History | Geography | Climate | Economy | Politics | Population | Fauna | Flora
The Arab navigators were already familiar with Mauritius during the 10th century. Back then, it was given the name of Dina Arobi but was not colonized by the former. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Portuguese landed on the island but they did not condescend to pay more attention to it than did the Arabs.
In 1598, the Dutch took over the island and named it Mauritius in honor of their sovereign: Maurits van Nassau, prince of Orange. However, it was only 40 years later that the island would be truly occupied as a supplying platform for ships heading to the Indies. The Dutch took advantage of their stay in the island to exploit (and destroy) the ebony forests, to develop the sugarcane sector and to introduce some domestic animals as well as stags, which are still hunted for their meat today. It was during this period that the famous Dodo, the emblematic animal of Mauritius, disappeared. After numerous yet unsuccessful attempts to colonize the island, the Dutch abandoned the island in 1710.
In 1715, the French acquired the island and renamed it Ile de France. The island knew a rapid expansion with the arrival of François Mahé de La Bourdonnais who was appointed governor in 1735. He founded Port-Louis, the capital of the island, and the Pamplemousses garden. He developed the agricultural sector and built a road network. The workforce requirements were mainly ensured by slavery.
Unfairly accused of treason, Mahé de La Bourdonnais was summoned back in France and jailed in 1747. The governors who succeeded him tried their best to proceed with the development of the island.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Indian Ocean was a theatre of war between British and French ships. In 1810, after numerous naval battles and murderous confrontations, the British took possession of the island and renamed it Mauritius. They governed the island for more than 150 years.
The most outstanding event of this reign was the abolition of slavery in 1835. This compelled the settlers to take on labor of Indian origin. It is the beginning of great migratory waves and of a significant increase in the population. As such, 25 years later, half of the population is of Indian origin. During this period, the sugar industry was intensely developed and this favored the economic birth of the island during the whole of the 19th and 20th century.
Gradually, the British government granted more freedom to the native population, which finally resulted in the independence of the island on 12 March 1968. Mauritius will become a Republic 20 years later, on 12 March 1992.
Mauritius is located in the south-west region of the Indian Ocean, at about 2’000 km from the African coast and 900 km from Madagascar. It is part of the Mascarenes Islands, just like Reunion Island, Rodrigues and St-Brandon.
Mauritius is 65 km long and 45 km wide and has a total surface area of 1’865 km2. The coastlines (330 km) are surrounded and protected by coral reefs thus creating a magnificent turquoise lagoon.
Inland, there is a central plateau that rises up to 600 m in altitude. It is edged by three mountain ranges whose peaks are fantastically shaped. Piton de la Rivière Noire is located in the south-west region and is the highest point of the island (828 m). Nearly as high, the Pieter Both (820 m) and Le Pouce (811 m) overhang Port-Louis.
With the exception of these three mountain ranges, most of the island is flat. This particular characteristic favors the growth of sugarcane, mainly in the North and East.
The main places of interest (refer to map) are:
- Port-Louis, the capital, melting pot, is full of life and noisy. Its market offers an outstanding burst of colors and scents.
- Mahebourg, an ancient colonial town that has preserved its authenticity through the hustle bustle of life.
- Triolet, a town characterized by a large Hindu community, must be visited in November during the festival of light (Divali).
- Grand Bassin, which is to be discovered during the Maha Shivaratree festival that takes place in February or March. It’s like being on the banks of the Ganges river; a complete change of scene is guaranteed.
- The coastal villages and the landscapes of the South: Le Morne, Baie du Cap, Bel Ombre, Pointe aux Roches, and Souillac have been spared from the tourism development. They have maintained their seal and authenticity. The South is a calm region, picturesque and little urbanized.
- The botanical garden of Pamplemousses, prized by tourists, is worth the visit. It contains hundreds of majestic trees and amazing plants: palm trees, bamboos, mahogany, nutmeg trees, cinnamon trees, pepper plants, travellers palm, baobabs, Indian almond trees, water lilies, lotus, pink torch ginger, canna flowers... as well as many other species!
- The National Park of Black River Gorges shelters the last original forest of the island (Macchabée) and numerous waterfalls. It is among the only regions which are still at their wildest.
- Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire, Le Pouce, Lion Mountain must be included in your excursion trips: wild and uninhabited, they offer an unobstructed view of the lagoon or of wide fields of sugarcane.
- The public beaches of Mont Choisy, Belle Mare, Flic en Flac are to be kept for weekends when Mauritian families come to enjoy themselves: animation and joy of living are guaranteed.
If the crowds of tourists do not scare you:
- Chamarel and its colored earth.
- Domaine du Chasseur and its numerous rare trees.
- The heavenly lagoons of Ile aux Cerfs, Flat Island, Gabriel Islet and Ile aux Bénitiers. However, these places are not completely off the beaten track!
The island is located in the Southern hemisphere. Its seasons are as such in the reverse order.
The Southern summer, which lasts from November to April, is humid and hot. The temperatures vary on average between 26°C and 32°C. Heavy precipitations occur but generally, are not prolonged. Equally, risks of cyclones are at their highest during this period.
The winter season, from June to September, is more pleasant. The temperatures oscillate from 20°C to 26°C. It can be chilly at nights especially on the central plateau. In this particular region, at an altitude of 600 m, temperatures are always below the normal by 3 to 5°C.
The island is prone to trade winds throughout the year. The South and East coasts are windier and receive slightly more rainfall than the North and West.
The sea is warm in summer (26°C to 29°C) and cools down notably in winter (20°C to 23°C).
The sun goes down relatively earlier in the tropical regions: between 18h and 19h, depending on the season.
The Mauritian economy has been subject to a complete yet unbelievable transformation during the last decades. After having gone through a scarce and poor phase in the near past, the country is today quoted as an example of its almost miraculous economic development.
The economy is founded on 3 pillars: the export of sugar, products of the free zone and tourism. A fourth and equally important sector has been developed since 1992: the offshore sector, which welcomes mainly financial holdings and transforms Mauritius into a fiscal paradise.
The growth of sugarcane has always been the main pillar of the Mauritian economy. But, since a few years, this particular industry is undergoing a drastic slow-down. The smaller concerns are either shutting down or grouping together. There is a shortage of labor as Mauritians, rightly, do not want to strive hard in the fields for only a meagre salary. Today, this sector represents only 5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In order to attract forein investors, a free zone was created in 1970. It is entirely based on the export of products and contributes largely to the economic growth of the island. Manufacturing industries, which are mostly from France, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India or Malaysia, are nowadays operating in Mauritius. They are mainly focused on the textile sector.
On the other hand, the tourism sector is under constant development. It is creating many jobs and attracting strong currencies to the island, but it is also bringing its load of nuisances. Every year, new hotels are being built on the littoral, thus reducing significantly the number of beaches accessible to Mauritians. Some regions are overcrowded with hotels.
The rapid development of the economy and the dawning industrialisation are undoubtedly signs that herald the approach of a new era, which will probably destroy this earthly paradise.
The Constitution is based on the British model; the Executive power is entrusted to the Prime Minister and to a Cabinet made up of 25 ministers.
The Parliament has 60 members. It represents different political parties and holds the legislative power. It elects the President of the Republic who functions according to established protocols.
Elections take place every 5 years.
The population of Mauritius is estimated to 1’200’000 inhabitants. The density is more significant in the region that stretches from Port Louis to Curepipe. Different ethnic groups are represented: Indo-Mauritians, which constiture 70% of the population, Creoles, Sino-Mauritians and White-Mauritians (of European origin). The descendents of Indian immigrants are divided in two communities of different religion: Hindus and Muslims.
The island is a human and cultural patchwork due to its origins. British or French settlers, African slaves, Indian labourers, Chinese traders have preserved their native tongues, customs and beliefs. Enriched from all those exterior influences, the actual Mauritian population stands up to the image of its history and maintains an inter-ethnic harmony. Outside, women are seen wearing the sari, the tchador or are dressed in the latest Western fashion without anyone taking the slightest notice of their dress codes. In restaurants, customers relish various specialities - Creole, Indian or Chinese cuisines - with the same pleasure. Some people talk English, others French, Hindi or other Oriental languages. Nevertheless, it is the Creole dialect which acts as the main medium of communication between the different cultures.
How can different communities cohabit harmoniously on a densely populated island? Here, we talk of the Mauritianism spirit, a misture of pride and patriotism for their island, as well as tolerance and solidarity towards their fellow citizens. Mauritians have grown wealthy through their differences rather than ruining themselves because of these differences. However, without any particular will to scratch this beautiful image made up of harmony and mutual comprehension, we noticed that the communities do not mingle among themselves or do so on a very small scale. The habits and customs of each culture can be the reasons behind such a behavior.
In a spirit of equity and fairness, the Government has established several public holidays to celebrate the different festivals, which are mostly of a religious nature. These festivals reflect wholly the diversity of the Mauritian culture: Cavadee (Tamil festival), Eid Ul Fitr (Muslim festival), Chinese New Year, Père Laval (Catholic festival), Maha Shivaratree and Divali (Hindu festivals) and many more besides!
The Dodo, an extinct bird, is the symbolic animal of Mauritius. This huge bird, which weighed nearly 25 kg, disappeared at the end of the 17th century as it was hunted by Man and imported animals. The colonization of the island had not been beneficial to the fauna; various species disappeared with the arrival of Man. Some rare endemic animals have managed to survive in the original forests and in the Northern islets (Gunner’s Quoin, Serpent Island and Round Island). The familiar ones include: a small bird of prey known as the kestrel (Falco punctatus), a magnificent green parakeet (Psittacula eques echo) or still, the pink pigeon (Columba mayeri).
From the colonial era, Mauritius has preserved the monkeys brought by the Portuguese as well as stags and boars introduced by the Dutch during the 17th century. The animals usually hide in the lush vegetation of the central plateau’s forests. The British brought mongooses as means to control the proliferation of rats as well as huge tortoises (Aldabra), originating from the Seychelles, which can be observed only in parks.
Amongst the native or exotic species, one can find birds such as the bulbul (Pycnonotus jocusus) called Condé, which can be easily recognized by its small black tuft and its great liking for pawpaws; the Village Weaver (Ploceus cucullatus) with yellow feathers, which weaves strange nests left dangling at the end of branches; the Madagascar Red Fody (Foudia madagascariensis) where the male adorns a brilliant red plumage. The list continues with the turtledove (Geopelia striata), the Indian mynah (Acridotheres tristis), and the little grey heron (Butorides striatus) that can be found on the littoral, or the paille-en-queue (White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaeton lepturus) flying high up in the sky.
Bats are the only indigenous mammals of Mauritius: they are either fruit-eaters or insectivorous.
As for reptiles, there is the unmistakable gecko, a small lizard common to the tropical regions, the chameleon and various other species of lizards. There exists two categories of harmless snakes and two other endemic species of boas that live only on Round Island.
If the fauna is not much diversified inland, on the other hand, the ocean depths of the island offer an awe-inspiring scene: tropical fishes, corals, nudibranchs, octopus... Dolphins are usually spotted at Tamarin Bay or Black River Bay. Unfortunately, the increasing number of ecotourism boats can drive them away from the island’s waters. In the open sea, it is common to come across sharks, whales and cachalots as well as sea breams, swordfish and marlins that end up making the good fortune of fishermen!
Mauritius was once covered in thick evergreen forests. Cleared up by the Dutch settlers then by the French ones in view of developing the sugarcane sector, the forests were nearly destroyed. The Mauritian landscape is today made up of broad expanses of sugarcane fields.
However, Mauritius still maintains some remains of its original forest, mainly in the south-eastern part of the island (Black River Gorges Natural Park). Ebony trees, guava trees, travellers palm, various types of palm trees and numerous other species are to be found there. Tree ferns and giant bamboos proliferate in the humid zones of the island.
Elsewhere, the Mauritian sceneries are embellished by the badamiers (or Indian almond trees) and their almond-shaped fruits; banyans with their inextricable aerial roots and creepers; majestic tamarind trees or the eucalyptus tree where the bark is nearly white. While, on the edge of roads, the brilliant flamboyant lights up with little fiery red flowers from December to January. The most common tree, however, is the filao (or the Casuarina tree), which is willowy and ressembles the pine tree. It lines the beaches and plays an important role in the prevention of sand erosion. Its feathery dark green branchlets provide an excellent shelter to the tourists from the tropical sun.
This tropical island abounds in brilliantly colored flowers: bougainvillea, alamanda, hibiscus, anthurium, heliconia... without forgetting the generous gifts of Mother Nature: fruits such as mango, pawpaw, litchi, pineapple, grapefruit, banana and coconut...
Pamplemousses garden is the main place where you can admire the variety of natural and imported flora that grows on the island.
Text & photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra