pirates' cemetery, immortalising the memories left by these ocean mercenaries; Ilot Madame, in honour of Madame, the daughter of King Louis XV. All this gives a charm to the island of Sainte Marie, adding to the natural beauty of its sites and beckoning visitors to immerse themselves in a not very distant past - only a few centuries separate us from these events.
The island of Sainte Marie may seem to have no vovation other than that of tourism because nature has so clearly contributed to its becoming a privileged destination; it is now third in the list of places to visit in Madagascar. Indeed, all the elements have come together to make it a prefered destination for holiday makers.
Sainte Marie offers a multiplicity of riches which deserve to be known. First of all there are the vestiges of the past, some four or five centuries old, each having a story to tell to the men of today: The cemeteries are sinister only by their name because they are now only monuments witnessing the dramatic past of this small island, the gravestones being there merely as decorations in the landscape, the Fort with its preserved remembrance of the old French East India Company is a souvenir of a glorious past.
But the island of Sainte Marie and its sister islets do not just represent the past. The present is embodied too in its fine sand, its beaches and its many creeks where holiday makers, fleeing from the mist and fogs at home, can tan themselves in the sun at will without being disturbed, whilst communicating with an omnipresent nature for these islands surrounded by water are quite simply a natural garden that the creator has gifted to mankind in order to preserve it: The great species of tropical trees, such as coconut, clove, flamboyant trees, jackfruit trees, travellers palms and perfumed plants such as vanilla, rare flowers such as anthuriums, grow in profusion, not only in uninhabitated areas but also around the villages. The wide variety of insects is a source of knowledge for researchers.
But tourism introduces the unfamiliar in every sense of the term and Sainte Marie can offer this at will because the sea is there rich in the products of the ocean costing a small fortune under other skies: Lobsters, crabs, oysters, mussels etc. that the chefs in the island's restaurants artfully serve with a coconut sauce.
But what has given a special cachet to Sainte Marie in recent years is the arrival of the humpback whales which come up from the Antarctic to this area during the mating season and give themselves up to unforgettable and very noisy frolicking. Each year from June to October they can be observed on the west coast of the island.
Text from "Passport for Madagascar" - July, August 2017 - 101st edition