About  |   Contact  |  Mongabay on Facebook  |  Mongabay on Twitter  |  Subscribe
Rainforests | Tropical fish | Environmental news | For kids | Madagascar | Photos

Mauritius - HISTORY

Mauritius - HISTORY


THE REPUBLIC OF MAURITIUS is a democratic and prosperous country whose entire population has ancestral origins elsewhere: Europe, Africa, India, and China. Until recently, the country's economy was dominated by the production and export of sugar, a legacy of its French and British colonial past. After independence in 1968, government-directed diversification efforts resulted in the rapid growth of tourism and a manufacturing sector producing mainly textiles for export.

During French colonial rule, from 1767 to 1810, the capital and main port, Port Louis, became an important center for trade, privateering, and naval operations against the British. In addition, French planters established sugarcane estates and built up their fortunes at the expense of the labor of slaves brought from Africa. The French patois, or colloquial language, which evolved among these slaves and their freed descendants, referred to as Creole, has become the everyday language shared by most of the island's inhabitants. French is used in the media and literature, and the Franco-Mauritian descendants of the French settlers continue to dominate the sugar industry and economic life of modern Mauritius.

The British captured the island in 1810 and gave up sovereignty when Mauritius became independent in 1968. During this period, the French plantation aristocracy maintained its economic, and, to a certain degree, its political prominence. The British abolished slavery but provided for cheap labor on the sugar estates by bringing nearly 500,000 indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent. The political history of Mauritius in the twentieth century revolves around the gradual economic and political empowerment of the island's Indian majority.

Mauritian independence was not gained without opposition and violence. Tensions were particularly marked between the Creole and Indian communities, which clashed often at election time, when the rising fortunes of the latter at the expense of the former were most apparent. Nonetheless, successive governments have, with varying success, attempted to work out a peaceful modus vivendi that considers the concerns of the island's myriad communities.

These varied interests have contributed to a political culture that is occasionally volatile and highly fluid, characterized by shifting alliances. A notable lapse from democratic practices, however, occurred in 1971. The Mauritius Labor Party (MLP)-led coalition government of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, faced with the radical and popular challenge of the Mauritian Militant Movement (Mouvement Militant Mauricien--MMM) and its allies in the unions, promulgated the Public Order Act, which banned many forms of political activity. This state of emergency lasted until 1976. The resilience and stability of Mauritian society, however, was demonstrated by the fact that an MMM-led government eventually gained power through the ballot box in 1982.

Despite many differences, the major political parties have worked successfully toward the country's economic welfare. For this reason, Mauritius has evolved from a primarily agricultural monocrop economy marked by high unemployment, low salaries, and boom-or-bust cycles to one dominated by manufacturing, tourism, and expanding financial services. As Mauritius faces the future, it can look back on its dazzling economic performance in the 1980s and attempt to build on that success by continuing its tradition of political stability, foresight, and prudent development planning.


Mauritius - Early Settlement


Although there is no evidence of human habitation on Mauritius before the early seventeenth century, Phoenicians probably visited the island about 2,000 years ago, and Malays and Arabs stopped on the island in subsequent centuries. The Portuguese charted the waters surrounding the island, which they called Ilha do Cirne (Island of the Swan), in the early sixteenth century. In 1638 the Dutch began colonizing the island, which they named after Maurice of Nassau, the stadthouder (head of state) of Holland. The island's first governor, Cornelius Simonsz Gooyer, presided over a small population of Dutch convicts and slaves from Indonesia and Madagascar, who sought to export ambergris, ebony, and other resources. After twenty years, the colony failed, as did a second settlement established in 1664. Poor administration and harsh conditions forced the Dutch to withdraw permanently by 1710. In addition to presiding over the extinction of the dodo bird and leaving behind perhaps some runaway slaves, swarms of rats, and ravaged ebony forests, the Dutch introduced a plant that was to be prominent in the island's future--sugarcane.

French efforts to colonize the area were more successful. Around 1638 they had taken the islands of Rodrigues and Reunion, and in 1715 an expedition of the French East India Company claimed Mauritius for France. The company established a settlement named �le de France on the island in 1722. The company ruled until 1764, when, after a series of inept governors and the bankruptcy of the company, Mauritius became a crown colony administered by the home government. One exception among the early company governors was Mahe de Labourdonnais, who is still celebrated among Mauritians. During his tenure from 1735 to 1746, he presided over many improvements to the island's infrastructure and promoted its economic development. He made Mauritius the seat of government for all French territories in the region, built up Port Louis, and strengthened the sugar industry by building the island's first sugar refinery. He also brought the first Indian immigrants, who worked as artisans in the port city.

Under French government rule, between 1764 and 1810, Port Louis gained prestige and wealth. The island's population increased, and its planters grew rich. Agricultural prosperity was achieved by exploiting cheap slave labor. Between 1767 and 1797, the population doubled to 59,000 inhabitants, including 6,200 whites, 3,700 free persons, and 49,100 slaves; the population in each category more than doubled during the period. Although the island's elite culture was distinctly French, its social structure grew more complex as the population grew. Port Louis, open to free trade after the demise of the French East India Company, saw a major increase in shipping, especially from Europe and North America. For example, from 1786 to 1810 almost 600 ships from the United States called on Mauritius, and the United States established a consulate in Port Louis in 1794. Privateering was an even greater boon to the economy.

News of the French Revolution reached Mauritius in 1790, prompting settlers unhappy with royal administration to establish more representative forms of government: a colonial assembly and municipal councils. When a squadron arrived three years later, however, to enforce the new French government's abolition of slavery, the settlers turned the squadron back. Napoleon sent a new governor to the island in 1803, resulting in the dissolution of the assembly and councils. The waning of French hegemony in the region permitted a British force of 10,000, carried from the Indian subcontinent by a fleet of seventy ships, to land on Mauritius in 1810. The French capitulated to the British, but the British agreed to leave in place existing legal and administrative structures. The 1814 Treaty of Paris awarded the island, together with the Seychelles and Rodrigues islands, to Britain. English became the official language, but French and Creole dominated. Few British immigrants came to the colony.

The plantation-owning Mauritians of French origin (FrancoMauritians ) resisted British attempts to eradicate slavery. Finally, after much investigation, petitioning, and subterfuge, the authorities abolished slavery in 1835. Plantation owners won several concessions from the government, however, including a payment of 2.1 million pounds sterling and laws obliging freed slaves to remain on their former owner's land as "apprentices" for six years. Widespread desertions by "apprentices" forced the abolition of the laws in 1838, two years before schedule, and created a severe labor shortage.


Mauritius - Rise of the Sugar Economy


Under the British, Mauritius was no longer a free port. To compensate for the resulting loss in trade, the government encouraged sugar production. In 1825 Britain equalized the duty on sugar from all of its colonies, providing a strong stimulus for Mauritians to produce more sugar. Production leaped from 11,000 tons in 1825 to 21,000 tons in 1826; by 1854 production exceeded 100,000 tons. By the mid-nineteenth century, Mauritius had reached the apex of its importance in the world sugar market: it was Britain's main sugar-producing colony and produced 9.4 percent of the world's sugarcane between 1855 and 1859. Although overall production would continue to rise into the twentieth century, declines in world prices and a massive increase in production in other countries robbed Mauritius of its dominant role in subsequent years. Nonetheless, as sugar increased in economic importance, the percentage of food crop production dropped accordingly, and landownership became concentrated in large, profitable estates.

Indentured workers from India replaced slaves as a source of cheap labor for the sugar plantations. Between 1834 and 1910 (the last year of arrivals), 451,776 Indians migrated to Mauritius, the majority arriving before 1865. Because 157,639 of these Indians left, the island had a net gain of 294,137 Indians during the period. Most workers came from Bengal and Madras, under contract to work for at least ten years for low wages under harsh conditions. At the end of their contracts, workers supposedly had the option of returning home, but plantation owners often succeeded in eliminating this choice. Many plantation owners punished workers with beatings, hunted down those who ran away and imprisoned them, and unjustly withheld pay. In 1878 a labor law regularized the pay system, and in 1917 the indenture system formally ended. Moreover, a 1922 law permitted workers to choose their places of work.

By 1871 more than 68 percent of the population was Indian, of which more than 25 percent had been born in Mauritius. In 1931 the proportion of Indians in the population was the same, but more than 93 percent of them were natives. By contrast, Mauritius had no immigration from Africa. The freed slaves and their Creole offspring left the plantations to become fishers, dockworkers, and civil servants and formed about 20 percent of the population in 1931. A number of Chinese immigrated during the nineteenth century, and this group made up about 2 percent of the population in 1931. The Indian rupee became the island's official currency in 1876.

Starting in the 1860s, the island's sugar economy declined in the face of varied pressures. As sugar beet production and sugarcane production in other countries increased, world prices declined. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 shifted trade routes away from the Indian Ocean. And, in addition to regularly occurring droughts and cyclones, a deadly malaria epidemic killed more than 40,000 people between 1867 and 1869. The FrancoMauritian plantation owners responded in several ways. They cut costs by centralizing sugar production in fewer factories. Furthermore, to increase the profitability of their operations, from the 1870s to about 1920 the planters sold the less productive portions of their landholdings. The process was known as the grand morcellement, and it permitted many Indians who could put together enough capital to become small landowners. This meant that for the first time, sugar was produced on small plots with free labor. Between 1864 and 1900, according to one scholar, Indians purchased 24 million rupees worth of land. By 1921 Indians owned about 35 percent of the island's cultivated land.


Mauritius - British Colonial Rule


Colonial rule amounted to a thin layer of British administrative and judicial officials attempting to preside over an assertive and powerful Franco-Mauritian elite. Although many members of this elite derived their status and wealth from owning plantations, some were senior police officials and magistrates. Below the Franco-Mauritians on the ladder of social status were the Creoles, descendants of African slaves, some of mixed white descent, who tended to be francophone and generally supportive of the Franco-Mauritians. In the nineteenth century, Indians were at the bottom of the social ladder until their economic opportunities broadened.

In 1831 the British introduced a constitution that provided for a Council of Government whose seven members were nominated by the governor. In an effort to win the support of the FrancoMauritians , who wanted a greater voice in government, Governor John Pope-Hennessy expanded the council to include ten elected members from nine electoral districts in the constitution of 1886. The franchise was limited to wealthy property owners, who constituted a scant 2 percent of the adult population. Elected municipal councils also appeared in the nineteenth century, first in Port Louis and then in four other major towns. The British established district councils at the end of the nineteenth century. . By 1907 the Creole middle class, led by Dr. Eugene Laurent, formed Liberal Action (Action Lib�rale), which sought to open up political and economic opportunities for themselves. Although it won Port Louis in the 1911 elections against the Oligarchs, Liberal Action dissolved shortly thereafter.

The Indo-Mauritians, who included both Hindus and Muslims, became active in the early twentieth century, thanks in part to the work of a lawyer from India named Manilal Maganlall Doctor. Sent to Mauritius in 1907 at the behest of Mohandas Gandhi (known as Mahatma Gandhi), Manilal was a tireless and eloquent proponent of Indian rights. He sought to inculcate a sense of self-respect in the community by teaching Mauritian Indians about their heritage, and he defended them in the courts against unscrupulous employers. Manilal also founded the Hindustani, a newspaper that expressed the concerns of the Indian community.

In 1926 the first Indo-Mauritians were elected to the government council. This small victory, however, did not lead to better conditions in the community. Despite incremental improvements in contracts, wages, and working conditions on the sugar plantations and in processing plants, the work was as hard and daily life as precarious as they had been 100 years previously. In addition, the boom-or-bust nature of the world sugar economy meant that only the upper classes were insulated from hardship during periods of low world demand. Dissatisfaction on the part of Indian workers and small planters sparked widespread rioting on Mauritius in 1937 and 1943, and a strike in 1938.

During this period, Indian and Creole Mauritians formed several organizations aimed at improving labor laws and introducing political reforms. Dr. Maurice Cur�, a noted Creole politician, founded the MLP in 1936. The party attracted urban Creole workers and rural Indian farmers. Another important group was the Indian Cultural Association, and a notable member of this group was Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, who would become the country's first prime minister.


Mauritius - Toward Independence


After World War II, the pace of constitutional reform quickened as Britain began to loosen its grip on its colonies. In Mauritius this transformation was presided over by Donald Mackenzie Kennedy, governor from 1942 to 1949. A consultative committee, which for the first time included representatives of all Mauritian communities, made suggestions for a new constitution. In addition to providing for a Legislative Council that was more representative, the new constitution expanded the franchise in 1947 to all adults able to write their names in any of the island's languages. In the 1948 election, eleven of the nineteen candidates winning seats in the Legislative Council were Hindu. However, Governor Mackenzie Kennedy assured the dominance of British and Franco-Mauritian interests by nominating twelve conservatives to the body--some seats were appointed and others elected. This tactic was repeated after the 1953 election by Sir Hilary Blood, the new governor.

A new constitution in 1958 included several changes that increased political participation. It provided for suffrage to adults over twenty-one years of age and divided the country into forty single-member constituencies that elected representatives to the Legislative Council. Also, to assure representation of more constituencies, the constitution allowed the governor to appoint to the council "best losers," candidates whose support was not quite enough to win their races. In the 1959 election, the MLP won twenty-three seats, the Independent Forward Block (IFB) five, the Committee for Muslim Action (Comit� d'Action Musulman--CAM) five, the Mauritian Party (Parti Mauricien--PM) three, and Independents three. The governor awarded best-loser seats to the PM and to Chinese candidates.

After negotiations among the major parties in 1961, the British decided that the winning party's leader in the 1963 election would become premier. In addition, the Legislative Council would become the Legislative Assembly, and the Executive Committee would become the Council of Ministers. The new government would be responsible for all but the island's defense, internal security, and foreign affairs. Although the PM leader, Gaetan Duval, put up strong competition, the MLP, under Ramgoolam, won the election with nineteen seats. Leery that a Hindu victory would jeopardize its economic position, the Creole community expressed unease and opposition in May 1965 riots that left several dead.

A constitutional conference held in London in 1965, with members of all political parties present, decided that the island should become independent from Britain as soon as general elections returned a party in favor of such a notion. Some parties, however, opposed independence. The Franco-Mauritian community and many of the island's Creoles backed the Mauritian Social Democratic Party (Parti Mauricien Social D�mocrate--PMSD, formerly the PM), which strongly advocated continued "free association" with Britain. The PMSD representatives walked out of the constitutional conference when it became apparent that one price for independence would be the incorporation of the Chagos Archipelago (formerly administered from Mauritius) into the planned British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) along with portions of Seychelles. Other conferees, represented by the CAM, feared that their constituents would be placed at a disadvantage. In the end, the CAM joined the MLP and the IFB to form the winning coalition in the decisive general election of August 7, 1967. A Commonwealth of Nations observer team was satisfied that the highly participatory election was fair. The winning coalition took thirty-nine of the sixty-two seats in the assembly.


Mauritius - Independent Mauritius


On August 22, 1967, Prime Minister Ramgoolam moved that the assembly request independence according to arrangements made previously with Britain. The new nation came into being on March 12, 1968, as an independent member of the Commonwealth.

Over the years, some elections have been marked by ethnic discord; voting in 1948, 1953, 1959, and 1967, for example, was split roughly along ethnic lines. The Indo-Mauritian majority gained progressively at the expense of other groups as suffrage was extended. More significant was the ethnic rioting in 1964 and 1968. In May 1964, Hindu and Creole communities clashed in the village of Trois Boutiques, outside Souillac. One police officer and one Franco-Mauritian were killed. In early 1968, just six weeks before independence, violence between Creoles and Muslims in the nation's capital left at least twenty-five people dead and hundreds injured before British troops quelled the fighting.

Most Mauritians deplored these outbreaks of violence, and the government responded to both by declaring a state of emergency. One consequence of the unrest was an amendment to the constitution in 1969 extending the first parliament to 1976. Another effect was the entry of the PMSD into the ruling coalition, and the departure of the IFB to form a small opposition party.

Social and economic conditions after World War II contributed to the political conflicts. As the provision of health, education, pension, and other public welfare services expanded, expectations began to rise. The eradication of malaria and parasitic diseases in the 1940s and 1950s improved the life expectancy of the poor and helped fuel a population increase of 3 percent per year. Family planning measures reduced the population growth rate in the 1960s and 1970s, but the labor force continued to increase rapidly. Registered unemployment stood at more than 12 percent of the work force on the eve of independence.

The unemployed, especially the youth, rallied behind a new political party, the MMM, formed in 1969. Its organizers were Paul B�renger (a Franco-Mauritian), Dev Virahsawmy (a Telegu speaker), and Jooneed Jeerooburkhan (a Muslim). They appealed to poor and working-class Mauritians of all backgrounds with their radical program of socialist change. An early show of strength for the party was a by-election victory in the prime minister's district in 1970. With widespread union support, the MMM called a number of debilitating strikes in 1971, demanding better benefits for workers and elections by 1972, the year previously mandated. Four PMSD members made attempts on the lives of Virahsawmy and B�renger in November 1971. The authorities placed many of the party's leadership and rank and file in jail under the Public Order Act of 1971. The government also banned political meetings, suspended twelve unions, and closed Le Militant, the MMM newspaper. The government extended the state of emergency until 1976, proscribing most political opposition.

The MMM succeeded in placing the issue of job creation high on the list of priorities for the country's first economic development plan, covering 1971-75. The plan called for additional jobs in manufacturing and in agriculture outside sugar production. It also initiated a program called Work for All (Travail pour Tous), which created the Development Works Corporation (DWC) to hire laborers for public construction and relief projects. These policies, high sugar prices, growth in tourism, and the success of the newly created export processing zones (EPZs) helped reduce the unemployment rate to 7 percent by 1976.

The lack of economic progress enabled the MMM to make significant gains in the closely fought 1976 general elections; the party won 40 percent of the vote and thirty-four of the seventy assembly seats. Part of the MMM's success came from the lowering of the voting age to eighteen in 1975, which allowed the party to garner the youth vote across ethnic lines. In addition, the ruling coalition hurt itself by putting up incompetent and corrupt candidates, failing to win the support of trade unions, and maintaining unpopular positions regarding the Chagos Archipelago and the United States military presence on Diego Garcia. (The MMM favored returning to Mauritian sovereignty the Chagos Archipelago, of which Diego Garcia was a part.)

The MLP and the PMSD, both of which had declined in popularity since the previous election, formed a coalition government to lock the MMM out of power. This government was plagued by internal division: MLP chief whip Harish Boodhoo broke off to form the Mauritian Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste Mauricien--PSM). In addition, the government suffered from political corruption scandals, poor economic performance, and the destructive effects of cyclones each year from 1979 to 1981. These and other factors were instrumental in the 1982 electoral victory of a new MMM-PSM coalition. In a concession to Hindu political sensibilities, Anerood Jugnauth was named prime minister. Paul B�renger served as minister of finance. Faced with the realities of governing the country, including heavy obligations to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the government backed away from the radical policies the MMM espoused when it was in opposition. It succeeded in expanding regional cooperation abroad and worked at modest nationalization and job creation at home. The ruling coalition broke up in less than a year, however, and new elections were held in August 1983.

Prime Minister Jugnauth founded a new party, the Militant Socialist Movement (Mouvement Socialiste Militant), subsequently renamed the Mauritian Socialist Movement (Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien--MSM) after combining with PSM. The MSM joined during the 1983 election with the MLP and the PMSD to win comfortably. In 1984 some MLP members fell out with the government after several MLP ministers were dismissed. Those MLP members who stayed in the ruling coalition, called the Alliance, formed the Assembly of Mauritian Workers (Rassemblement des Travaillistes Mauricien--RTM). In December 1985, however, the government suffered several setbacks that would trouble it for many months to come: MMM municipal election victories; the death of Ramgoolam, a close adviser to Jugnauth and a respected figure in national politics; and a drug scandal involving four Alliance deputies caught with twenty-one kilograms of heroin at the Amsterdam airport. In a surprising electoral victory in 1987, the Alliance retained power, thanks in large part to Jugnauth's handling of the economy. The MMM, under the leadership of Dr. Prem Nababsing, won twenty-one seats and was allotted three bestloser seats.

Beginning with the PMSD's defection in August 1988, the Alliance began to unravel. The MSM thwarted the growing political threat posed by a resurgent MLP by forging an alliance with the MMM, built in part on the promise of making Mauritius a republic. The MSM/MMM coalition won a convincing victory in September 1991 and quickly passed changes in the constitution that led to the declaration of Mauritius as a republic in March 1992.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

TRY USING CTRL-F on your keyboard to find the appropriate section of text


what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright 2013 Mongabay.com