Mauritius Travel Guide

History Of Mauritius

Although still very young in certain respects, Mauritius however has a most fascinating and vast history of its own. reflected on today's actuality. In fact the island has borne several names before it was eventually called Mauritius.

Port Louis Theatre
In all likelihood, it seems to have been discovered by some Phoenician, Dravidian or Arabic sailors since the 15th century, who called it Dina Robin, next to Dina Margabin (Reunion Island) and Dina Moraze (Rodrigues); those three islands being part of Tirakka. the Mascarenas archipelago. Yet it seems that the Portuguese were the very first to set foot on the virgin island, the exact date of which has laid grounds for discussion. While some attribute i to Don Pedro de Mascarenhas in 1511, others do so to Domingo Fernandez around the end of that same year.

In a very well researched work published in 1979 by Dr. Alfred North Coombes, the latter rather attributes the discovery of Mauritius to sailor Diego Dias, who would have landed on the island in July 1500, before setting foot on Reunion Island one month later.

No matter what, the island was called Ilha do Cirne (Swan island) by the Portuguese who did not seem eager to develop it. This is so because they only introduced cattle and monkeys on the island which they were seemingly only interested to use as shelter and food supply in case of storm. Hence the very first settlers willing to colonise the island of Mauritius were the Dutch, who landed on it almost a century later.

It was indeed in September 1598 that, pushed by a storm, a Dutch flotilla commanded by Vice-Admiral Wybrandt Van Wanvyck, drew alongside Grand Port on the South East coast, where major vestiges of the Dutch colonization stiill remain today.
The island was then called Mauritzius in the name of the stadhouder of Holland: Maurice de Nassau. As from 1638, the Dutch really started to develop the colony by building dwellings and fortifications (namely in Mahebourg then called Port Warwyck), importing slaves, introducing species such as the deer from Java, deforesting and over-exploiting the island's natural resources such as the ebony wood. Thus the talk-goes that, rightly or wrongly, the Dutch were also the responsible ones for the extinction of the Dodo bird, which was far too heavy to fly and which they consequently delighted themselves in.

In fact, the dodo has ever since become the emblem of the island and the true symbol of threatened species.

Later in 1710. upset with the most difficult prevailing climatic conditions, epidemics, rat invasions and possibly slave rebellions, the Dutch decided to desert the island, leaving behind some slaves and a crop that would become the backbone of its economy: sugar cane, which had been imported from the East Indies earlier on. Yet the island did not remain unoccupied for too long.

Five years later, the French who had already shown interest for the region by colonising the neighbouring islands of Madagascar and Bourbon (Reunion island), took possession of Mauritius, represented by Guillaume Dufresne d'Arsel. He landed in Port North West (Port-Louis) on the 20th of September 1715. changing the name of Mauritzius to Isle de France.

That period of French colonisation lasting for a whole century would be very dynamic.

Not only were slaves imported from Africa and Madagascar to develop the agricultural sector, the capital was also transferred from Grand Port to Port-Louis thus significantly boosting trade up.

The island was then managed by the West Indies Company ivhich appointed Francois Mahe de La Bourdonnais as Governor between 1735 and 1746. It was hence through his leading impetus that Port-Louis was transformed into a major naval port and that Isle de France became the headquarters of the West Indies Company in the Indian Ocean. Mahe de La Bourdonnais is also responsible for the construction of several important public monuments such as the Government House which still exists, as well as the development of public infrastructures and the introduction of different major crops such as rice, indigo or cotton.

Furthermore, he was the one to develop the cultivation of sugar cane and manufacture of sugar on a large industrial scale, namely with the construction of the very first sugar mill in Villebague (Northern region). Although opin ions about him vary with most considring him as a remarkable hard worker, a man of great vision and a manager and some as an inhuman proslaver rather; itwas through his outstanding drive that I'lsle de France became, as stated on its token of office: the star and the key of the Indian Ocean.

Port Louis / Grande Mosque Arabe
The West Indies Company yet experienced certain financial difficulties which led it to give the island back to the French King in 1765, who then nominated Pierre Poivre as administrator. As he mas a passionate botanist, the latter introduced a variety of spices such as cinnamon, pepper, clove or nutmeg on the island. It is consequently under Pierre Poivre that the Pamplemousses Garden was built.

Still considered as one of the most spectacular botanical gardens world-wide, it is hence ir the Pamplemousses Garden that the famosu talipot tree grows, flowering every hundrea years only as the legend goes. Life in the colony was then prosperous and Port-Louis was a place where memorable and sumptuous parties were thrown.

On the 13th of January 1773, the first newspaper was published weekly on the island Annonces, Affiches et Avis divers (A Variety o Classified Ads, Posters and Notices). In june 1790, further to the announcement of the French Revolution, a "Colonial Assembly" was set up and a new constitution introduced.

But at that time, the British were already longing to capture the island. Their attempt to do so in August 1810 however failed due to the French success in capturing their army after the most famous Grand Port Naval Combat, which figures among the greatest French naval victories on the Arc de Triomphe (Triumphal Arc) monument in Paris. Soon after in November 1810, the Bristish came back with greater determination and landed in the North of the island. After very bitter combats in the vicinity of Port-Louis, the French capitulated on the third of December next.

Port Louis / Mauritius
The Treaty of Paris, signed on the 30th of May 1814, made of I'lsle de France another British possession, which they called Mauritius and for which they swapped Bourbon Island with the French. Fortunately, that treaty enabled the inhabitants of the island to keep their traditions, customs, languages and religion. These conditions were hence very well respected by the successive British governors of whom Robert Townsend Farquhar was the first.

The French language and the laws in force were likewise maintained so that Mauritius remained the only British territory to adhere to the Napoleon Civil Code. In January 1813, the British Colonial Administration published an order of abolition of slavery which would not however be applied until 1835. The consequences of the latter measures, disapproved by the colons, were the beginning of the period of "importation" of labourers during which a great deal of Indian workers were "imported" to work in the fields mainly. Some 450 000 of them came to Mauritius over a period of thirty years, so that they have been representing the majority of the local population ever since 1860.

The Indian labourers highly contributed to the agricultural development of sugar cane and exportation of sugar from Mauritius to England. The railway was introduced in Mauritius in 1862, the rupee (still used today) in 1877 and the very first electrical sugar mills in 1884, concurrently with the growing institutional development of the island. The political aspect of Mauritius slowly found its way with the establishment of a Government Council in 1822, followed by the introduction of regional democracy in 1849, the first Municipal elections taking place in Port-Louis and the creation of a new Constitution in 1886 which accounted for the election often deputies.

In 1936, Dr. Maurice Cure created the Labour Party after his unsuccessful attempt to return Mauritius to France in 1921. Advocating claims from the most under privileged sections of the population, the latter political party experienced an increasing success at the elections, which started taking place at universal suffrage as from the Constitution of 1959- In the scrutiny of 1967, some 56% of the population proved to be in favour of independence as put forward by the Labours Party then led by Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who presided the solemn ceremony held on the 12th of March 1968, after much debate with the British.

At noon of that very same day, the Union Jack flag was thus pulled down and replaced by the four-colour Mauritian flag in Champ de Mars. Mauritius yet remained a member of the Commonwealth and the British Queen was still officially represented by a Governor General until 1992, ivhen he was replaced by a local President, appointed by the National Assembly after Mauritius had been granted the status of Republic.

Mauritius is now but a young and dynamic republic, a lively democracy presently holding a population of some 1,200,000 individuals.