The traveller coming to Mauritius for the first time will be surprised to discover the variety of ethnic groups that makes up the population of the island.
Throughout his explorations and his mingling with the locals, he will find three spoken languages; French, English and Mauritian Creole. He will see that places, streets, schools and other public buildings are given names from different countries and cultures. He will understand that, despite his racial identity, culture and religion, each Mauritian carries within himself a little bit of the other with whom he identifies.
This is the product of several centuries of colonisation, which has forged the identity of Mauritius as it stands today, and where everything is a cultural blend and mix… a mosaic.
The paradise island
From visiting explorers to colonisers who stayed on, Mauritius is a “paradise island” which attracted the envy of many.
It seems that the Arabs were amongst the first to discover the island.
However, the first settlers to occupy the island were the Dutch, who settled here for almost two centuries, from 1516 to 1710, and marked the history of the island forever. To the Dutch is owed its name, "Mauritius", in honour of the Prince of Orange, Mauritz van Nassau. The Dutch also introduced sugar cane and the Java deer and exploited the forests for timber trade.
This human presence on the island as well as the arrival of different animals and plant species certainly disturbed the ecosystem, which led to the extinction of the dodo, an endemic bird of the island.
In 1710, drought and terrible devastation caused by hurricanes forced the Dutch to leave the island, which remained uninhabited until the arrival of the French in 1715.
Under French rule, the new colony was administered by the East India Company.
The French governor, François Mahé de Labourdonnais, made the island prosperous with the creation of its seaport and several cities, developed the cultivation of sugar cane as well as some administrative and commercial buildings.
The slave trade was also common at the time, and around 1767, the island had more or less 20 000 inhabitants, including 15 000 slaves who had mainly come from Madagascar and Mozambique.
In 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British stormed the island. This battle ended in failure, but it only made the British more determined to win and they tried again a year later. With the necessary forces this time, they got the French to capitulate.
Following this British victory, L’île de France went back to its original name and became "Mauritius" once again. The population at that point in time amounted to 73 000 inhabitants, out of which 80% were slaves.
Source : Lorient, Musée de la compagnie des Indes, photographie Yvon Boelle / L'Aventure du Sucre
Abolition of slavery in 1933
During the British period, the population that had already settled in were authorized to retain its customs, laws and traditions, its French language as well as its lingua franca, the Mauritian Creole. The official language became English but it was not spoken much.
The British were instrumental in the abolition of slavery in 1833 and the arrival of the first migrant labourers from China, Malaysia, Madagascar, Africa and India. The Indians constituted the majority of this contractual workforce. This period marked the beginning of a fascinating cultural mix, which is inherent to the Mauritian population today.
The independence of Mauritius
The evolution of the island to date
After almost 150 years under British Rule, Mauritius became independent on the 12th of March 1968. It remained an independent state until December 1991, when the Constitution was amended and transform into a Republic.
Since its independence, Mauritius has been a sovereign country that has been part of the Commonwealth countries as well as a member country of the Francophonie since 1993.
Several museums, houses, gardens and places relate the story of Mauritius, and invite thinkers and those passionate about history to travel back in time, at the time of the East India Company and privateers. The principal museums and colonial houses that are worth a visit are l’Aventure du Sucre, the Eureka House in Moka, the Naval Museum of Mahebourg, the Blue Penny Museum and the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, the Château de Labourdonnais and the Château de Bel Ombre.