Rodrigues is named after the Portuguese navigator Don Diégo Rodriguez, who was the first European to discover the uninhabited island in 1528. Dutch sailors were the next to pay a call, albeit very briefly, in 1601, followed a few years later by the French.
At first Rodrigues was simply a place where ships could take refuge from storms and replenish their supplies of fresh water and meat. Giant tortoises were especially prized since they could be kept alive on board for months. Over the years thousands were taken or killed until they completely died out. Rodrigues also had a big flightless bird, the solitaire, which went the same sorry way as its distant cousin, the dodo.
The first serious attempt at colonization occurred in 1691 when Frenchman François Leguat and a band of seven Huguenot companions fled religious persecution at home in search of a 'promised land'. Crops grew well and the island's fauna and flora were a source of wonder. Even so, after two years, life on a paradise island began to pall, not least due to the lack of female company. With no boat of their own (the ship they arrived on failed to return as promised), Leguat and his friends built a craft out of driftwood and eventually made it to Mauritius.
In 1735 the French founded a permanent colony on Rodrigues with a small settlement at Port Mathurin, but the colony never really prospered. When the British – who wanted a base from which to attack French-ruled Mauritius – invaded in 1809, they were met with little resistance.
In 1967 Rodriguans distinguished themselves by voting against independence from Britain by a whopping 90% (the rest of Mauritius voted strongly in favour). It was a dramatic illustration of the difference in outlook between the two islands. Following independence Rodriguans continued to argue that their needs were significantly different from those of the rest of the country and that, in any case, they were being neglected by the central government.
The campaign was led by Serge Clair and his Organisation du Peuple de Rodrigues (OPR), founded in 1976. His patience and political skill eventually paid off. In 2001 it was announced that Rodrigues would be allowed a degree of autonomy, notably in socioeconomic affairs and in the management of its natural resources. The following year 18 councillors were elected; the Regional Assembly was formally inaugurated in 2002 with Serge Clair as chief commissioner.
Even so, many in Rodrigues still feel themselves ignored by policymakers on the main island of Mauritius and some are looking to take the next step. As such, complete independence remains a fervent desire for some and, in April 2010, the Muvman Independantis Rodriguais (MIR) was launched when two candidates ran for government positions as 'Rodriguans' rather than 'Mauritians'. Although they were rebuffed the issue won't go away any time soon.
By 2012 the Rodrigues People's Organisation (OPR; Organisation du Peuple Rodriguais) had won back control of the regional assembly, and picked up two seats in broader Mauritian elections in 2014. As such, the independence voice remains occasionally noisy but is yet to make significant headway.
In the meantime Rodrigues' regional assembly is trying to tackle the overriding problems of population growth, poverty and critical water shortages. This third problem is a grave one, and there is year-round rationing. New hotels and many existing ones are being forced to look towards sustainable water options (including desalination), and it's an issue of long-term concern for the island.