Origins – a unique paradise
The island of Mauritius was formed some 12 million years ago due
to volcanic activity on the submerged Mascarenes plateau. Isolated
from mainland Africa, the flora and fauna that found its way to
the island evolved into numerous unique species. With lush vegetation,
dense ebony forests and no mammals except bats, it was paradise
for the giant tortoises, dodos and other birds that were its primary
First discoverers (before 1500)
The island was known to Arabian sailors a thousand years ago and
may even have been discovered by ancient Phoenician seafarers as
early as the 5th century BC. The first Europeans to discover the
island were the Portugese in 1500 who laid claim to the island.
It later passed into Spanish possession, but it wasn’t until
the Dutch landed in 1598 that Mauritius’ treasures were exploited.
Rape by the Dutch (1598-1710)
It was in honour of Prince Maurice of Nassau, the President of
the Dutch Republic, that Mauritius gained its current name. The
Dutch East India Company initially used the island as a stopover
to and from India via the southern tip of Africa. In 1638 the first
colonists arrived and introduced the first slaves in 1645 from Madagascar.
The island was briefly abandoned in 1658 after the Dutch had depleted
the island of its valuable ebony forests.
The Dutch returned in 1664 and by 1670 the dodo was on the verge
of extinction. They also massacred tortoises, turtles and sea-cows
in huge numbers. In 1710 the Dutch finally abandoned the island,
but already the original virgin paradise was lost forever.
A Strategic Base for the French (1715-1810)
The French took possession of Mauritius in 1715, named it Isle
de France and began to settle here in 1721. Before that time,
Mauritius continued to be a stopover for pirates preying on the
trade between Europe and the orient. Many treasure hunters have
since scoured the island for the fortunes supposedly buried here.
Under the administration of the French East India Company, the
foundation of the current multi-ethnic population was laid with the
introduction of European colonists and slaves from Madagascar, Africa
and India. Unlike the Dutch, the French colonisation was successful,
if difficult, but marred by the brutal treatment of the slaves who
frequently escaped, formed groups and attacked the colonists.
The French aim was to use Isle de France as a military and supply
base to challenge British supremacy in the Indian Ocean. However,
it wasn’t until the arrival of the Mahé de la Bourdonnais
in 1735 that this goal was to be realised. The most successful Governor
the island has ever known, he also encouraged entrepreneurship,
finally brought prosperity to the beleaguered colony with the importation
of thousands of slaves and transformed Port Louis from a small camp
into a thriving capital. He had greater visions for the island,
but the company was not prepared to make the necessary investments.
Soon afterwards Creole, the lingua franca of the slave trade, proliferated
and the Creole population, those slaves born on the island often
of mixed ancestory, emerged.
In 1767 the company went bankrupt and the royal government took
control of Isle de France with Pierre Poivre heading the administration.
He conscientiously tried to protect natural resources by limiting
hunting, fishing and deforestation, and created the famous Jardin
des Pamplemousses to preserve endangered species and propagate commercial
ones. Unhappy with the practice of slavery, he was powerless to
stop it and instead sought to end the ill-treatment of slaves.
From 1767 to 1807, the white population of the island doubled whereas
the number of slaves more than quadrupled to 65,000 such that they
outnumbered their masters 10 to 1. This was despite frequent wars
between Britain and France that limited the slave trade. The free-coloured
population also out-grew the whites and finally outnumbered them
in 1808. Isle de France became a significant military staging post
and supplied troops for the war in India. However, the French were
unable to secure a decisive victory over the British in contrast
to achievements while assisting the Americans in their War of Independence
from 1778 to 1783. Greater success and profit were gained by attacking
British merchant ships in the Indian Ocean.
The French Revolution
Free trade and its strategic position made Isle de France prosperous
and one of France’s most treasured colonies. However, the
re-creation of a French East India Company with a foreign trade
monopoly in 1785 greatly antagonised the rich white islanders. They
took the start of the French Revolution in 1789 as an opportunity
for self-rule and instituted an elected Colonial Assembly. Only
white males were allowed to vote.
Unfortunately, the French Revolution, which produced the famous
Declaration of Human Rights in 1789, was out of control by 1793
and its original leaders, along with thousands of aristocrats and
intellectuals, were put to death at the hands of the extreme left.
However, in 1794, France did live up to its motto of “Liberté,
Egalité, Fraternité” and finally abolished slavery.
Concurrently, there was a split between the ruling whites in Isle
de France: those whites in favour of radical change towards egalitarianism
and those seeking to preserve the status quo. The latter gained
the upper hand; the former were deported. Isle de France became
effectively autonomous as it attempted to preserve slavery.
In 1802, under the rule of Napoléon Bonaparte, France once
more legalised slavery and the slave trade and institutionalised
racism. This was welcomed by the ruling whites of Isle de France
to the detriment of the free-coloureds who lost few rights they
had gained during the Revolution and suffered greater discrimination
as did, to a lesser extent, the class of under-privileged whites.
However, repression by the ruling whites had always prevented these
under-privileged classes from joining the slaves in the mass rebellions
that resulted in blood baths in other colonies.
In 1803, the Colonial Assembly was disbanded and replaced by direct
French rule. The coloureds suffered greater discrimination, even
their richer members, who, as slave-owners themselves, had supported
the ruling whites. Soon the rich whites began to loathe the new
regime as it imposed heavy taxes and extracted loans from them to
build defences against British invasion. Whereas it had been hoped
that Isle de France would be a staging post for the conquest of
India, the Napoleonic wars in Europe diverted France’s attention
and military resources.
The Start of British Rule and the End of Slavery? (1810)
The British frequently raided the island and in 1810 finally engaged
the French navy in a significant sea battle in Vieux Grand Port
in the south. The five French ships, with support from shore, defeated
the four British ones after a day of intense fighting. This rare
naval victory is immortalised on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Six months later, the British returned with a significant land
and sea force and successfully took Isle de France, restoring its
Dutch name, Mauritius. Many of the rich whites refrained from defending
their country. Their reward was an agreement that the British would
permit them to maintain economic control of the country as well
as their laws and customs. Unfortunately this included slavery even
though it was banned under British law. The slave-owners used economic
blackmail and bribery to maintain the status quo.
In 1814, Governor Farquhar proclaimed the abolition of the slave
trade in Mauritius. However, slavery remained and new slaves were
still smuggled into the country to try to maintain their declining
numbers, despite efforts to replace them with the introduction of
machinery. He also defied the British government by allowing the
island to trade freely instead of exclusively with Britain and so
the economy continued to flourish.
From Slavery to Slavery – Indentured Labour
By 1825, the shrinking and aging slave population was being supplemented
by indentured workers from India and China. However, the first group,
believing that they had been recruited under false pretences, rebelled
against their cruel conditions and poor pay and were sent home.
In 1826, a British inquiry into the slavery and racism by the dominant
Franco-Mauritians against free-coloureds began. They in turn set
up a parallel government and even managed to woo the coloured bourgeoisie,
often slave-owners themselves, against the abolition of slavery.
In 1829, the post of Protector of Slaves was established to enforce
their better treatment and Mauritius’ system of apartheid
was officially abolished, though its practice continued for several
years. Although the Franco-Mauritians fought it to the very end,
slavery was finally abolished in 1835 but it wasn’t until
1839 that the emancipated slaves were free to leave the plantations.
This they did in huge numbers, some to form villages and farm their
own plots of land or fish, others to sink into dire poverty. No
such fate awaited the slave-owners who were generously compensated
for their loss by the British government.
The flight of the ex-slaves and the opportunity to expand the sugar
plantations created an extreme shortage of labour that set costs
soaring. To reduce wages to an absolute minimum and hence maximise
profits, the plantation owners sought to flood the market with cheap
labour from India. At the time many Indian’s suffered poverty
under British administration and were happy to seek their fortune
elsewhere. However, the immigration of coolies to Mauritius had
many of the characteristics of the slave trade it replaced and was
actually cheaper, indenture being a sort of voluntary slavery for
a fixed period of time.
A momentous transformation in the population resulted. By 1861,
the number of Indian immigrants outnumbered the white and coloured
Mauritians by 192,634 to 117,416. However, as contracted labour,
the coolies did not enjoy the same rights as the original population.
Ironically, some even became servants of emancipated negro slaves.
At the end of their contracts, many sought to and were encouraged
to stay, started their own businesses and tried to climb the social
In 1867, under the influence of the plantation owners, laws were
passed which deteriorated the already inferior rights of the immigrants.
For example, their travel within the island was restricted and they
were required to carry passports with immediate detention if they
were lost or left at home. To its shame, Mauritius became an authoritarian
police state with prison sentences for immigrants convicted of the
most innocuous of crimes. It wasn’t until 1911 that indentured
labour was effectively stopped by India, although a sugar boom in
1923 brought 1500 workers, but most went home within 3 years.
The First Steps to Democracy
The 1800s also saw many developments in Mauritius, supported by
the wealth generated by the sugar industry. The Royal College, a
world class educational establishment, produced many excellent scholars.
Augmented by brilliant minds from Europe, Mauritius implemented
all of the latest innovations of the day including the stamp-based
postage system, telegraphy, cinemas, steam-power, railways and electricity
In parallel, Mauritians, in particular the wealthy class, were
demanding a greater say in the rule of their country. Ironically,
the poor too were mobilised when the government attempted to acquire
lands to preserve the vanishing forests, protect species on the
verge of extinction and safeguard water resources that were becoming
contaminated and contributed to several significant epidemics.
Finally, in 1886, multi-party democracy began with the institution
of parliamentary elections for 10 of the 27 members of the Council
of Government. Only a few per cent of the population had the right
to vote; immigrants, the poor and agricultural workers were excluded,
even though in Britain the latter group had gained the right to
vote in 1884. However, it would only be a matter of time before
the numerically superior Indian population would wrest political
power from the wealthy minority as exhorted by Ghandi when he visited
Mauritius on route from South Africa to India in 1901.
Then as now, Mauritius was stratified by ethnicity and class. The
allegiance that dominated depended on the social, political or economic
imperative of the day. Racism and apartheid, however, continued
unabated as unwritten laws until the world-wide social revolutions
of the 1960s and the radical reform of the Catholic Church which
finally ended segregation in the pews.
Politically, the first two decades of the 1900s saw great men champion
the cause of the unrepresented majority of the Mauritian population.
Most were defeated and disillusioned in elections dominated by the
Franco-Mauritians. During this time, the number of Indo-Mauritians
eligible to vote actually decreased, probably due to corrupt practices
of the predominantly white magistrates.
The End of Franco-Mauritian Political Domination (1948)
The Great Depression of the 1930s led to severe deprivation among
the working classes who were mobilised by the newly formed Labour
party and the religious Bissoondoyal brothers. Strikes were organised
on the sugar estates and the docks, paralysing the economy but were
violently suppressed, causing outrage in Mauritius and Britain. Subsequent
reforms, including a minimum wage for workers, were largely disregarded
by the sugar barons and strikes continued into the following decade.
During the 1940s the trend for colonies to demand self-rule was
gaining momentum, with India gaining independence in 1947. In Mauritius,
constitutional reform was debated from 1945-47 and finally in the
1948 elections any Mauritian resident over 21 who could read and
write became eligible to vote. Thanks in large part to the mass
education of Indo-Mauritians by the Bissoondoyal brothers, the total
number of electors jumped from 12,000 to over 70,000. As a result,
17 of the 19 elected members of the Legislative Council were aligned
to the Labour party. Together with the liberals, they enjoyed a
majority despite the large number of the previous administration
appointed as nominated members to make up the total of 34. This
spelt the end of the political domination of the Franco-Mauritians
who had to content themselves with control of the sugar industry.
The Road to Independence (1948-1968)
The next major step was independence. However, politics shifted
from a class struggle to an ethnic one, fuelled in part by the fanatical
racism of the editor in chief of a Franco-Mauritian newspaper. Independence,
favoured by the British and the Labour party under the leadership
of Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, was greatly delayed by a united front
of the ethnic minorities headed by Gaetan Duval, concerned by the
possibility of future domination by the majority Hindus. After 20
years, compromise was finally reached whereby a new legislative
assembly comprising of 62 elected members and 8 “best losers”
was adopted; the latter being drawn from under-represented ethnic
Following the 1967 elections, Dr S Ramgoolam led the country on
12th March 1968 into nationhood. Gaetan Duval aligned his party
with Labour and nation building became the order of the day. Masterful
negotiations obtained fixed quotas at preferential prices for sugar
from the European Union and a similar deal for textiles with the
United States as Mauritius strove to diversify its economy with
the assistance and example of the East Asian Tigers like Taiwan.
At the same time the tourist industry started its major expansion,
accelerated by the establishment of Air Mauritius.
The Economic Rollercoaster (1968 onwards)
The political vacuum and the escalation of the Cold War led to the
emergence of a movement of Marxists led by Paul Bérenger.
Mauritius may well have followed the example of the Seychelles and
Madagascar to become a Marxist state but for the economic boom of
the early 70s. However, it turned to near economic disaster by 1979
due to wage rises, strikes and cyclones. Bérenger’s
MMM party obtained a landslide victory in the 1982 elections with
Anerood Jugnauth becoming Prime Minister. He had joined the MMM
while Bérenger was briefly imprisoned and subsequently moderated
the party’s policies.
Within a few months, Bérenger and Jugnauth fell out. The
former resigned from government and called new elections. The latter
formed a new party, the MSM, formed a coalition with Ramgoolam and
Duval and won. By vigorously attracting new investment from overseas,
the “Mauritian economic miracle” of the early 1980’s
was born and unemployment remarkably eliminated, if only for a short
The last two decades have been marked by economic prosperity and
shifting political allegiances as different coalitions have been
voted to power and ethnic considerations are returning to the foreground.
However, the emergence of global free-market economics, leading
to the end of sugar and textile quotas, leaves Mauritius struggling
to be competitive. The current coalition, which reunited Jugnauth
and Bérenger, is seeking to establish ICT, with significant
help from India, as a new pillar of the economy.
The tourist sector now attracts over 700,000 visitors a year, mostly
from France, Britain and South Africa. However, continued expansion
threatens the environment and the livelihoods and leisure of the
local population as they compete for the use of the lagoon, the
tranquil waters within the coral reef. Hopefully the government,
pressured by the global advent of eco-tourism, will preserve this
beautiful island’s natural environment to ensure that Mauritius
remains a favoured tourist destination forever.