History | Geography | Climate | Economy | Politics | Population | Fauna | Flora
Rodrigues inherited its name from the Portuguese navigator, Don Diego Rodriguez, who visited the island briefly in 1528. However, the discovery of Rodrigues is in fact much earlier than the 16th century. Between the 10th and the 11th centuries, the Arabs regularly visited the Mascarenes Islands. As a major proof, a map realized during the 12th century by the Arabic geographer, Al Sharif El-Edrissi, which clearly shows the three islands of the Mascarenes known back then as Dina Arobi (Mauritius), Dina Margabin (Reunion) and Dina Moraze (Rodrigues).
As from 1601, the Dutch anchored in the island’s lagoon to take in fresh supplies of food without really settling down.
It is only in 1691 that François Leguat and his 7 Huguenot companions disembarked on the island in a view to set up a colony of protestant refugees. But, overwhelmed by the loneliness, they left the island after two years and decided to move to Mauritius Island using rafts.
Years went by, the island still remained unoccupied and was solely used as a supply anchor for those ships that were on their way to the Indies. The island was abundant in a particular specie of tortoises, which had already disappeared from the other Mascarenes Islands.
Following the orders of Mahé de Labourdonnais, governor of Ile de France (Mauritius) and Bourbon Island (Reunion), the island was to be permanently occupied in 1735. A detachment settled down, assigned with the task of gathering the tortoises and loading them on the ships of the Indies Company so as to supply these two islands as well as passing ships in fresh meat. This pillage went on for 60 years and brought about their extinction at the end of the 18th century.
As from 1792, colonists came to settle down with the other few who had stayed back in the devastated island. Amongst them, Philibert Maragon, who came in 1794 in a view to develop farming and stockbreeding. It was during this epoch that the ancestors of the present population came into the island: African slaves were brought from Mauritius to Rodrigues. At the beginning of the 19th century, the island had about a hundred habitants (22 colonists and 82 slaves).
In 1809, the British troops took possession of Rodrigues. It was from this island that the English sent their naval forces to attack Ile de France in 1810. Mauritius and Rodrigues became British territories. Slavery was abolished.
The island’s population gradually grew with freed slaves and European colonists and at the end of the 19th century, 3000 inhabitants were living on the island. The British invested little in the island’s development, which had a purely agricultural vocation. It played the role of the granary of Mauritius Island, the foodstuff produced in Rodrigues were sent to its big sister.
The growth of Rodrigues went through a slow and progressive rhythm but without any link with the lightning development that Mauritius underwent with its sugar economy in full expansion and the significant arrival of Indian immigrants.
When Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, the island was bound to the Mauritian territory.
In 2002, the island acquired some autonomy in the management of its internal affairs. A first step had thus been made in respect of the complete independence towards which the Mauritian government is not totally opposed.
Lost in the Indian Ocean, 650 kilometres to the East of Mauritius, the island of Rodrigues is a volcanic one.
With a total surface area of 108 km2 (18km by 8 km), the island is surrounded by a 90 kilometres-long coral reef, which protects a shallow lagoon, twice superior to the expanse of its lands. The lagoon shelters 18 islets, amongst which the most famous are: île Hermitage, île aux Cocos, île aux Sables or still l’île Chat.
The interior of the island is constituted of a chain of mountains which is 398 metres at its highest point (Mount Limon) and which crosses nearly the whole of the island from East to West. Some quite steep ravine emerge into emerald colored bays or impressive looking cliffs.
Unlike its big sister, Mauritius, Rodrigues does not have sugar cane fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, nor any peaks lost in the clouds but rocky coasts covered with grass yellowed by the drought and hilly mountains punctuated with terrace cultivation. Thick forests cover certain parts of the island.
The shores, with a sharpened relief, form numerous coves. Bordered with casuarina trees, large beaches with golden sand stretch to the East and South of the island.
The main places of interest are (refer to map):
- Port Mathurin, the pocket capital. Discreet and calm, it shelters the unique harbour of the island.
- Caverne Patate, with a length of 1057 metres (accessible area: about 600 metres), it goes down 26 metres under the earth. It is decorated with stalagmites and stalactites as well as other original shapes cut in the coral rock.
- Rivière Banane, small agricultural village lost in a valley. There, you can see numerous plantations and two large wild beaches separated by a peak formed in basaltic rock.
- Ile aux Cocos, a long strip of white sand covered with casuarina trees, is a nature reserve. It provides shelter to many sea birds.
- Hermitage Island, with its jagged and rocky relief as well as its tiny heavenly beach, is a sheer invitation to play at Robinson Crusoe.
- Catherine Island, rocky and wild, offers a magnificent view on the western coast from its peak. It acts as a shelter for the fishermen who come to the island at times to rest.
- Plaine Mapou proposes a rustic landscape, decorated with a bay reflecting magnificent shades (Topaze Bay). Completely isolated, the feeling of being at the end of the world is strongly emphasized there.
- There’s the whole coastline to explore on foot! Numerous paths that enable a complete tour cross the island. In particular, the uneven coast from Pointe Coton to Gravier, which reveals deserted beaches and creeks of an indescribable beauty: Saint-François, Anse Bouteille, Anse Philibert, Trou d’Argent...
The climate, when compared to Mauritius, is much more dry and hot. It rarely rains in Rodrigues, the quite lengthy drought periods cause serious problems in supplying the whole population with water.
As the island is found in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. The days are hot and humid in summer, which lasts from November to April and the temperature oscillates between 28 and 35°C. During this period, the risks of cyclones increase significantly, particularly in January and February. In winter, from June to September, the temperature varies from 16 to 27°C. The prevailing wind of the South East is much more biting in winter.
The sea is warm in summer (25°C to 28°C) and cools down in winter (22°C to 24°C).
As usual, in the tropical regions, the sun sets relatively early: between 18h and 19h, depending on the season.
The main economic activities of the island are fishing, stockbreeding and cultivation, especially of onions, garlic and chilli. The maize plantations have lost their importance of the once golden days, as rice has nearly become its main substitute as basic food.
In its whole, the economy of Rodrigues is quite poor. The inhabitants often engage themselves in numerous activities (fishermen, farmers and stockbreeders when they do not work in the administration) that are not sufficient in filling up the chronic deficit of the island. The income derived from the export of cattle, sea products and food crops is largely in deficit when compared to the costs of the imported products. There have been attempts to establish textile units but these endeavours have been vain to the extent that supply in water has been the main problem.
Lately, the economy of the island has nevertheless undergone certain fundamental changes: tourism has become the focused sector. The people of Rodrigues have become aware of the value of their island but also, of their handicrafts (basketwork, embroidery, condiments, honey, etc.) that they have intelligently developed. Fortunately, they do not seem to want an excessive establishment of tourist infrastructure so as to preserve the calm, charm and authenticity of their island. We sincerely wish that they will be able to resist the economic pressures as unemployment, quite high, and the precariousness of the living conditions have already encouraged numerous Rodriguans to settle in Mauritius, in the hope of finding the Eldorado...
The island is presently a constituency of the Republic of Mauritius and is dependent on the latter. However, on the 20th November 2001, the Mauritian National Assembly has unanimously adopted two laws giving Rodrigues its autonomy and as such, creating a decentralized government system.
This new legislation has allowed the implementation of a regional Assembly in Rodrigues constituting of 18 members and an executive council headed by a Chief Commissioner. The council meets every week to take decisions, draw up laws and manage the budget.
The Chief Commissioner has the main task of informing the Mauritian Prime Minister of the management of the island’s concerns.
The particular charm of the island comes mainly from the calm and harmonious lifestyle of its inhabitants. Discretion, kindness and simplicity are the principal traits of the Rodriguans. They live to the rhythm of the passing time, calmly and serenely even though life is rough and the future uncertain.
The population of Rodrigues is estimated to 38'000 inhabitants, the vast majority being Creols. Inhabitants with jet-black skin, descendants of Malagasy and African slaves and a minority of half-castes (nicknamed ?les Rouges? -->?the Reds?), descendants of the first European settlers, form the greater part of the population in Rodrigues. We can also find the inevitable Chinese traders and some Indian civil servants coming from Mauritius.
The Catholic religion is the most practiced one in the island, but there are also a small number of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. The influence of the Catholic religion in the daily and cultural life of the population must be emphasized. Religion, respect of traditions and family are the pillars of the Rodriguan lifestyle.
Contrary to what is usually thought of in such a society, the women play an active part, after all, they are the backbone of the island’s economy. Courageous and determined, we can find them everywhere: at home, in the fields, at the market and even, at sea!
The first signs of colonization have been enough to destroy the island. The impact of humans on nature has been devastating and this small wild paradise that has evolved, free from mankind, during millions of years, has been destroyed in no time.
The thousands of giant tortoises that crowded the island have been the victims of a profitable trade organized by the colonies of Ile de France and Bourbon (Mauritius and Reunion). The large bird, Solitaire (quite close to the Mauritian Dodo), unique specie found only in Rodrigues, has been the target of passing sailors and famished settlers.
At the end of the 18th century, the tortoises had disappeared and the last Solitaire was dying. What is now left? Thousands of marine birds that have sought shelter on protected islets and scattered in the lagoon as the Brown Noddy (nicknamed mandarin), the frigate bird, the Sooty tern (also called yéyé) or still, the White tern (the Virgin bird).
Inland, two endemic and endangered species can still be observed: the Yellow Rodrigues Fody (Foudia flavicans) and the Rodrigues warbler (Acrocephalus rodericanus).
The only endemic mammal living in the island is a fruit-eating bat.
In fact, the fauna is richer underwater, the 90 km-long coral reefs are abundant in fishes and invertebrates, but also in pelagic fishes, which come hunting.
Once lush, the flora of Rodrigues has suffered from deforestation due to the damage caused by cattle, long drought periods and the over exploitation of certain plants used in medicine or as raw material in the production of handicraft works.
Reforestation and the protection of the flora has become a top priority, just like the introduction of mangrove trees in the lagoon to curb erosion. Certain zones have been declared as nature reserves and reforestation operations have been undertaken. More than 3500 people are actively engaged in these projects. The people of Rodrigues have shown a genuine enthusiasm in getting started in the cultivation of endemic plants and as such, they will be able to preserve their natural heritage.
The trees and bushes that are the most widely scattered over the island are casuarina trees, lataniers, vacoas, aloes, lemon trees and vetiver. We can also find a unique plant specific to the island, known as vieille-fille (old maid), a kind of small shrub with pink flowers that are infused to make a drink. But also, other rare plants, mysteriously named: café marron (brown coffee), bois pipe (pipe wood), bois de mangue (mango wood), bois de fer (iron wood), bois chauve souris (bat wood), bois cabri (goat wood), bois puant (stinking wood)...
Text and photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra