Mauritius was discovered by chance during an exploratory expedition off the coast of the Gulf of Bengal led by Tristão da Cunha. The expedition ran into a cyclone and was forced to change course. Thus, the ship ‘’Cirne’’ captained by Diogo Fernandes Pereira, came into view of Réunion island on 9 February 1507. They called the island Santa Apolonia (“Saint Apollonia”) in honour of that day’s saint. Mauritius was discovered during the same expedition and received the name of ‘’Cirne’’.Five years later, the islands were visited by Dom Pedro de Mascarenhas who left the name Mascarene for the whole region. The Portuguese took no interest in these isolated islands. They were already established in Asia in Goa, on the coast of Malabar, on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and on the Malaysian coast.
In 1598, a Dutch expedition consisting of eight ships, under the orders of admirals Jacques Cornelius Van Neck and Wybrandt Van Warwyck, set sail from the port of Texel (Netherlands) towards the Indian subcontinent. The eight ships ran into foul weather after passing the Cape of Good Hope, and were separated. Three found their way to the northeast of Madagascar, while the remaining five regrouped and sailed in a south-easterly direction. On 17 September, the five ships under the orders of Admiral Van Warwyck came into view of the island. On 20 September, they entered a sheltered bay which they gave the name of “Port de Warwick” (present name is “Grand Port”). They landed and decided to name the island “Prins Maurits van Nassaueiland”, after Prince Maurits (Latin version: Mauritius) of the House of Nassau, the stadtholder of Holland, but also after the main vessel of the fleet which was called “Mauritius”. From that day the name Mauritius has remained.
On 2 October, the ships again took to the sea towards Bantam. From that date, Dutch sailors shifted their choice to “Rade des Tortues” as a harbour. In 1615, the shipwreck and death of governor Pieter both, who was coming back from India with four richly laden ships in the bay, caused the route to be considered cursed by Dutch sailors, and they tried to avoid it as much as possible. In the meantime, the British and the Danes were beginning to make incursions into the Indian Ocean. Those who landed on the island freely cut and took with them the precious heartwood of the ebony trees, then found in abundance all over the island.
Dutch colonization started in 1638 and ended in 1710, with a brief interruption between 1658 and 1666. Numerous governors were appointed, but continuous hardships such as cyclones, droughts, pest infestations, lack of food and illnesses finally took their toll, and the island was abandoned in 1710.
The island was not permanently inhabited for the forty years after its discovery by the Dutch, but in 1638 Cornelius Gooyer established the first permanent Dutch settlement in Mauritius with a garrison of just twenty-five. He then became the first governor of the island. In 1639, thirty more men came to reinforce the Dutch colony. Gooyer was instructed to develop the commercial potential of the island, but he did nothing of the sort, so he was recalled. His successor was Adriaan van der Stel who began development in earnest, developing the export of ebony wood. For this purpose, Van der Stel brought 105 Malagasy slaves to the island. Within the first week, about sixty slaves were able to escape into the forests; only about twenty of them were eventually recaptured.
In 1644, the islanders were faced with many months of hardships, due to delayed shipment of supplies, bad harvests and cyclones. During those months, the colonists could only rely on themselves by fishing and hunting. Nonetheless, Van der Stel secured the shipment of 95 more slaves from Madagascar, before being transferred to Ceylon. His replacement was Jacob Van der Meersh. In 1645, the latter brought in 108 more Malagasy slaves. Van der Meersh left Mauritius in September 1648 and was replaced by Reinier Por.
In 1652, more hardships befell the colonists, masters and slaves alike. The population was then about a hundred people. The continuing hardships affected the commercial potential of the island and a pullout was ordered in 1657. On 16 July 1658, almost all the inhabitants left the island, except for a ship’s boy and two slaves who had taken shelter in the forests. Thus the first attempt at colonization by the Dutch ended badly.
In 1664, a second attempt was made, but this one also ended badly as the men chosen for the job abandoned their sick commander, Van Niewland, without proper treatment, and the commander eventually died.
From 1666 to 1669, Dirk Jansz Smient administered the new colony at Grand Port, with the cutting down and export of Ebony trees as the main commercial activity. When Dirk Jansz Smient left, he was replaced by George Frederik Wreeden. George died in 1672, drowned with five other colonists during a reconnaissance expedition. His replacement would be Hubert Hugo. Hubert was a man of vision and wanted to make the island into an agricultural colony. His vision was not shared by his superiors, and eventually he could not fully develop his vision.
Issac Johannes Lamotius became the new governor when Hugo left in 1677. Lamotius governed until 1692, when he was deported to Batavia for judgment for persecuting a colonist whose wife had refused his courtship. In 1692 a new governor, Roelof Deodati, was appointed. Even if he tried to develop the island, Deodati faced many problems, like cyclones, pest infestations, cattle illnesses and droughts. Discouraged, Deodati eventually gave up and his replacement would be Abraham Momber Van de Velde. Abraham fared no better and eventually became the last Dutch governor of the island for that period. Thus the Dutch abandoned the island in 1710.
Treatment of slaves
Slaves were not particularly well treated by the colonists and revolts or the act of organizing one was severely repressed and punished. Some punishments consisted of amputation of various parts of the body and exposure in the open air for a day as example to others, eventually culminating in condemned slaves’ execution at sunset.
The Legacy of the Dutch
- Providing the name for the country and for many regions over the whole island. Some examples include the “Pieter Both” mountain, the “Vandermeersh” region near Rose-Hill as well as many other names.
- Introduction of sugar cane plants from Java.
- Decimating the local dodo and giant tortoise population for food and by introducing competing species and pests, sometimes involuntarily.
- Clearing of large swaths of forests for Ebony bark exploitation.
Abandoned by the Dutch, the island became a French colony when, in September 1715, Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel landed and took possession of the Island on the route to India. He named the island “Isle de France”, but it was only in 1721 that the French started their occupation. However, it was only from 1735, with the arrival of the French governor, Mahé de La Bourdonnais, that “Isle de France” started developing effectively.
Mahé de La Bourdonnais established Port Louis as a naval base and a shipbuilding center. Under his governorship, numerous buildings were built, a number of which still stand today: part of Government House, the Chateau de Mon Plaisir at Pamplemousses and the Line Barracks. The island was under the administration of the French East India Company which maintained its presence until 1767.
In 1806 the Governor General, Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen, created the city of Mahébourg, named in honour of Mahé de La Bourdonnais. It was originally known as Bourg Mahé. From that year until 1810, the island was governed by officials appointed by the French Government, except for a brief period during the French Revolution, when the inhabitants set up a government virtually independent of France.
During the Napoleonic wars, the “Isle de France” had become a base from which French corsairs organized successful raids on British commercial ships. The raids continued until 1810 when a strong British expedition was sent to capture the island. A preliminary attack was foiled at Grand Port in August 1810, but the main attack launched in December of the same year from Rodrigues, which had been captured a year earlier, was successful. The British landed in large numbers in the north of the island and rapidly overpowered the French, who surrendered. By the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the “Isle de France” which was renamed Mauritius was ceded to Great Britain, together with Rodrigues and the Seychelles. In the act of capitulation, the British guaranteed that they would respect the language, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the inhabitants.
Despite the only French naval victory (during the Napoleonic Wars) of Battle of Grand Port on 19 and 20 August 1810 by a fleet commanded by Pierre Bouvet, Mauritius was captured on 3 December 1810 by the British under Commodore Josias Rowley. Their possession of the island was confirmed four years later by the Treaty of Paris (1814). French institutions, including the Napoleonic code of law, were maintained. The French language was at that moment still used more widely than English.
The British administration, which began with Robert Townsend Farquhar as governor, was followed by rapid social and economic changes. One of the most important events was the abolition of slavery on 1 February 1835. The planters received a compensation of two million pounds sterling for the loss of their slaves which had been imported from Africa and Madagascar during the French occupation.
Mauritian Creoles trace their origins to the plantation owners and slaves who were brought to work the sugar fields. Indo-Mauritians are descended from Indian immigrants who arrived in the 19th century via the Aapravasi Ghat in order to work as indentured laborers after slavery was abolished in 1835. Included in the Indo-Mauritian community are Muslims (about 17% of the population) from the Indian subcontinent. The Franco-Mauritian elite controlled nearly all of the large sugar estates and were active in business and banking. As the Indian population became numerically dominant and the voting franchise was extended, political power shifted from the Franco-Mauritians and their Creole allies to the Indo-Mauritians.
Sir George Ferguson Bowen was governor from 1879 to 1883.
Conflicts arose between the Indian community (mostly sugarcane laborers) and the Franco-Mauritians in the 1920s, leading to several – mainly Indian – deaths. Following this, the Mauritius Labour Party was founded in 1936 by Maurice Cure to safeguard the interest of the labourers. Cure was succeeded a year later by Emmanuel Anquetil who tried to gain the support of the port workers. After his death, Guy Rozemont took over the leadership of the party.
When slavery was abolished on 1 February 1835, an attempt was made to secure a cheap source of adaptable labour for intensive sugar plantations in Mauritius. Indentured labour began with Chinese, Malay, African and Malagasy labourers, but ultimately, it was India which supplied the much needed laborers to Mauritius. This period of intensive use of Indian labour took place during British rule, with many brutal episodes and a long struggle by the indentured for respect. The term applied to the indentured during this period, and which has since become a derogatory term for Mauritians of Asian descent, was Coolie. The island soon became the key-point in the trade of indentured laborers, as thousands of Indians set forth from Calcutta or Karaikal; not only did they modify the social, political and economic physiognomies of the island, but some also went farther, to the West Indies.
The meeting of a mosaic of people from India, China, Africa and Europe began a process of hybridization and intercultural frictions and dialogues, which poet Khal Torabully has termed “coolitude”.This social reality is a major reference for identity opened to otherness and is widely used in Mauritius where it represents a humanism of diversity.
Elections in 1947 for the newly created Legislative Assembly marked Mauritius’s first steps toward self-rule, and were won by the Labour Party, headed by Guy Rozemont. It was the first time the elite Franco-Mauritius were ousted from power.
An independence campaign gained momentum after 1961, when the British agreed to permit additional self-government and eventual independence. A coalition composed of the Mauritian Labour Party (MLP), the Muslim Committee of Action (CAM) of Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed, and the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB) – a traditionalist Hindu party – won a majority in the 1967 Legislative Assembly election, despite opposition from Franco-Mauritian and Creole supporters of Gaetan Duval’s and Jules Koenig’s Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD).
The contest was interpreted locally as a referendum on independence. The election was won by a small margin. Constituency No. 15 was key to the victory by the pro-independence coalition. The MLP led alliance was able to win this constituency only due to the support of the CAM. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, MLP leader and chief minister in the colonial government, became the first prime minister after independence, on 12 March 1968. This event was preceded by a period of communal strife, brought under control with assistance from British troops. The communal strife that preceded independence led to around 300 deaths.
Mauritius became an independent state on 12 March 1968, with Elizabeth II as Queen of Mauritius, represented as head of state the Governor-General. The last Governor, Sir John Shaw Rennie served as the first Governor-General until 27 August 1968.
Sir Seewoosagur was Prime Minister, his Labour Party in coalition with Duval’s PMSD. In 1982, the coalition of Movement Militant Mauritian/Party Socialist Mauritian came to power in a landslide electoral victory
After Sir Seewoosagur’s death, first Sir Satcam Boolell, then Sir Seewoosagur’s son, Navin Ramgoolam succeeded him as leaders of the MLP. However, the MLP and PMSD were defeated at the 1991 election, which saw Sir Anerood Jugnauth re-elected under a MMM/MSM government.
In December 1991, the Constitution was amended to make Mauritius a republic within the Commonwealth. Mauritius became a republic on 12 March 1992, with the last Governor General, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo, as interim President. He was succeeded by Cassam Uteem on 30 June, 1992.
Navin Ramgoolam led a MLP-MMM coalition to victory at the 1995 general elections, replacing Sir Aneerood Jugnauth as Prime Minister, a post the latter had occupied for 13 years. The governing coalition split in 1997, with the MMM going back to the Opposition and Navin Ramgoolam staying on as Prime Minister.