The Island of Mauritius has a rich history and a culture that has been created by the mixing of many different races and creeds. Mauritius is part of the Republic of Mauritius which nation lies in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Africa, with the island of Madagascar sitting 900 kilometers to its west. Other islands in the Republic include Rodrigues, the Agalega Islands, and Cargados Carajos.
The Discovery of Mauritius
As with many smaller islands, it is not exactly clear when Mauritius was first discovered. The major countries of the time often named and islands and their geographical features, but did not always mark these on official maps. The evidence of its existence was on an Italian map produced by Alberto Cantino. This map, created in 1502, shows three islands named Dina Harobi, Dina Morare, and Dina Margabin which many think represent the Mascarenes, a group of islands that includes Mauritius and Rodrigues. It is thought by many that the island was first discovered by Arabs who gave it the original name of Dina Harobi.
The island was then discovered again in 1507 by the Portuguese who had been thrown off course by a cyclone during a mission to explore the Gulf of Bengal. Five years later, Dom Pedro de Mascarenhas visited the group of islands, giving the region its present day name, Mascarene. Otherwise, the Portuguese were uninterested in the remote islands, so no colony was created at this time, leaving Mauritius as of yet uncolonized.
The year 1598 saw the Dutch discover the islands, yet another victim of bad weather and being forced off course. The island was dubbed "Prins Maurits van Nassaueiland" in honor of Prince Maurits of the House of Nassau who was the stadholder of Holland. The sheltered bay that the Dutch happened upon was named "Port de Warwick", and it was used for many years by the Dutch to rest after long months traveling on the sea. This port is now known as Grand Port though a permanent Dutch colony was not established here for quite some time. In 1606, the Dutch came upon a bay in the northwest part of the island that contained a great many terrestrial tortoises, leading the dutch to name it "Rade des Tortues", or Harbor of the Tortoises. From that day, the Dutch began using "Rade des Tortues" instead of "Port de Warwick", right up until the death by shipwrecking of governor Pieter Both who was returning from India in 1615, causing the Dutch to avoid entire route as much as they could, now believing it to be cursed.
The Dutch Colonization of Mauritius
The Dutch decided to colonize the island in 1638 with Cornelius Gooyer being appointed the first governor of Mauritius. Gooyer was to develop the island for commerce but failed, supposedly due to lack of trying, and was recalled to the Netherlands. His replacement, Adriaan van der Stel, developed exportation of Ebony bark with the help of 105 slaves from Madagascar. In the very first week, however, more than half were able to escape into the forests of Mauritius with only a fraction of them being recaptured.
Delayed supplies from the Netherlands, in addition to cyclones and bad harvests caused many hardships on the island in 1644. The colonists were forced to rely only upon themselves, surviving by hunting and fishing. Van der Stel was still able to secure an additional 95 slaves before he was transferred to Ceylon, even though conditions on the island were less than optimal. Jacob Van der Meersh, his replacement, brought even more slaves to the island in 1645 before himself leaving and being replaced by Reinier Por in September 1648.
By 1652, the rough island life had taken its toll on both the Dutch and their slaves, and the total population was only around a hundred people. 1658 saw the Dutch give up Mauritius, officially ending the first attempt at Dutch colonization in failure. The second attempt, made in 1664, was even shorter as the commander of the expedition fell sick and, abandoned by his men, died of his illness, leaving the young settlement without leadership.
In 1666, the Dutch returned to the island of Mauritia, establishing a new colony at Grand Port on the southeastern coast. This colony's main goal was the cutting and exportation of Ebony trees and was administered by Dirk Jansz Smient. George Frederik Wreeden replaced him when he left, but later drowned while on a reconnaissance mission along with a few other islanders. Hubert Hugo, the third administrator of this new colony, was a bit of a visionary who dreamed of making Mauritia into an a colony of agriculture. Hugo, however, was replaced by Isaac Johannes Lamotius in 1677 by superiors who did not share his vision. Various other governors game and went over the years until the Dutch again abandoned Mauritia in 1710 due to the hardships of pests, cattle illnesses, droughts, and cyclones.
The first to truly colonize Mauritia, the Dutch are credited for providing the name for both the country and various regions around the island. They also introduced sugar cane plants, destroyed the population of giant tortoise's for food, and hunted the dodo bird, found only on Mauritius, to extinction. They also cleared large parts of the forest in the exploitation of Ebony bark.
The city of Mahébourg, originally known as Grand Port, lives on today as the capital of the Grand Port District, as it was resurrected by the French around 1806. Its population was reported as 15,753 in 2000.
The French Colonization of Mauritius
In September of 1715, the French decided to take the island and name it "Isle de France". However, it was not until 1721 that the French, in the form of the French East India Company, actually moved in, and 1735 before the island saw effective development under the guidance of Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais, a French administrator and naval officer under the employ of the French East India Company. Primary exports included coffee, indigo, manioc, sugar, and cotton. Their colony, located in northwest Mauritius, was dubbed Port Louis after the then King Louis XV and was established as a shipbuilding center and naval base with much of the city's structures having been constructed by craftsmen native to Tamil Nadu, India. The island was owned by the French East Indian Company and was the primary stopover for French vessels traveling to the East Indies. Although the French East India Company had been granted the privilege of retaining any colony it created or any territory it could conquer by the French government, Mauritius and nearby Réunion were its only real and lasting successes. The sugar plantations became very successful, largely on the backs the imported slaves who worked under extremely harsh conditions. The island was controlled by the French East India Company until 1767 with the company itself being dissolved by the French government two years later.
Various officials appointed by the government of France were in charge of the island until 1810, except when the inhabitants briefly created an independent government in the chaos of the French Revolution. The "Isle de France" was used as a base for raiding British commercial ships during the Napoleonic wars, which were a continuation of the French Revolutionary wars that began in 1789. These raids were put to an end when the British, after first failing to capture the island in August 1810, managed to gain control with an attack in the north from the recently conquered nearby island of Rodrigues. Mauritius, along with Rodrigues, was officially ceded to Great Britain, who made promises to respect the traditions, customs, laws, and language of the inhabitants, by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. The battle at Grand Port in 1810 would be remembered as the only French naval victory in the Napoleonic wars which, ironically, led to Britain becoming a world power, as well as the downfall of both the Roman and Spanish empires.
Though the French were not the first to colonize Mauritius, they are the base of the current cultural fusion that exists on the island, as the Dutch left little but ruins and less native resources. Today, Port Louis, which sits on the Indian Ocean and houses over 147,000 as of 2003, is the current capital and largest port of Mauritius. It is also the capital of the District of Port Louis. It is by far the busiest city in the island nation though there is only one motorway in and out. Many of the buildings that Mahé de La Bourdonnais had built still stand today with examples including the Line Barracks and the Chateau de Mon Plaisir at Pamplemousses. To this day, the French still account for two percent of the population of Mauritius. The descendants of those from Africa and Madagascar, who were brought to the island by the French as slaves and are now known as Mauritian Creoles, make up 27% of the population. The last few decades have seen massive changes in the city of Port Louis as many new buildings have been built, including some of the few skyscrapers to be found on any African island.
Mauritius Under British Rule
The Treaty of Paris in 1814 solidified British control over the island though the Napoleonic code of law was maintained until 1825 when a Council of Government was introduced with all members being appointed. The island remained largely unchanged until 1834, which saw the true beginning of British administration. The first British governor of Mauritia promptly abolished slavery in 1835 and, though the plantation owners were compensated for their losses, the sugar industry, which was already enduring hardships due to low sugar prices, suffered even further.
Malagasy, Chinese, African, and Malay immigrants arrived after slavery was abolished and worked as indentured servants, largely to the sugar plantations. The largest group of immigrants, however, were from India, who now identified themselves as Indo-Mauritians. The term “Coolie” was applied to those who were indentured, and has since become a derogatory term to any Mauritian of Asian descent. At this point, the French descendants, or Franco-Mauritians, still controlled the banking, business, and sugar plantations of the island. Soon, however, the Indian population began to overtake them in numbers, and the political power shifted to them from the Franco-Mauritians and the Creoles, who were considered their allies.
In the 1920s there were many conflicts between the Indians and the Franco-Mauritians leading to the founding of the Mauritians Labour Party who were eventually able to democratically remove those of French descent from power for the first time.
Today, the Indian population still holds the majority at 68% of all Mauritians. Though small in number in comparison, the Chinese also make up a significant 3% of the population while the other indentured workers blended with the Creoles.
In 1968, Mauritia won their independence from Great Britain, becoming its own separate country.
After a failed attempt in 1991, the Republic of Mauritia was established in 1992 with Cassam Uteem as president and in 2001, Sir Anerood Jugnauth was elected president with Navin Ramgoolam serving as prime minister.
The republic holds over 1.2 million people as of 2009 and is considered to be the best governed country in Africa by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance which measures such factors as safety, human rights, economic development, and the corruption and transparency of the government. Though their official language is English, many Mauritians also speak French as well as Mauritian Creole, a fusion of various different tongues. The mixture of Indian, Chinese, Creole and French on the island create a unique culture that can only be described as Mauritian.