History of Mauritius
Tucked off the south-eastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean lies the tiny island of Mauritius, one of the three Mascarene islands.
Bestowed with long stretches of white sandy beaches, turquoise blue sea, and rolling verdant valleys in the south, Mauritius is a much sought-after destination among beach and nature lovers. But what makes it even more appealing is its diverse culture which one can experience when visiting it. Just strolling across the streets, you can spot a Hindu temple, a mosque, a church, or even a pagoda. Its 1.2 million population are descendants of the indentured labourers, slaves, and European settlers that once came here.
Discovery by Arabs
Back in the ancient time, Mauritius is thought to be visited by the Arab sailors during the Middle Ages, as, on an old map dating from 1500, the island was known under the name ‘Dina Arobi’. But thanks to the discovery of a shipwreck by the Dutch who came here after the Portuguese, some historians (Barnwell and Toussaint) argued that the island was probably visited by Phoenician traders. And one of the reasons is the discovery of many heavy wax tablets from that ship. Interestingly, there were some unknown inscriptions on them.
Dutch colonisation (1598-1710)
The first Dutch expedition was in 1598 whereby five Dutch ships sailed on the south-eastern shore of Mauritius at Grand Port by chance. They landed under the order of Admiral Van Warwyck and named the island Prins Maurits van Nassaueiland, and eventually Mauritius. The Dutch used Vieux Grand Port (also known as Port de Warwick) as their stopover for several months, but in 1606 used Port-Louis (the current capital) as their main harbor. The Dutch colonized the island from 1638 till 1710. One of the main reasons to colonise the island was to prevent the French and British supremacy in the region.
During the Dutch colonisation period, the island faced various devastating cyclones and droughts. The Dutch had to rely on the available food on the island, especially the famous Dodo bird which they ate for survival. Historical records suggest that the last Dodo was killed in 1681. They also exploited natural resources such as the ebony tree to build ships and planted sugar cane. For these purposes, they brought 105 Malagasy slaves to the island. Unfortunately, due to many discouraging factors including famine and diseases, the Dutch chose to abandon the island.
French colonisation (1715-1810)
After the departure of the Dutch, the French took over Mauritius in September 1715. It was Guillaume Dufresne D'Arsel who named the island as ‘Isle de France’. In 1735 the French governor Mahé de La Bourdonnais came to develop the island and established Port Louis as a naval base and a shipbuilding center. He further ordered the construction of several historical structures such as the Government House, the Chateau de Mon Plaisir at Pamplemousses, and the Line Barracks which still remained today. During the French colonisation of Mauritius slaves from Africa and Madagascar were brought to work as slaves, artisans, and sailors. The island of Mauritius became a strategic base to the French during the Napoleonic wars as from here they organised successful raids on the British commercial ships until 1810, whereby a British expedition was sent to capture the island.
British colonisation (1810-1968)
One of the great historical battles fought in Mauritius between two powerful colonisers, notably between the French Navy and the British Royal Navy. The battle was fought between the 20th to 27th of August in 1810 over the possession of the Grand Port harbor during the Napoleonic Wars. Both parties suffered enormously. Several of the ships were destroyed but the British Royal Navy faced the worst and was defeated. Archaeological artifacts of the battle can still be seen at the Mahebourg Historical Naval Museum.
Of course, the British didn’t accept the defeat that easily and hence they reinforced their squadron on Ile Bourbon (Reunion Island) under Josias Rowley. And in December 1810, under the command of Admiral Albemarle Bertie, the island of Mauritius was invaded and captured. And their possession of the island was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1814, but French institutions like the Napoleonic Code of the law were maintained, and the French language was more widely used than English.
During the British rule, slavery was abolished, and indentured laborers from India were brought to work in the sugarcane plantation, while immigrants from China were brought to work as traders. Visitors can visit the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis to learn more about these indentured labourers.
Towards an independent Mauritius
Mauritius during British rule had a diverse population of people from various countries including India, Africa, China, and Europe. People from different communities would rub shoulders together just like poet Khal Torabully would term it ‘coolitude’. After a conflict arose between the Indian community and the Franco-Mauritians in the 1920s, the Mauritius Labour Party emerged. Followed by the creation of other political groups. With the newly created Legislative Council in 1947 marked Mauritius’s first step toward self-rule. On 12 March 1968 Mauritius got its independence with Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam as its first prime minister.
Today Mauritius has a rich cultural and historical legacy thanks to its diverse population. From the fusion cuisine to the creation of the mother tongue Creole, Mauritius has indeed paved a long way. Visitors can pay homage to some of the historical sites such as the Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis to learn more about the indentured labourers and their struggle. Le Morne Brabant is another significant site in Mauritian history, where the iconic mountain was once used as a shelter by the runaway slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both sites are listed under the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visitors who wish to learn about the colonial battles can consider visiting the Mahebourg Historical Naval Museum, while those who are interested in the famed Dodo and the geology of Mauritius can visit the Natural History Museum in Port Louis.