The history of Mauritius takes root in the Age of Discovery where the search for opportunity was interlaced with histories of slavery and oppression, but also triumphs over these hardships leading to a multicultural society and productive economy.
Initially named on ancient Arab marine maps and subsequently used as a stopover by Portuguese navigators, the island was uninhabited until the seventeenth century after which it experienced successive waves of colonization by the Dutch, French and British until its independence in 1968.
Maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean were familiar to Arab merchant ships since the Middle Ages.The Mascarenes are even identified by Arabic names on one of the first European maps drawn up by Italian cartographer Alberto Calvino in 1502 (1) Tarrikka for the Mascarenes and Dina Arobi or Dina Robin on other maps for Mauritius.
Portuguese sailors who journeyed throughout the region named Mauritius Isla do Cirne. The region comprising the islands of Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues were named after the Portuguese captain, Pedro Mascarenhas who wrongly claimed the discovery of the islands, when in fact they were mapped by the ship pilot Domingo Rodrigez Pereira several years beforehand. The Island of Rodrigues is named after him.
Nearly a century went by before the first European pioneers showed interest the island. In 1598 Dutch Vice-Amiral Wybrant Van-Warwick in command of a three vessel division took possession of the Island. They discovered“Port Sud Est”… « un bon port bien clos qui pouvait contenir plus de cinquante vaisseaux à l’abri de tous les vents avec un fond de bonne tenue… »The island was named Mauritius as a tribute to Prince Maurice of Nassau, after whom the flagship of the expedition was also named.The Dutch did not settle immediately but used the island as a stopover on the routes to Asia.
A first attempt at settlement was made in 1638 by the Dutch, which grew from 25 men up to one hundred persons in 1652, including slaves who had been brought from Madagascar. It is to be noted that among the first 105 slaves who were brought in the late 1630s, 60 escaped into the forests and only 20 were recaptured. This first settlement was met with many harsh conditions, ranging from cyclones to bad harvests and delayed shipment of supplies resulting in most leaving the island in the 1650s. The Dutch continued repeated efforts at settling and developing the island, with successive governors taking the lead but for the most part were unsuccessful. The Dutch did succeed however in cutting down large swaths of the ebony forests and exporting the valuable wood. They were also credited with bringing the Java deer, as well as introducing sugarcane, tobacco, rice, orange and mango trees, rabbits, sheep and chickens. The Dutch have also been attributed the demise of the Dodo which are thought to have died out due to the introduction of predators.
The French took possession of the island in 1715 when Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel landed and claimed it in the name of the King of France renaming it Isle de France. In 1721, the administration of the island was entrusted to the New French East India Company. Settlers began arriving and 5 years later, they were granted the first land concessions with production objectives that had to be met if they wanted their concessions to be renewed.
A turning point in the history of Mauritius was the arrival of Mahé de Labourdonnais in 1735, who had a profound impact on the development of the island. The population grew from 838 (out of which 638 persons were slaves) to 3012 (out of which 2612 were slaves) within five years.Mahé de Labourdonnais led many infrastructural and construction works and ensured that the necessary skills were developed on the island to this effect. The port infrastructure was developed,and agriculture became of prime importance for the self-sufficiency of the colony and generating great value through refuelling of ships.
From the French era, the island has been inhabited continuously. This period marks the real milestone,the birth of the Mauritian nation. All cultural and ethnical components of nowadays Mauritian society have been established on its soil since then. Pioneers and administrators, specialized workers and craftsmen and the large workforce linked to the agricultural activity originated from Europe, Africa and Asia.
During the Napoleonic wars, the French military used Isle de France as an outpost for conducting raids on British commercial ships. The island thus became a target of the British Empire. In 1810, after several unsuccessful attempts including one in Jacotet Bay adjacent to Bel Ombre and the “Bataille du Vieux Grand Port” which went down in History as the only French naval victory under Napoléon Bonaparte. The British forces finally took over the island by landing on the northern coast. Isle de France became Mauritius again.Around the same time period Seychelles and Rodrigues also shifted under British rule. The terms of capitulation allowed French settlers to maintain their language and religion. The French colonial legacy is also evident in contemporary Mauritius’ judicial system, with the Code Napoléon.
The island’s agricultural economy grew exponentially under British rule. Following liberation struggles and movements locally and around the world, slavery was abolished in 1835.
The abolition of slavery led to the beginning of the indentured labour system, in which labourers were brought in from India. Indentured labour contributed greatly to shape the cultural and economic landscape of Mauritius as it stands today.
While at the time of its inception, indentured labour was considered a more humane alternative to slavery, indentured labourers were employed under very harsh conditions, from their recruitment, transportation, housing and conditions of work. The latter were so dire that further recruitment was eventually suspended by authorities for a brief period.
Indentured labourers immigrated to Mauritius in successive waves throughout the 19th Century, coming from Bombay and Madras and eventually the majority came from the North-western provinces through Calcutta. The indenture system officially ended in 1910,but continued up until 1925.
The early years of the 20th century witnessed the start of the dismantling of the British Empire. Mauritius gained political independence on the 12th of March 1968 keeping a parliamentary structure comparable to the Westminster system.
In 2003 the country became a Republic while keeping the same parliamentary system.
The economy has flourished despite periods of stagnation, backed up by preferential trade agreements with the United Kingdom and Europe and strategic adaptations towards the diversification of its economy. The economic framework at the end of the 20th century has faced profound changes with the fading out of preferential sugar trade protocols. The creation of an Export Processing Zone was the first successful step towards economic development after independence. It laid the grounds for the development of textile and other manufacturing industries. Today, tourism, the services sector and financial sector are amongst the most important contributors to the GDP.
REPORT OF THE TRUTH AND JUSTICE COMMISSION - French Colonial Period (1715–1810). "The French period (1715-1810)" (PDF). Government of Mauritius: 60. Retrieved 26 September 2012