Mauritius Table of Contents
Statue of Mahé de la Bourdonnais, an early governor appointed by
the French East India Company, in Port Louis, the capital
Courtesy Mari G. Borstelmann
Although there is no evidence of human habitation on Mauritius before the early seventeenth century, Phoenicians probably visited the island about 2,000 years ago, and Malays and Arabs stopped on the island in subsequent centuries. The Portuguese charted the waters surrounding the island, which they called Ilha do Cirne (Island of the Swan), in the early sixteenth century. In 1638 the Dutch began colonizing the island, which they named after Maurice of Nassau, the stadthouder (head of state) of Holland. The island's first governor, Cornelius Simonsz Gooyer, presided over a small population of Dutch convicts and slaves from Indonesia and Madagascar, who sought to export ambergris, ebony, and other resources. After twenty years, the colony failed, as did a second settlement established in 1664. Poor administration and harsh conditions forced the Dutch to withdraw permanently by 1710. In addition to presiding over the extinction of the dodo bird and leaving behind perhaps some runaway slaves, swarms of rats, and ravaged ebony forests, the Dutch introduced a plant that was to be prominent in the island's future--sugarcane.
French efforts to colonize the area were more successful. Around 1638 they had taken the islands of Rodrigues and Reunion, and in 1715 an expedition of the French East India Company claimed Mauritius for France. The company established a settlement named Île de France on the island in 1722. The company ruled until 1764, when, after a series of inept governors and the bankruptcy of the company, Mauritius became a crown colony administered by the home government. One exception among the early company governors was Mahe de Labourdonnais, who is still celebrated among Mauritians. During his tenure from 1735 to 1746, he presided over many improvements to the island's infrastructure and promoted its economic development. He made Mauritius the seat of government for all French territories in the region, built up Port Louis, and strengthened the sugar industry by building the island's first sugar refinery. He also brought the first Indian immigrants, who worked as artisans in the port city.
Under French government rule, between 1764 and 1810, Port Louis gained prestige and wealth. The island's population increased, and its planters grew rich. Agricultural prosperity was achieved by exploiting cheap slave labor. Between 1767 and 1797, the population doubled to 59,000 inhabitants, including 6,200 whites, 3,700 free persons, and 49,100 slaves; the population in each category more than doubled during the period. Although the island's elite culture was distinctly French, its social structure grew more complex as the population grew. Port Louis, open to free trade after the demise of the French East India Company, saw a major increase in shipping, especially from Europe and North America. For example, from 1786 to 1810 almost 600 ships from the United States called on Mauritius, and the United States established a consulate in Port Louis in 1794. Privateering was an even greater boon to the economy.
News of the French Revolution reached Mauritius in 1790, prompting settlers unhappy with royal administration to establish more representative forms of government: a colonial assembly and municipal councils. When a squadron arrived three years later, however, to enforce the new French government's abolition of slavery, the settlers turned the squadron back. Napoleon sent a new governor to the island in 1803, resulting in the dissolution of the assembly and councils. The waning of French hegemony in the region permitted a British force of 10,000, carried from the Indian subcontinent by a fleet of seventy ships, to land on Mauritius in 1810. The French capitulated to the British, but the British agreed to leave in place existing legal and administrative structures. The 1814 Treaty of Paris awarded the island, together with the Seychelles and Rodrigues islands, to Britain. English became the official language, but French and Creole dominated. Few British immigrants came to the colony.
The plantation-owning Mauritians of French origin (FrancoMauritians ) resisted British attempts to eradicate slavery. Finally, after much investigation, petitioning, and subterfuge, the authorities abolished slavery in 1835. Plantation owners won several concessions from the government, however, including a payment of 2.1 million pounds sterling and laws obliging freed slaves to remain on their former owner's land as "apprentices" for six years. Widespread desertions by "apprentices" forced the abolition of the laws in 1838, two years before schedule, and created a severe labor shortage.
Data as of August 1994
Mauritius Table of Contents