Slavery and sugar were the driving forces, as we shall see, but let’s go back 400 years to the early settlers.

The Dutch

Apart from the discovery of the uninhabited island by Arabic seafarers in AD 975 and a brief Portuguese report on the island in 1507, the first real settlers to Mauritius were the Dutch. Admiral van Warwyck visited the island in 1598 on his way to the silk and spice markets in the “Far East”. He it was who named it Maurits, after Prince Maurice of Nassau. The Dutch used it as a stopping off and re-watering point for ships travelling between Europe and the East Indies. It would also have been an important point to restock ships with fruit, as there was much naturally occurring fruit and a major hazard of sea travel for many years was scurvy amongst the crew as a result of Vitamin C deficiency. The banana plant was introduced to the island in 1606 by the Dutch.

The Dutch settlers also saw the value of the vast forests of ebony timber and, in order to harvest it, they imported the first slaves from Madagascar and prisoners from the East Indies. At around this time they introduced deer (from Java), sheep, pigeon and ducks and, for the first time, sugar cane. The problems of runaway slaves, pirates and cyclones eventually disheartened the Dutch who instead decided to use for shipping stop-overs their colony in South Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. In effect the Dutch abandoned the island in 1710. There is a nice monument to commemorate the first Dutch landing.

Ile de France

The French came five years later and rather grandly renamed the island the “Ile de France” and progressively occupied it until the point when they appointed a governor in 1735 who was Mahe de Labourdonnais. This governor restored law and order and developed Port Louis into a viable port and capital. At Port Louis he made a shipyard for building of sea-going vessels, organised fresh water to be piped into the town and generally accelerated the road building programme.

Within 50 years the population of the island had grown to 60,000. However events in France had an echo in the Indian Ocean when in 1790 there was a mini revolution and there followed 13 years of self-rule until Napoleon sent out a governor to restore rule from Paris. This also ended a period in which Mauritius was a base for pirates who regularly plundered British vessels travelling to the East Indies. The British and French each wanted control of this shipping route and so the battle of Grand Port in the spring of 1810 was very much a strategic one. The French won this four-day battle and their victory is celebrated even on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This battle is well documented in the Museum at Mahebourg which is housed in the splendid house of one of the early French sugar barons. The commander of the losing British forces was Sir Josiah Willoughby whose name, like many of the early colonists, is remembered in various street names in Mauritius.

To Britain

Despite this defeat, the British retaliated with a surprise attack at the end of that year (1810) and succeeded in taking control of the island. The British governor, Robert Farquahar, gave the French inhabitants the right to keep their property and their laws were to be respected, so that to this day the legal system is a hybrid of French and British traditions. As part of a regional treaty between Britain and France in 1814, the French got the southerly island of Reunion and the British kept Mauritius, Rodrigues and the Seychelles. Of course, following the treaty the name “Ile de France” was inappropriate and the island was returned to its Dutch name, Mauritius. Farquahar continued the rapid development of the island’s sugar cane industry for which there was a rapidly growing international and British market. Sugar was, and is, a crop that could tolerate the occasional cyclone, but it is a labour-intensive product.

Slavery and indentured labour

Until 1833 with the abolition of slavery, much of the work on the sugar estates was done by slaves from various parts of the world but especially from Africa, Madagascar and the East Indies. The abolition of slavery was the result of a long campaign in Europe and America. In fact the Danish were the first to outlaw it in 1792. It was campaigners like Clarkson with models of slave ships (sometimes described as “floating coffins”) who persuaded the British to rethink their attitude. Economically of course the British did not suffer as much as they might have done having recently lost their 13 American colonies and in any event the abolition was likely to hurt other, competing, countries more than British interests. The immediate result for Mauritius was the mass immigration of over 200,000 indentured workers from India – both Moslems and Hindus – to work on the sugar estates. These were workers who were paid but committed to work for a certain period for their employer. This immigration continued until 1909 and most of these Indians were in Mauritius to stay, and when everyone was given the vote in 1959 they became the majority group. Today 51% of the population are Hindu.

Independent Mauritius

Independence from Britain came in 1968 when the British, to use Gandhi’s words, left as friends not as enemies. The island remained part of the Commonwealth with the Queen as nominal head of state, represented by a governor general, until Mauritius declared itself a republic in 1992. The first Prime Minister, in 1968, was Sir Seewosagur Ramgoolam after whom the airport and many buildings and streets are named. Well-respected by many Mauritians, Ramgoolam held office until 1982; his son, Navin Ramgoolam, became prime minister in 1995, and was reappointed in 2005.

Since independence, the economy has grown at 5-6% per annum, which impressive growth has led to significant benefits to the people – lower infant mortality, improved infrastructure including a good road network and generally longer life expectancies. In exports, sugar remains important, accounting for 25% of export earnings. Announced in early 2005, the country is to become a duty free zone after a 4 year transitional period. The idea is to make consumer goods cheaper for the Mauritian people and to encourage stop-overs by Airlines flying to Singapore and Dubai.

As in many islands there is always a pressure for the young people to travel abroad to make their fortunes and the Mauritians have indeed established communities in many parts of the world. There are strong Mauritian communities in countries that welcomed immigration in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For example, Britain, Australia and Canada all welcomed Mauritians to become citizens and to join their workforce. Most of these communities retain strong links with the island through family ties and nowadays through internet connections.

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