Today is Independence Day in Mauritius, officially the Republic of Mauritius (French: République de Maurice), an island nation in the Indian Ocean about 2,000 km (1,200 mi) off the southeast coast of the African continent. The country includes the islands of Mauritius, Rodrigues (560 kilometres (350 mi) east of the principal island), the islands of Agalega and the archipelago Saint Brandon. Mauritius claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago situated 1,287 km (800 mi) to the north east; the United Kingdom excised the archipelago from Mauritian territory prior to Mauritius’ independence and gradually depopulated it. The islands of Mauritius, Rodrigues and Réunion, 170 km (110 mi) south west, form part of the Mascarene Islands. The area of the country is 2040 km2. Its capital is Port Louis.
The first Portuguese explorers found no indigenous people living on the island in 1507. The Dutch settled on the island in 1638 and abandoned it in 1710. Five years later, the island became a French colony and was renamed Isle de France. The British took control of Mauritius in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars. The country remained under British rule until it became an independent Commonwealth realm on 12 March 1968 and a republic within the Commonwealth on 12 March 1992.
The country is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Most Mauritians are multilingual with English, French, Creole and Asian languages all used freely. The government system is closely modeled on the Westminster parliamentary system. Mauritius has a high global ranking for democracy and for economic and political freedom. It is a high end tourist destination.
The island of Mauritius was unknown and uninhabited before its first recorded visit during the Middle Ages by Arab sailors, who named it Dina Arobi. In 1507 Portuguese sailors visited the uninhabited island and established a visiting base. Diogo Fernandes Pereira, a Portuguese navigator, was the first European to land in Mauritius. He named the island ‘Ilha do Cirne.’ The Portuguese did not stay long as they were not interested in these islands. In 1598 a Dutch squadron under Admiral Wybrand Van Warwyck landed at Grand Port and named the island “Mauritius” after Prince Maurice van Nassau of the Dutch Republic, the ruler of his country. The Dutch established a small colony on the island in 1638, from which they exploited ebony trees and introduced sugar cane, domestic animals, and deer. It was from here that Dutch navigator Abel Tasman set out to discover the western part of Australia. The first Dutch settlement lasted only twenty years. Several attempts were made subsequently, but the settlements never developed enough to produce dividends and the Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710.
France, which already controlled neighboring Île Bourbon (now Réunion), took control of Mauritius in 1715 and renamed it Île de France. The 1735 arrival of French governor Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais coincided with development of a prosperous economy based on sugar production. Mahé de La Bourdonnais established Port Louis as a naval base and a shipbuilding centre. Under his governorship, numerous buildings were erected, a number of which are still standing today — these include part of Government House, the Château de Mon Plaisir and the Line Barracks, the headquarters of the police force. The island was under the administration of the French East India Company which maintained its presence until 1767.
From 1767 to 1810, except for a brief period during the French Revolution when the inhabitants set up a government virtually independent of France, the island was controlled by officials appointed by the French Government. Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre visited the island and wrote Paul et Virginie, a successful novel situated on the island. In particular Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen, a successful General in the French Revolutionary Wars and, in some ways, a rival of Napoléon I, ruled as Governor of Île de France and Réunion from 1803 to 1810. British naval cartographer and explorer Matthew Flinders was arrested and detained by the General Decaen on the island, in contravention of an order from Napoléon. During the Napoleonic Wars, Mauritius became a base from which French corsairs organized successful raids on British commercial ships. The raids continued until 1810, when a Royal Navy expedition led by Commodore Josias Rowley, R.N., an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, was sent to capture the island. Despite winning the Battle of Grand Port, the only French naval victory over the British during these wars, the French surrendered to a British invasion at Cap Malheureux three months later. They formally surrendered on 3 December 1810, on terms allowing settlers to keep their land and property and to use the French language and law of France in criminal and civil matters. Under British rule, the island’s name reverted to Mauritius.
The British administration, which began with Sir Robert Farquhar as Governor, was followed by rapid social and economic changes. Slavery was abolished in 1835. The planters received two million pounds sterling in compensation for the loss of their slaves who had been imported from Africa and Madagascar during the French occupation. The abolition of slavery had a significant impact on Mauritius’ society, economy, and population. The planters brought a large number of indentured laborers from India to work in the sugar cane fields. Between 1834 and 1921, around half a million indentured laborers were present on the island. They worked on sugar estates, factories, in transport and on construction sites. Additionally, the British brought 8,740 Indian soldiers to the island.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, many Mauritians volunteered to serve under the British flag in Africa and the Near East, fighting against the German and Italian armies. Some went to England to become pilots and ground staff in the RAF. Mauritius was never really threatened, but several British ships were sunk outside Port-Louis by German submarines in 1943.
The first general elections were held on 9 August 1948 and were won by the Labour Party. This party, led by Guy Rozemont, improved its position in 1953, and, on the strength of the election results, demanded universal suffrage. Constitutional conferences were held in London in 1955 and 1957, and the ministerial system was introduced. Voting took place for the first time on the basis of universal adult suffrage on 9 March 1959. The general election was again won by the Labour Party, led this time by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. A Constitutional Review Conference was held in London in 1961 and a program of further constitutional advance was established. Two eminent British academics, Richard Titmuss and James Meade, published a report which dwelt upon the social problems caused by overpopulation and the monoculture of sugar cane. This led to an intense campaign to halt the population explosion, and the 1960s registered a sharp decline in population growth.
In 1965, the Chagos Archipelago was split from the territory of Mauritius to form British Indian Ocean Territory. A General election took place on 7 August 1967, and the Labour Party and its two allies obtained the majority of seats. Mauritius adopted a new constitution, independence was proclaimed on 12 March 1968. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam became the first prime minister of an independent Mauritius. In 1969, the opposition party Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) led by Paul Berenger was founded. Later in 1971, the MMM, backed by unions, called a series of strikes in the port which caused a state of emergency in the country, and the leader was imprisoned. Mauritius was proclaimed a republic twenty four years after independence on 12 March 1992.
When it was discovered, the island of Mauritius was the home of a previously unknown species of bird, the Dodo. Dodos were descendent of a type of pigeon which settled in Mauritius over 4 million years ago. With no predators to attack them, they lost their need and ability to fly. In 1505, the Portuguese became the first humans to set foot on Mauritius. The island quickly became a stopover for ships engaged in the spice trade. Weighing up to 50 pounds, the dodo was a welcome source of fresh meat for the sailors. Large numbers of dodos were killed for food and, because they had had no natural predators and, hence no fear of humans, they were easily slaughtered. Later, when the Dutch used the island as a penal colony, new species were introduced to the island. Rats, pigs, and monkeys ate dodo eggs in the ground nests. The combination of human exploitation and introduced species significantly reduced the dodo population. Within 100 years of the arrival of humans on Mauritius, the once abundant dodo became a rare bird. The last one was killed in 1681. The dodo is prominently featured as a supporter of the national Coat of arms of Mauritius, and is sometimes used as a symbol by eco-activists of the harm caused by human indifference to wildlife.
The cuisine of Mauritius reflects the ethnic diversity of its people: Creole rougailles, Indian curries, Muslim bryanis, Chinese stir fries, French traditional dishes, English bacon and eggs – you name it, you’ll get it there. Basic ingredients of the Creole cuisine are tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic and chiles. Classic Creole sauces include rougaille and cari poule. Wild meats such as boar and venison, as well as fish and shellfish are favorites.
Here are two links to sites with excellent instructional videos: one for prawn rougaille, a signature Creole dish, and the other for fish vindaye, an Indian inspired dish similar to fish vindaloo.