Mauritius: From Conquests to Naval Battles, Piracy and a Long-Awaited Independence
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" (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)
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.
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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)
Slaves cut the basalt stones for the fortified walls.
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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.
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.
Capture of Triton by the privateer Hasard under Robert Surcouf. Leon Tremisot, 1808 ( Public Domain )
The Golden Age of Piracy
In 1790 a revolution shattered the peace on Mauritius (as in France) and heralded the Age of Piracy. Under French protection, privateers used the island as a base for attacking British vessels en route to the East Indies. Most famous of the French pirates operating from Mauritius was Robert Surcouf, alias King of the Corsairs, a nobleman and personal friend of Napoleon. The British put a price of 250 000 francs on his head. Robert and his brother Nicolas Surcouf and Jacques Perroud were the only privateers to receive the Legion of Honour from Napoleon. Within a short span from 1793 to 1797, the French captured 2 226 vessels belonging to the British and their allies. The British realised whilst the French privateers ruled from Mauritius, their trade routes and fleet were in serious trouble.
Robert Surcouf, King of the Corsairs. ( Public Domain )
The Battle of Vieux Grand Port 1810
The British retaliated by blocking Port Louis in 1802 and animosity broke out in August 1810 with a naval battle lasting 4 days dubbed the Battle of Vieux Grand Port (the location of the original Dutch and French forts). This was the only naval battle won by the French during the reign of Napoleon. However French victory did not last long, when the British launched another attack from the north at Cap Malheureux on 2 December 1810 and the French were forced to capitulate. Legend has it that the wounded sailors of the French and the British were hospitalised together and became friends. Although the Treaty of Paris of 1814 stipulated that Britain retained Mauritius, the island kept its French culture. The island finally gained independence from Britain in 1968 and became a republic in 1992.
Excavations of the Vieux Grand Port historic site and the Dutch and French forts.
Excavations of the site commenced in 1997 and artifacts are on display in the Museum, located between the ruins of the bakery and the prison and forge. Prince Maurits of Oranje-Nassau officiated the opening of the archaeological site in 1998 and the Fort Frederik Hendrik Museum was inaugurated in 1999. The site is well maintained and open to public tourism. It is a recommended visit.
The Museum, with the bakery on the left and the prison and the forge on the right. (Author provided)
Top image: Battle of Grand Port by Pierre-Julien Gilbert ( CC BY-SA 2.0 Fr )
Mauritius Museums Council
Maurel, M., 2013. Mauritius 8 th ed Travel Guide, Globetrotter. New Holland Publishers, London
Piat, D., 2014. Pirates and Privateers in Mauritius. Editions Didier Miller