Mauritius is a tropical island that’s known not only for its white sandy beaches and luxury hotels and villas but also for its increasing role in international diplomacy and commerce. The island, despite its small size has always played an important part in the region and was always coveted by several European countries throughout history.
Discovery of Mauritius
It is thought that the first sailors to ever set eyes on the island of Mauritius were Arab navigators who named the island “Dina Arobi” in the 12th century. In 1507, the island was re-discovered by Portuguese navigators who named it “Cirne” on their maps, although they did not settle there.
The Dutch were the first to try a settlement at Grand Port in 1598 and named the island after the Prince Maurice Van Nassau. For a time, they used the place as a refueling stop along their trade routes to India but eventually decided to try a permanent settlement in 1638 to prevent the British and the French from taking possession of the island.
During their stay, they freely cut down and exported precious ebony trees. They also introduced the cultivation of sugar cane in the island. However, cyclones, pest infestations, cattle illnesses and droughts took their toll on the settlers and the Dutch left Mauritius in 1710. Nowadays, many landmarks bear Dutch names, such as Flic-en-Flac , Flacq, Vandermeersh etc. Unfortunately for future generations, the Dutch settlement of Mauritius was the direct cause for the extinction of the famous Dodo bird and of the local giant tortoise.
In 1715, the French, who already controlled the neighboring island of Réunion (then known as Bourbon), took over the island of Mauritius and renamed it Isle de France. The island’s development truly took off however with the arrival of the governor Bertrand Mahé de Labourdonnais. Under his governorship, sugar cane was cultivated, the town of Port-Louis was made a shipbuilding centre and naval base, and several buildings like the Government House, Line Barracks, and the Château Mon Plaisir were erected.
It is said that he also introduced cassava in the Mascarene Islands from Brazil and that lacking qualified engineers to build ships and architects to design buildings, he supervised everything himself. Unfortunately for him, his superiors at the French East India Company grew increasingly jealous of his prosperity, recalled him to France and imprisoned him at the Bastille where he was tortured. After being cleared of all charges in 1751 he died two years later.
Until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1810, the island of Mauritius was known as a naval base for French Corsairs like Robert Surcouf, who regularly attacked the commercial ships of the British East India Company. The British, being very upset from those losses, decided to attack and capture the island of Mauritius. An expedition led by Josias Rowley of the Royal Navy landed at Cap Malheureux in November 1810 and soon took over the French colony.
The British rule of Mauritius brought about some changes in the island. Being very bored after the end of the Napoleonic wars, the British constructed the Champs-de-Mars race course in 1812, the oldest race track in the Southern hemisphere and the second oldest of the entire world. They also decided to abolish slavery and allowed the local settlers to import indentured laborers from India as compensation. Little by little, the entire economy of the island became dependent on the cultivation of sugarcane.
Independence and the future
Mauritius gained its independence from the British on the 12th of March 1968. Progressively, its economy evolved from being purely based on agriculture and the export of sugar to several other sectors which include: tourism, textile and financial services. In 1992, Mauritius became a republic.
Nowadays, the island of Mauritius is very active in the regional development of the Indian Ocean and Africa. It is a founding member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation, an organization which includes 20 member states in the Indian Ocean region. Asian countries and companies seeking to invest in Africa first use Mauritius as a stepping stone to the continent because of its political stability, economic prosperity and know-how of its inhabitants, thus truly earning its nickname: the star and Key of the Indian Ocean.
Credit for top picture: The Island of Mauritius. Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/samovarincentive/ CC by NC-SA