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History

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 colonisation 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’. They made a good stab at it. 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.

The next group to arrive were far more determined. In 1735, the French founded a permanent colony on Rodrigues as part of a European power-struggle to control the Indian Ocean. They established a small settlement at Port Mathurin, but a lack of leadership coupled with the difficult climate meant the colony never really prospered. When the British – who wanted a base from which to attack French-ruled Mauritius – invaded in 1809, they met with little resistance.

One of the more important events under British rule was the arrival of telecommunications in 1901. Rodrigues was one of the staging posts for the undersea cable linking Britain and Australia. The old Cable & Wireless offices are still to be seen at Pointe Canon above Port Mathurin.

Then, 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 the rest of the country and that, in any case, they were being neglected by the central government. What they wanted was a greater say in their own future.

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 socio-economic affairs and in the management of their natural resources. The following year 18 counsellors were elected; the Regional Assembly was formally inaugurated in 2002 with Serge Clair as Chief Commissioner. The assembly is now trying to tackle the overriding problems of population growth and poverty.

Almost as momentous for many islanders was the visit of Pope John-Paul II in 1989. Nearly the entire population turned out to celebrate Mass at La Ferme.

Today the economic mainstays of Rodrigues are fishing and agriculture, with tourism and handicrafts playing an increasingly important role.