A Brief History

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 inhabitants.

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 Portuguese 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, the 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, pidgin French – the lingua franca of the French slave trade – was adopted as the first language of the offspring of slaves and a Creole population, often of mixed ancestry, 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 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. However, greater success – and profits – 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 ageing 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 loss 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 strata.

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 generation.

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 rest 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 nominated members appointed by the previous administration 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 minorities.

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.

The Economic Rollercoaster (1968 onwards)

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.

Meanwhile, 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, and 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 period.

Mauritius Today

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.

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