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Mauritius - A Picture Perfect Beach Destination

Arab traders discovered the then uninhabited Mauritius island in the 10th century. But they were not charmed sufficiently to consider permanent settlement. The Portuguese early in the sixteenth century landed, but they too passed over the chance to lay claim for their king. But in 1598 the Dutch finally seized the opportunity. The island was grabbed for and named after Maurice, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau -then ruler of the Netherlands. In the century that followed, the Dutch established settlements and devised means to live off the land.

They introduced sugar and tobacco, which they farmed using African slave labour. Sugar is today still an important part of the economy. The Dutch were insensitive to the extremely fragile ecosystem that makes up an isolated island such as Mauritius. On their watch, most of the islands' indigenous forests were felled, and lost. The bird known as dodo was also shot to extinction.

Thus did the trigger-happy Dutch give life to the expression "as dead as a dodo". The Dutch courage that had made them pioneers was however not to last. They were subjected to many trials by the forces of nature - cyclones, droughts and floods. And also by the forces of man, for pirates were a constant headache. In 1710, they fled to the more hospitable Cape of Good Hope, at Africa's southern tip. A short five years after the Dutch left, the French claimed the island, and renamed it Isle de France. The French were much more successful than the Dutch in harnessing the potential of the island. They maintained law and order and laid the foundations for administration of society. Under the celebrated French Governor, Mahé de Labourdonnais, real nation building began. The French brought in more African slaves and expanded further sugar farming.

They also laid out some social and economic infrastructure to support the settlers. Port Louis, named after King Louis XV, and today the capital of Mauritius, dates back to this period. Though the French had introduced systems of law and order, Port Louis turned out to be a favourite of corsairs. Corsairs were mercenary marine who specialised in the plunder of ships on behalf of a client country. The British, a great sea power at the time, had a vested interest in terminating the power of these mercenaries. And that is how Mauritius, so far away from Europe, got involved in the Napoleonic wars. In 1810, the British backed by superior force of arms, persuaded the French to leave the island. In the 1814 Treaty of Paris, the British - magnanimous victors indeed, allowed the French settlers to remain in Mauritius. They too were allowed to retain their property, language, religion and legal system. The British reverted to the name the Dutch had given the island, but Port Louis retained its name.

But in the century and a half that the British ruled, they were never really as grounded as the French had been. Franco-Mauritians prospered on an agrarian economy based on slave labour. But in 1835, they felt the capricious hand of a great power when slavery was abolished. This is perhaps the single most important measure carried out under British rule, and the consequences had a far-reaching effect on the evolving demographics of the nation. India, a British colony greatly abundant in human resources was the answer to the labour problem that arose. In the years that followed, the descendants of the Indian labourers who came to work the sugar fields greatly multiplied. The Chinese also came -as labourers and traders. Today, Indo-Mauritians constitute close to 70% of the population. As in other colonies in that historic period, and upto the 1930's in Mauritius, non-whites had very limited say in the running of the country. And that is why Gandhi - that great liberator of men's minds, came to Mauritius in 1901, in particular to give heart to Indo-Mauritians.

After years of protracted concessions to democratic rule, the British finally bowed out in 1968, when finally granted independence. The events we talk about above are however very recent. About eight million years ago, the island emerged from the depths of the sea as result of volcanic activity. Occupying 1860 sq km, it is situated just above the Tropic of Capricorn, 890 km to the east of Madagascar. Rising from the sea, the central plateau formation is about 400 m above sea level. There are mountains scattered in the island, and a few peaks, the highest of which reaches 820 m. As a country, Mauritius includes the islands of Rodrigues and Agalega, the Cargados Carajos Shoals and a few smaller mostly uninhabited islands. Mauritius is almost wholly ringed by a coral reef that is reputed to be the worlds third largest. Both the Dutch and the French were extremely reckless in allowing the uncontrolled invasion of indigenous forests.


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