Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Beautiful Island of Mauritius

In 1973, when I first visited the beautiful Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius it was relatively untouched by tourism and yet to be discovered by tourists in their masses. In those days, its main claims to fame were the extinct bird, the Dodo, and the postage stamp known as the “Blue Mountain.”
Now the island is a prime destination for seekers of white coral sands, blue skies, tranquillity and fantastic hospitality from the hosts and staff in the many hotels set in tropical gardens that are shaded by coconut palms, bending in the balmy tropical breeze that softly sighs in from its surrounding turquoise seas.
Mauritius lies 1200 off the coast of East Africa and the people of the island do not consider themselves “African”. Populated mostly with people of Indian origin, it bears no resemblance to India. The main language is French and civilised in the way of the French, it owes no allegiance to France. Also with 150 years of British administration and influence, its association with the United Kingdom is not massive. However, with all the different backgrounds and cultural influences, there has merged a culture that has created a unique and vibrant people, who, without a doubt, make them the greatest tourism attraction to the island. They are happy, colourful, friendly and make every person visiting feel very special.
Add the squeaky, soft, sandy beaches lapped by aquamarine coral lagoon waters, the Black Mountains, tropical tangled forests casting their shade over timber walled cottages, bubbling mountain streams and rolling fields of sugar cane, it is a place of 700 square miles of Eden.
It is thought that in the first 1000 years AD, the Arab and Malay peoples were the first to visit the island, which was uninhabited until the 16th century. The first European to moor off the island and visit was the Portuguese Captain Pedro Mascarenhas and named the group of islands, Reunion, Rodrigues and Mauritius the “Mascareignes.” Then in 1598 a party of Dutchmen landed on the island and named it after their ruler at the time, Prince Maurice of Nassau. For forty years it became the port of call for the Dutch, English and French trading ships, until the Dutch took formal possession in 1638. Four years later the Dutch navigator, Tasman, set sail on his most important voyage that led to the discovery of Australia.
The Dutch introduced sugar cane to the island and the sambar deer from Java in the East Indies. They also hunted out and exterminated the dodo and other indigenous birds and animals unique to the island. Their settlement lasted until 1715 and was then claimed by the French who renamed it Ile de France. In the early years of administration by the French East India Company, several fortifications were built, (one of which can be seen at the entrance of Grand Port.) They also shipped in African slaves. In 1735 a great governor was appointed, Mahe de Labourdonnais, who, during 11 years of office transformed the colony. The planting of sugar cane was encouraged; the first sugar factory was opened in Pamplemousses in 1743 and cotton, indigo, cloves, nutmeg and spices were grown. He had the “marrons” (escaped African slaves) rounded up and captured as they had been terrorising the French settlers, creating peace on the plantations. In Port Louis he established a naval base that conducted forays that harassed the English merchant ships sailing on their way to India on the Spice Route, confiscating their precious cargos of spice. But, the rise of the French East India Company was short lived, - ruined by financial setbacks and a succession of wars, they were forced to hand the island over to the rule of France and under the rule of the French crown, it flourished as a naval station, figuring prominently in sea strategy during the War of American Independence, the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War. In the Napoleonic Wars it became “Le Nid de Corsairs” which was a base for privateers who preyed on the East English Indiamen.
In 1810, the British Royal Navy were fed up with this stone in their shoe and decided to retaliate by sending off four frigates. They were thoroughly defeated in Grand Port, off Mahebourg. The wrecks of two frigates, the Magicienne and the Sirius are known to be lying 60 to 90 feet down and can be reached by scuba diving. The Battle of Grand Port was the only notable French naval victory against the English and is proudly inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
A few months after this embarrassment to the English, an invasion was launched by them from the island of Rodrigues, 250 miles away. The island’s defences collapsed and the French capitulated and four years later Ille de France was ceded to Britain. It is interesting to note that under the terms of surrender to the English under the treaty of Paris, the French way of life, religion, language, laws and customs were safeguarded. This settlement is still recognised with gratitude by the French descendants of Mauritius.
The economy thrived under British administration and the island prospered. The first major social change came with the abolition of slavery in 1833. Freed, the African and Creole workers refused to labour in the sugar plantations and indentured labour was recruited from India. Once strengthened, the labour force helped towards the expansion of the sugar industry and helped speed sugar consignments to Port Louis by building roads and bridges to the port.
Life continued peacefully for more than 100 years and Mauritius was known as the “Star and Key of the Indian Ocean”. During the Age of Steam the island became an important coaling station on the passage to India. When the Suez Canal was opened, the island’s strategic commercial importance was lost until the closure of the Suez during WW2 when it had a brief revival. Prosperity continued through the first half of the 20th century, interrupted by the two Great Wars in which many Mauritians served with the British army.
In 1968, after 154 years of British rule Mauritius gained Independence.

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