FORMER ISLE DE FRANCE
A brief description and history of the island, would not
be out of place, to depict what our forefathers had to face in 1729 and to
explain to those who have never visited the island, what it was like then and
what it has become today.
Geography and climate
Mauritius is an irregularly shaped tropical island
measuring 63 by 47 kms, (approximately 30 x 30 miles), with an area of 1 865
square kms. It is described in geography books as the tattered remnant of an
ancient volcanic cone sticking out of the sea. It is situated in the Indian
Ocean at 2 758 kms (1 460 miles) from Johannesburg and 160 kms (100 miles) from
It’s volcanoes are no longer active but several craters
remain, le Trou aux Cerfs ( the Deers’ Hole) near Curepipe being the best
preserved. The curiously shaped Pieter Both is it’s highest mountain at 823m
and it’s most distinctive landmark. The island is green and fertile with vast
plains devoted mainly to sugar cane cultivation. Towards the centre, the island
becomes more hilly, less inhabited, with woods, winding roads and small
villages. The coasts are fringed with coral beaches, a paradise for lovers of
water sports, fishing and underwater exploration.
The island is at it’s hottest and wettest from January to
April which is also the hurricane season. Driest months are October and
November; the coldest, July to September, but temperatures rarely fall below 18
degrees centigrade, even at night, except in the highest areas. However, summer
temperatures on the coast range from 23 to 33 degrees. The sea remains warm all
While the island was known to the early Arab and Malay
sailors of the middle ages, who gave it the name Dinarobin, it was never
occupied until 1598. Originally it was an undeveloped virgin island, thickly
wooded and inhabited by birds and small reptiles, which were blown in or washed
ashore by the seas. Animals were only introduced in the early eighteenth
century, when the European explorers arrived.
The early sailors left their mark on the island as they
plundered the hard ebony wood from the forests. The Portuguese introduced
monkeys, and the Dutch dogs and hogs which led to the extinction of the Dodo, a
large flightless bird, which could not survive the rigours created by these
carnivores, which ravaged their nests and hunted them. The Dutch also introduced
deer which are still prevalent today.
An early picture of Port Louis
The first European to discover the island was Domingo
Fernandez who landed in Mauritius in or about 1510 and named the island Sirné,
Isle of the Swan, perhaps after his ship or perhaps the Dodo which he might
have mistaken for swans. The Portuguese did not occupy the island, preferring
to settle on the east coast of Africa.
The Dutch colony
The Dutch, under Admiral Van Warwyck, arrived on the
island on 17th September 1598 and renamed it “Mauritius” in honour of Prince
Maurice of Nassau. They occupied the island until 1710 (with breaks in between
from 1658 to 1664), when they left for the more profitable Sunda Islands in the
Malaysian Archipelago. Their main legacy was the introduction of sugar cane from
Early Picture of Port Louis
The French colony
The French occasionally stopped in Mauritius during the
Dutch occupation. In 1715, Captain Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel claimed the
island for the French and called it “Isle de France”.
The first French governor of the island, the Chevalier de
Nyon, arrived on 6th April 1722. From 1722 to 1767 the Isle de France was
administered by the French East India Company.
It was then governed by officials appointed by the French
Government from 1767 until the island was invaded by the British in 1810.
It was Mahé de Labourdonnais, a distinguished sailor and
soldier, governor of the Isle de France from 1735 to 1746, who changed the
island from a mere trading post to a prosperous French colony through his
foresight and extremely capable administration.
Mahé de Labourdonnais, whose signature figures amongst
those of other witnesses on Jean-Baptiste Giblot Ducray’s marriage certificate
in 1744, was also instrumental in launching the sugar industry. By 1778 there
were 180 sugar mills on the island and this increased to 259 in 1858. However,
beyond this date, the number of mills decreased, and in 1986 only 19 remained.
Today there are less than ten. Despite his achievements and the statue erected
in his honour in the main square of Port Louis, Mahé de Labourdonnais ended his
life in jail, for opposing his seniors.
The Isle de France played a very important role during
the18th century wars (the Austrian Wars of Succession, Seven Years’ war,
American war of Independence, the French Revolution and
the Napoleonic wars). Port Louis, the capital, became a French naval depot,
replenishing and repairing the French fleet fighting the British in the Indian
Ocean, and was also the pivot of French plans to drive the English from their
Indian trading posts. The name “Star and Key of the Indian Ocean” was truly
earned. Indeed, Charles Giblot’s grandson, Félix Emilien Giblot Ducray, saw
service at the battles of Madras, Provedien, Negapatam, and Trincomalee in 1782
and 1783, and one of his brothers in law, François Joseph Le Juge de la Source
lost an eye at the battle of Negapatam.
The British takeover
In 1810, England captured the Isle de France from the
French and the island’s name was once more changed to Mauritius. Despite the
British takeover, nearly a hundred years of French rule, has left an indelible
mark on Mauritius. French tradition has been kept, and the French language,
religion and customs have been retained until to-day; an agreement to this
effect was incorporated in the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1814 by the British
and the French. The cooperation between the two nations is evidenced by the
fact that many Mauritians volunteered to serve in the French and British armies
during both world wars.
The island becomes independent
Mauritius was granted it’s independence in 1968 while
remaining within the British Commonwealth, since which date it has gone from
strength to strength. Once an island inhabited only by birds, Mauritius has
since grown from a mere safe haven supplying water and fresh vegetables to
ships en route to the East, to an economically viable nation with a present
population in excess of 1.2 million, consisting mainly of Creoles (of African
descent), Indians, Chinese and a small smattering of Europeans.
become a “free port” and as a result of this and cheap labour, material goods
from the East are processed and exported free of tax to all parts of the world.
Up until 1968 sugar was the main export earner representing 95% of the exports,
but tourism is slowly taking over, sugar now representing less than 40% of the
island’s exports. From having little or no hotels on the island prior to
independence, there is now a proliferation of modern hotels all over the island
and visitors, mainly from Europe and South Africa, can be seen at any time of
The island is bustling with a kaleidoscope of colourful
people who, if not employed in the sugar, textile or tourist industry, are
involved in trade. The Indian and Chinese people are a race of businessmen and
in all the towns, the main streets are lined with shops, which retail from
spicy foods to clothes, fabrics and trinkets from the East. The market in Port
Louis is a very interesting place, selling fresh foods and all kinds of items,
from buttons and bows to electrical wares, and has become a major tourist
attraction. A new complex has recently been built in Port Louis, “Le Caudan”,
in the harbour area, housing modern restaurants and western shops, mingled with
local wares. A prominent shopping centre has also been built just off the major
highway at Quatre Bornes, housing “Le Continent”, run by a well known chain of
Visit this interesting site http://www.mauritius-islander.com/mauritius_history_society.htm