Mauritius is said to have been visited by Arabs sailors, who named it Dina Arobi, as early as the late 9th century. Years later, the Portuguese stopped on the island in around 1510 and included it on their portolan charts, naming it Ilha do Cirne (Island of the Swan).
In 1598, Dutch sailors involved in the spice trade landed on the island by chance and named it Mauritius (its current official name) in honour of their prince, Mauritz van Nassau.
The island was well located on the route to the Dutch East Indies and they decided to create a settlement here and appointed their first commander, who arrived in Mauritius in 1638. They initially left the island in 1656 but a new ‘governor’ was appointed in 1664. This second attempt, during which eleven governors were appointed, was also a failure despite the lucrative exploitation of ebony wood. The numerous cyclones, rats, grasshoppers and damage caused by monkeys indeed contributed to discourage them. Their trading post at the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa was well established and they decided to abandon the island. The last Dutch governor, Abraham van de Velde, embarked aboard the Beverwaart at the ‘Harbour of Moluccas’ (now Port Louis, the island’s capital) in 1710 together with the last remaining settlers.
Even if they abandoned the island, the Dutch had the merit of introducing sugarcane and the Java deer in Mauritius in 1639. The Dutch are often the only ones to be blamed for the extinction of the famous Mauritian Dodo. Of course, they contributed to a certain extent to the extinction of the species but the bird had a lengthy reproduction cycle, was unable to fly and had difficulties moving around, without forgetting the successive cyclones that impeded their proliferation. It can therefore be assumed that the Dodo was probably already going extinct when the Dutch arrived on the island.
Following instructions received from the Naval Minister, Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel, captain of the vessel, Le Chasseur, planted the French fleurs-de-lys flag on the island in 1715. He took possession of the place in the name of His Majesty King Louis XIV and named it ‘Isle de France’.
The island remained a French colony for a long period of time under the administration of at least 22 successive governors over nearly a century, until 1810.
The first 15 years of colonisation were a difficult period for the French, before the arrival of the true founder of Isle of France, Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais, in 1735.
The latter took in hand the destiny of the island. He imported thousands of slaves from Africa and Madagascar and put the newly arrived population, settlers and slaves alike, to work. With an incredible dynamism, he involved himself personally in the construction of roads, aqueducts, shops, hospitals, military barracks, defence batteries as well as offices, mills, powder magazines, brickyards and lime kilns. During ten years he brilliantly administered the island and transformed Port Louis into a safe harbour, nay a superb shipyard. He gave a new impetus to sugarcane cultivation and built a Government House, which housed the administrative functions of the colony. As early as 1743, a first small church was built in Pamplemousses, in the area where he lived.
Each one of the other governors and illustrious French personalities who succeeded to La Bourdonnais until 1810 contributed to further develop this small piece of French land in the Indian Ocean. The tireless botanist and Intendent, Pierre Poivre, who administered the island between 1767 and 1772, created the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden, the oldest one in the Southern Hemisphere. Another person whose contribution cannot be ignored is Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the author of the novel Paul et Virginie. The famous explorer, Jean François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse, stayed on the island between 1772 and 1778 and ended up marrying a Mauritian lady, Eleonore Broudou. The governor, François de Souillac, lent a precious hand to Pierre André de Suffren (also called ‘Le Bailli de Suffren’) during his campaign against the British in the Indies. There was also the governor, Antoine d’Entrecasteaux, and the vice-admiral, Denis, Duke of Crès, who was Naval Minister for 13 years under the reign of Napoleon. Other personalities were the ‘King of Corsairs’, Robert Surcouf, as well as admiral Guy-Victor Duperré, who won the naval battle of Grand Port in August 1810, the only French naval victory over the British under the Empire.
On 2nd December 1810, the last French governor, General Charles Decaen, was forced to surrender to the British military forces, which were greater in number. After taking over the island, the latter committed themselves to respect the religious practices and customs of the people of the island.
The name of the island was then changed back to Mauritius and it remained a British colony until its independence in 1968.
The first British governor, Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar, took up his quarters at the Chateau du Reduit and took in hand the administration of the island. It was also the end of raiding campaigns that caused much harm to the trading activities of the British. Increasing demand for sugar from mainland Great Britain fostered an unprecedented development of the industry, and the volume produced increased tenfold between 1825 and 1854. A new class of rich planters gradually replaced the bourgeoisie of maritime traders.
The British wanted to abolish slavery as early as 1830. Adrien d’Epinay, a Mauritian lawyer and slave owner, was not opposed to abolition. He however made the trip to London to request from the British government not only some form of financial compensation for the manpower lost, but also that the press be freed from censorship by the British authorities. He also obtained from Great Britain the setting up of a Colonial Assembly comprising Mauritian representatives, who were until then excluded from the administration of the island, as well as their access to employment in the public service solely on the basis of merit. During his lengthy stay in London, Adrien d’Epinay had the opportunity of meeting with French politician and diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, commonly called Talleyrand, who was then the French ambassador in the country, during a dinner at the latter’s place.
After returning to Mauritius, he launched one of the first dailies in the world, ‘Le Cernéen (after the name of Cirne, which featured on Portuguese portolan charts), in 1832. The same year, he also founded the BANK OF MAURITIUS, which operated for some 20 years before being supplanted by the MAURITIUS COMMERCIAL BANK, which was established in 1838 by a group of British and Mauritian traders with the support of the governor, Sir William Nicolay. The lawyer and businessman, Henry Koenig, was the bank’s first chairman.
After gaining their freedom, the former African slaves no longer wanted to work in the fields. The planters thus undertook to hire Indian immigrants from Bombay, Calcutta and Madras under contract in 1835 to replace them. At least 450,000 Indians came to Mauritius between 1835 and 1909. At the term of their contract, only 150,000 of them went back to India and the majority preferred to remain in Mauritius.
These Indian immigrants made a significant contribution to the development of the sugar industry and of the country in the 19th century. A railway system was also set up to connect the largest towns, namely Port Louis, Flacq, Curepipe and Mahebourg.
The festivities to celebrate the arrival of the first indentured labourers from India in 1935 raised awareness of the social and cultural identity of the Hindu community. This would lead to the creation of the Labour Party by Dr Maurice Curé in 1936, which was followed by violent strikes in 1937 and 1938.
In order to calm down the situation, the Colonial Office decided in 1947 to reform the tax-based vote as laid down in the Constitution of 1885 for the election of the Legislative Council. The right to vote was granted to all citizens who could sign their name. This measure led to the victory of the Labour Party in the 1948 elections. Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly and he introduced universal suffrage in 1958 to ensure continuity of his political power.
The elections held in August 1967 were decisive for the country’s future. The people of the island had to choose between unification with England or independence from colonial rule. The Independence Party and its leader, Dr Ramgoolam, won these elections against the advocates of unification with Great Britain, spearheaded by the leader of the PMSD (Parti Mauricien Social Démocrate), Gaetan Duval.
The independence of the island was officially and duly ratified on 12th March 1968 and the country became the REPUBLIC OF MAURITIUS in 1992.