Port Louis was first settled in the 17th century by the Dutch, who called it Noordt Wester Haven. It was the French governor Bertrand François Mahé de Labourdonnais, however, who took the initiative and developed it into a busy capital and port after 1736. Labourdonnais is commemorated with a much-photographed statue at the seaward end of Place S Bissoondoyal (formerly Place d’Armes), the square that marks the city centre.
Few cities have bounced back from as many natural disasters as Port Louis, or Port Napoleon as it was known briefly in the early 19th century before the British took the island. Between 1773 and 1892 a series of fires, plagues and tropical storms all tried, and failed, to level the town. In 1819 cholera arrived from Manila on the frigate Topaz, killing an estimated 700 Port Louis residents. Things quietened down until 1866, when malaria suddenly appeared on the scene, causing a further 3700 fatalities. Around this time people started heading for the cooler (and healthier) Central Plateau, so the town’s population was mercifully small when the 1892 cyclone whipped through, and destroyed 3000 homes.
The 20th century has seen Port Louis become one of Africa’s most important financial centres and ports – to which the ever-growing number of high-rise glass-fronted banks in the city centre attest.