Battle of Grand Port by Pierre-Julien Gilbert

Mauritius: From Conquests to Naval Battles, Piracy and a Long-Awaited Independence

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Volcanic activity in the Indian Ocean gave rise to the island we know today as Mauritius. Undetected for millennia, like a tiny green emerald dropped in the azure blue Indian Ocean,  it lay virginally untouched, allowing the vegetation to grow lush due to the rich volcanic deposits and the natural fauna, including the Dodo, to run free. Once discovered, it was coveted by nations, naval battles littered its shores with wrecks, protected by pirates and finally gained independence.

First discoveries: Dinarobin - Ilha do Cerne

We have no evidence as yet of earlier inhabitants, but according to history, the first to record their discovery of the island were the Arabs in 975 AD.  They called the island Dinarobin, meaning silver island.  The Arab presence was brief and left no trace.  For centuries the island did not attract much attention, until 1505 AD when Portuguese Captain Domingo Fernandez planted his feet on the shore and dubbed the island Ilha do Cerne meaning Island of the Swan.  The natural habitat of the island was disturbed by the Portuguese who stocked the island with livestock, such as goats, pigs and oxen, but the Portuguese did not settle here.

Image from page 28 of "The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon"

Image from page 28 of "The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon" (1848) ( Public Domain )

The Dutch occupation: Prince Maurice

In 1598 the Dutch Admiral Van Warwyck disembarked and named it Prince Maurice after Prince Maurits of Nassau.  Dutch ships regularly docked to replenish stocks, but it was only in 1638 that the island was officially colonized by the Dutch. The mighty Dutch East India Company recognised Mauritius as a conveniently located refreshment station from where they could protect their trade routes.  Ex-slave Adriaan van der Stel became the Governor in 1639.  Colonization boosted the population with slaves and laborers. Foreign animals, like lava deer, were introduced and sugar cane was planted.  Besides being challenged by natural calamities such as cyclones and droughts, the lives of the Colonists were goaded by runaway slaves and pirates, which led them to abandon the island twenty years later in 1658. However, 6 years later, they returned due to the island’s favorable location on the sea route to the East Indies.

Postcard illustration of the Dutch settlers in Mauritius (Public Domain)

Postcard illustration of the Dutch settlers in Mauritius (Public Domain)

The Dutch settled mainly in Grand Port (south-east) where they erected a simple fort of wood and palm leaves, resembling a wooden shed.  Cyclones destroyed the structure and it was replaced by a stone structure, called Fort Frederik Hendrik.  Disaster struck in 1694 when the Fort was set alight by rebellious slaves.   For almost 50 years, the Dutch occupied the island, when they finally evacuated in 1710, this time burning down the Fort themselves.

The oldest structure in Mauritius, the remains of the Dutch Fort walls. (Author provided)

The oldest structure in Mauritius, the remains of the Dutch Fort walls. (Author provided)

The French colonization: Ile de France

Five years later in 1715, the French arrived and renamed it Ile de France.   In 1721 they occupied the island and they built a settlement on the ruins of the Dutch Fort.   The French built La Loge , the government building, which housed the governor’s home, soldiers’ barracks and the kitchen. 

La Loge housed the Governor and the soldiers’ barracks. (Author provided)

La Loge housed the Governor and the soldiers’ barracks. (Author provided)

Slaves cut the basalt stones for the fortified walls. 

The fortified walls of La Loge. (Author provided)

The fortified walls of La Loge. (Author provided)

Below La Loge , on the waterfront, the French erected a bancassal or storehouse, a wooden building resting on a stone foundation.  At low tide the jetty is still visible. The site of the fort was augmented by a bakery, a prison and a forge, located across the stream to the east.  These structures were probably removed a short distance from the Fort as a precaution against fire.

At low tide the old jetty can be seen in the sea.

At low tide the old jetty can be seen in the sea.

In 1735 Bertrand Francois Mahe de Labourdonnais was appointed Governor who favored Port Louis on the west coast.  Under the command of De Labourdonnais, wheat and cotton were cultivated besides the sugar cane and he developed a network of roads.  The population of Mauritius expanded to sixty thousand and the island flourished.  De Labourdonnais died in 1753 in France.  In 1753 and 1780 La Loge was revived under threat of a British invasion.

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