Mauritius had no indigenous population predating the European colonisers, and so – unlike many other small islands, for which colonisation resulted in the savage destruction of the original population a short time later – its history is pleasantly free of episodes of brutality, at least until the advent of slavery. This historical point is key to understanding the country's culture of tolerance and easy acceptance of all people – there's nobody in the ethnic melting pot able to claim precedence over others.
The First Colonisers
Although Arab traders knew of Mauritius – which they rather unfairly called Dina Arobi (Isle of Desolation) – as early as the 10th century, the first Europeans to discover these uninhabited islands were the Portuguese, around 1507. They, too, were more interested in trade and never attempted to settle.
In 1598 a group of Dutch sailors landed on the southeast coast, at what is now called Vieux Grand Port, and claimed the island for the Netherlands. For the next 40 years the Dutch used Mauritius as a supply base for Batavia (Java), before deciding to settle near their original landing spot. Settlement ruins and a museum can still be seen at Vieux Grand Port, near Mahébourg, as can a monument to the first landing.
The colony never really flourished, however, and the Dutch abandoned it in 1710. Nevertheless they left their mark: in the short time they were here, the Dutch were responsible for the extinction of the dodo and for introducing slaves from Africa, deer from Java, wild boar, tobacco and, above all, sugar cane.
Île De France
Five years after the Dutch abandoned Mauritius, it was the turn of the French, when in 1715 Captain Guillaume Dufresne d'Arsel sailed across from what is now Réunion and claimed Mauritius for France. The island was rechristened Île de France, but nothing much happened until the arrival in 1735 of dynamic governor Bertrand François Mahé de Labourdonnais, Mauritius' first colonial hero. He not only transformed Port Louis into a thriving seaport, but also built the first sugar mill and established a road network.
It was around this time that Mauritius' best-known historic event occurred: the St Géran went down during a storm off the northeast coast in 1744. The shipwreck inspired Bernardin de St-Pierre's romantic novel Paul et Virginie, an early bestseller.
As the English gained the upper hand in the Indian Ocean in the late 18th century, Port Louis became a haven for pirates and corsairs – mercenary marines paid by a country to prey on enemy ships. The most famous Franco-Mauritian corsair was Robert Surcouf, who wrought havoc on British shipping.
In 1789 French settlers in Mauritius recognised the revolution in France and got rid of their governor. But some policies were a bridge too far: they refused to free their slaves when the abolition of slavery was decreed in Paris in 1794.
In 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British moved in on Mauritius as part of their grand plan to control the Indian Ocean. Things started badly when they were defeated at the Battle of Vieux Grand Port. Just a few months later, however, British forces landed at Cap Malheureux on the north coast and took over the island.
The new British rulers renamed the island Mauritius but allowed the Franco-Mauritians to retain their language, religion, legal system and the all-important sugar-cane plantations on which the economy depended. Slaves were finally freed in 1835, by which time there were more than 70,000 on the island. They were replaced or supplemented by labour imported from India and China. As many as 500,000 Indians took up the promise of a better life in Mauritius, often to find themselves living and working in appalling conditions on minimum pay.
By sheer weight of numbers, the Indian workforce gradually achieved a greater say in the running of the country. Their struggle was given extra impetus when Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi visited Mauritius in 1901 to push for civil rights. The key event, however, was the introduction of universal suffrage in 1958, and the key personality was Dr (later Sir) Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Founder of the Labour Party in 1936, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam led the fight for independence, which was finally granted in 1968.
The first prime minister of newly independent Mauritius was, not surprisingly, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. He remained in office for 13 years and continued to command great reverence until his death in 1985. A host of public buildings have been named in his honour.
The political landscape since Sir Seewoosagur's death has largely been dominated by the trio of Anerood Jugnauth, the Indian leader of the Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MSM); the Franco-Mauritian Paul Bérenger, with his leftist Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM); and Navin Ramgoolam, son of Sir Seewoosagur and leader of the Mauritian Labour Party. The former two parties formed their first coalition government in 1982, with Jugnauth as prime minister and Bérenger as finance minister. In the years that followed, the two men were in and out of government, sometimes power sharing, at other times in opposition to each other, according to the complex and shifting web of allegiances that enlivens Mauritian politics. In 1995 and again in 2005, Navin Ramgoolam beat the MSM-MMM coalition with his Alliance Sociale coalition.
On the economic front, Mauritius was undergoing a minor miracle. Up until the 1970s the Mauritian economy could be summed up in one word: sugar. It represented more than 90% of the country's exports, covered most of its fertile land and was its largest employer by far. Every so often a cyclone would devastate the cane crop, or a world drop in sugar prices would have bitter consequences.
From the 1970s the government went all out to promote textiles, tourism and financial services, much of it based on foreign investment. Soon Mauritius was one of the world's largest exporters of textiles, with clothes by Ralph Lauren, Pierre Cardin, Lacoste and other famous brands all manufactured on the island. Income from tourism also grew in leaps and bounds as the government targeted the luxury end of the market.
The strategy paid off. The 1980s and 1990s saw the Mauritian economy grow by an extremely healthy 5% a year. Unemployment fell from a whopping 42% in 1980 to less than 6% by 2000 and overall standards of living improved. Even so, rates of unemployment and poverty remained high among the Creole population (people of mixed Afro-European origin), many of whom also felt frustrated at their lack of political power in the face of the Indian majority. These tensions spilled onto the streets of Port Louis in 1999, triggered by the death in police custody of the singer Kaya, an ardent campaigner for the rights of the disadvantaged Creole population. The riots brought the country to a standstill for four days and forced the government to make political concessions.
The post-independence back and forth between the Labour Party and the MSM has continued in recent times. In elections to the national assembly in 2010, an alliance between the two won nearly 50% of the vote, and carried 45 of the 69 seats. Navin Ramgoolam, who had been prime minister since 2005, continued in the post after the elections until he was deposed in 2014. He was succeeded by Anerood Jugnauth, who was in turn succeeded by his son three years later.