Given its proximity to Madagascar, it has been suggested
that proto-Malagasy (early Indonesian settlers) reached
Mauritius en route to the larger island. However, there is
no direct evidence to support such claims. Arab traders were
clearly among the first to reach Mauritius. The renowned
geographer Al Sharif El-Edrissi drew a map in 1153 that
clearly demarcated the island of Mauritius with the name
Dina Mozare. According to some sources, he named the
island Domingo Fernandez after himself, but later
changed it to Ilha do Cirne (Island of the Swan).
Mauritius, Reunion, and
Rodrigues were named the
Mascarene Islands after the Portuguese captain Pero Mascarenes.
Admiral Van Warwijk took possession of the island for
the Dutch Crown in 1598, renaming it Mauritius after
the stadhouder (governor) of the Netherlands, Maurice of Nassau.
Not until 1638 did the Dutch attempt to settle Mauritius.
Twenty years later the colonists abandoned their
fledgling settlement, after hunting the famous
to extinction. In 1664 the Dutch returned to
Mauritius in a second attempt to establish a permanent
colony but failed to make the settlement a profitable
venture and left the island once again in 1710. When the
Dutch departed, they left behind slaves, sugarcane, deer,
rats, and monkeys, all of which they had introduced.
In 1715 Dufresne d'Arsel laid claim to Mauritius for
Louis the XV, renaming it Ile de France. However,
settlement efforts would wait until 1722, when the French
East India Company assumed administrative control of the island.
For the next 13 years, the colony made little progress toward
establishing a productive, viable community. With the
Mahé de Labourdonnais in 1735, however,
Ile de France began to flourish. Labourdonnais oversaw
the construction of the harbour during the 11 years of his
administration, setting the stage for Port Louis to become
the bustling urban center of the Mascarene Islands. He introduced
manioc (cassava) from Brazil to ensure a reliable food source.
Labourdonnais also advocated the establishment of sugar as
the island's main cash crop, entrusting the construction of
the first local sugarcane factory to his brother. By 1786
the island boasted ten sugar factories, but it was not until
the next century that sugar would dominate the economy.
The population of the island grew exceptionally diverse.
To build the port and shipping yard, Labourdonnais brought a
rchitects and skilled workmen from Madras, India, while dock
workers and sailors came from Pondicherry, India. Large numbers
of slaves were brought from Mozambique, Madagascar, and Kilwa,
and a smaller number from India and Malaya. Used in every
aspect of the economy, from agriculture to the shipping
industry, slaves greatly outnumbered the rest of the population
from the colony's inception.
Several governors succeeded Labourdonnais and the colony's
population continued to grow. After the Seven Years War (1756-1763),
the French East India Company sold Ile de France back to the
French Crown and it remained a Crown Colony until the
French Revolution. In 1790 news of the Revolution reached
Ile de France, along with a call to form a legislative assembly.
Colonists were unprepared to accept the 1794 decree that outlawed
slavery. When members of the revolutionary government arrived
in Ile de France to enforce compliance, they were expelled under
threat of violence. Ile de France remained semi-autonomous until
the arrival of Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen in 1803,
appointed governor by Napoleon. Although Decaen began enforcing
Napoleonic law, slavery remained in full force until 1810, when
the British invaded and took control. The island was then again
The British captured Mauritius to assure access to vital sea
lanes and protect their growing interests in India. They had
little concern for the internal workings of Mauritian society,
leaving the daily affairs of the colony to the Franco-Mauritian
aristocracy. The abolition of the slave trade throughout the
British Empire in 1807 did, however, have a dramatic effect
on Mauritian society, where slavery was abolished in 1835.
French slaveholders argued that the government had to compensate
them for their loss of valuable property, and they eventually
received some £2 million. Slaves were required to work for their
former owners as paid labourers for a four-year period, providing
the plantation owners time to locate other sources of cheap labour.
Not surprisingly, once freed of their obligation to work the
plantations, the former slaves fled the fields en masse,
establishing themselves in towns, coastal fishing villages,
and on marginal unclaimed farmlands.
Even before slavery was abolished, the Franco-Mauritian
plantation owners had made contingency plans to locate cheap
labour. From 1834 until 1909 hundreds of thousands of
Indians - primarily from Calcutta, Madras, and
Bombay - migrated to Mauritius as indentured labourers.
Although slavery had been abolished, policies such as the
"double cut" and vagrancy laws subjugated indentured labourers.
Under the "double cut," for example, labourers lost two days' wages
for every day absent from work. Despite extremely low pay,
many Indian immigrants chose to remain after their five-year
indenture in the sugar fields. Colonial authorities promoted
permanent settlement by encouraging the immigration of women
and by eliminating free return passages to India.
The large-scale Indian immigration sparked demand for local trade,
a niche partially filled by Gujarati Muslims. A significant number
of Chinese traders also immigrated to Mauritius during the
19th and 20th centuries, primarily from the Canton region.
By 1861 over 2000 Chinese were reported to live throughout
the island, dominating the retail trade sector.
Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, the main
constituencies of the contemporary Mauritian population had
established themselves. Immigration and emigration slowed and
the population stabilized. Indians, an extremely
heterogeneous group, came to comprise two-thirds of the population.
MAURITIAN NATION BUILDING
The 20th century brought a series of political and social reforms
as Mauritians looked to improve their conditions. Trade unions
gained power and several political parties were formed,
including the Labour Party. Between 1937 and 1943 there were
labour disturbances on plantations and the docks - in some instances
leading to violence - indicating a population weary of subjugation
and anxious for political representation.
In 1947 a new constitution granted suffrage to all literate adults,
followed by universal adult suffrage in 1958. As a result of these
changes, Indo-Mauritians for the first time were granted greater
influence through representation in the Legislative Council.
Political parties quickly formed along ethnic lines with the
Labour Party, led by
Hindu majority, the Parti Mauricien Sociale Démocrate (PMSD)
speaking for the interests of whites and Creoles,
and the Muslim Action Committee articulating the demands
of the Muslim community.
A series of constitutional conferences were held in London
during the 1960s amid rumblings for independence.
Afraid of a Hindu-dominated government, the PMSD hoped to
block independence in favor of an "association" with Britain.
To their disappointment, the British guaranteed
the Labour Party support for independence in exchange for
the Chagos Archipelago (islands located 1930 km [1199 mi]
northeast of Mauritius), which includes the Diego Garcia atoll.
Disputes over the sovereignty of Diego Garcia, where
the United States maintains a military base, are still unresolved.
Under the leadership of Ramgoolam and the Independence Party,
Mauritius obtained sovereignty on March 12, 1968. The formation
of the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM), a socialist
opposition party, combined with the threat of labour strikes,
led to the passing of the Public Order Act in 1971 and later
to a state of emergency. Leaders of the MMM were held by the
police without trial and the 1972 election was postponed.
The press was censored and public assembly was banned.
But by 1976, the MMM had obtained significant support,
winning 34 of 70 seats in the Legislative Assembly.
In June 1982 the MMM, in coalition with the
Parti Socialiste Mauricien (PSM), swept the election,
winning all 60 Mauritian seats in the assembly.
Anerood Jugnauth became prime minister, but within
a few months internal quarreling split his
coalition — the first of many Mauritian political
alliances to collapse as quickly as it formed.
Nevertheless Jugnauth served as prime minister until 1995.
Despite a rapidly changing political landscape, Mauritius's
democratically elected prime ministers have served long and
relatively stable tenures.
The initial socialist leanings of the MMM and other parties
have never significantly tempered the country's devotion to
free-market economics. After the initial economic difficulties
of the 1970s, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and
the World Bank introduced a structural adjustment program
providing loans in exchange for compliance with a number of
economic-stabilization policies, including currency devaluation.
These measures proved largely successful, leading to significant
economic growth and prosperity in the 1980s and 1990s. Exports
increased, deficit spending was radically reduced, inflation
was brought under control, and the gross domestic product (GDP)
dramatically rose. Formed in 1972, the Export Processing Zone (EPZ)
has been quite successful in attracting foreign investment
through a number of tax and fiscal incentives, particularly
in the production of knitwear. In 1988 the EPZ accounted
for 58.8 percent of the nation's export earnings.
The country also opened a stock exchange in 1989 and off-shore
banking facilities in 1990.
While underemployment is pervasive, unemployment is minimal.
Indeed, labour shortages have led many Mauritian textile firms
to recruit laborers from East Asia. Despite these successes,
the economy remains dependent upon sugar prices
(sugar accounts for 32 percent of export earnings)
and the importation of foreign goods, particularly fuel and food.
Tourism is another leading industry, ranking third after sugar
production and textile manufacturing. Some 400,000 tourists visit
Mauritius annually. However, much of the foreign exchange earned
through tourism is spent on the importation of products to
build and maintain the industry itself.
Primary education is free, compulsory, and relatively enforced
in Mauritius. Ninety-four percent of children attend primary school,
leading to one of the lowest rates of illiteracy in
sub-Saharan Africa (estimated to be 17.1 percent).
Economic reforms have also had significant social impact.
The creation of the EPZ has drawn many more women into the
work force, forcing a reevaluation of gender roles and family
structure. Traditional values are also changing as children
become more economically independent and freed from family pressures.
In December 1995, Dr. Navin Ramgoolam,
son of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, became prime minister in a
coalition formed with Paul Berenger's MMM party.
By July 1996
the coalition broke down and Berenger left the government,
reconfirming an established Mauritian political tradition of
unstable coalitions. Despite the political turbulence, the
government shows no sign of shifting away from its commitment
to free-market economics.
Capital and Cities
Places to visit
Coat of Arms
La Vanille-Crocodile Park