Explore the Island

History of Mauritius

Mauritius is one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world.

Mauritians are mainly descendants from Indian labourers, Chinese traders, African slaves and Dutch, French and British colonists. Today, this creates a diverse, yet peaceful, community that celebrates all religions and ethnicities. To get an understanding of how we reached this point in time, here is a brief outline of the history of Mauritius.

Early years

Although it’s thought that Mauritius was visited as early as the 10th century by Arab and Malay sailors, our island’s story really begins in the 16th century.

It was a Portuguese sailor, Don Pedro Mascarenhas, who encountered the island of Mauritius in 1512, though he may not be the first Portuguese explorer to set foot on the island. In 1528, explorer Diogo Rodrigues named the islands of Réunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues the Mascarene Islands, after Don Pedro Mascarehas. The Portuguese did not settle permanently on these islands.


The Dutch period (1598-1710)

In 1598, a Dutch squadron, under the orders of Admiral Wybrand Van Warwyck, landed at Grand Port and named the island after Prince Maurits van Nassau, the stadtholder (or governor) of Holland.

Fast forward to 1638 and the Dutch made their first attempt at a settlement, with the famous Dutch navigator, Tasman, using the island as a base to discover the Western part of Australia.

Though the Dutch left Mauritius in 1710, the Dutch influence remains tangible as they were responsible for the introduction of sugarcane, domestic animals and deer.

Today, head to Vieux Grand Port in the southeast and you’ll see remnants of the Dutch period. See artefacts and ruins from their time on the island at the Frederik Hendrik Museum, and take time to visit the Dutch First Landing memorial in Ferney.


The French period (1715-1810)

Five years after the Dutch left the island, the French arrived.

Landing in 1715, they renamed the island ‘Isle de France’ and the French governor, François Mahé de La Bourdonnais, established Port Louis as a naval base and shipbuilding centre.

Port Louis became an important base for overseeing Indian Ocean trade and, under French rule, there were increased numbers of African slaves, with sugarcane established as a prosperous industry in Mauritius.

Until 1767, the island was under the administration of the French East India Company. From then on, officials appointed by the French Government were largely in charge ‒ save for a brief period during the French Revolution when inhabitants set up a government independent of France.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the island became a base from which the French navy and corsairs organised raids on British merchant ships. But everything would change in 1810, when a British contingent was sent to capture the island. Although an initial British attack in August 1810 was scuppered, in December 1810 the invaders were successful in their efforts.

The British arrived, overpowering the French. By 1814, Isle de France was no more ‒ Mauritius was back and under the rule of Great Britain, who promised to respect the language, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the French settlers.

Visit Mauritius and you won’t have to look far to see the impact that the French had on the island, not least because the most popular languages used on the island are French, English and French-based Mauritian Creole. Under his governorship, François Mahé de La Bourdonnais erected numerous buildings, a number of which are still standing and visitable today. These include part of Government House, the Château de Mon Plaisir at Pamplemousses and the Line Barracks in Port Louis.

The British period (1810-1968)

The British administration began with Robert Townsend Farquhar as governor and was marked by rapid social and economic changes, most notably the abolition of slavery in 1835. As a result, around 3000 planters received their share of compensation for the loss of their slaves who had been imported from Africa and Madagascar during the French occupation. This was paid by the Bank of England on behalf of the British government.

As a result of the abolition of slavery, planters took part in the ‘Great Experiment’ initiated by the British Government. The Great Experiment demonstrated the superiority of ‘free’ labour over slave labour in its plantation colonies.

It is estimated that more than 462,000 indentured labourers came to Mauritius between 1835 and the First World War in 1914. Most of them were from India, but there were also workers from China, Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique and South East Asia. These labourers worked the sugarcane fields and many were of Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, changing the fabric of society on the island. If you want to learn more, you can visit Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis, the immigration depot that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cultivation of sugarcane continued to thrive, in particular thanks to the export of sugar to England.

Tensions began to rise between the Indian population and the Franco-Mauritian population in the 1920s, leading to fighting and many deaths. The Mauritius Labour Party was born out of this tension in 1936 and, by 1947, elections were held for the newly-created Legislative Assembly. These elections were the first steps towards independence.

To learn more about British rule while you’re in Mauritius, visit the Martello Tower at La Preneuse, which was built by the British between 1810 and 1846 to protect them against the French navy. You can also visit Aapravasi Ghat’s museum to learn about indentured labourers during the nineteenth century or the Cavendish Bridge, which was built during the British era in the early 20th century and can be found at the entrance of Mahebourg.

Mauritius gains independence (1968)

The independence movement really started to gain traction in 1961, when the British agreed to permit additional self-government and eventual independence. Independence was gained in 1968, with Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam becoming the first Prime Minister on 12 March 1968.

British rule ended with the Mauritius Independence Act 1968. The British monarch, Elizabeth II, remained nominal head of state as Queen of Mauritius but her constitutional roles were delegated to the Governor-General of Mauritius.

In the first years of independence, Mauritius attempted to diversify beyond the production of sugar, but with limited success. However, the combined effects of destroyed crops during Cyclone Claudette in late 1979, falling world sugar prices in the early 1980s and political protest and social unrest led the government to implement a successful program of economic diversification, including a new focus on exports and tourism.

In 1991, the legislature voted to transition to a republican form of government and, on 12 March 1992, Mauritius became a republic. Following the abolition of the monarchy, the last Governor General of Mauritius, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo, became the first President of Mauritius.

Historic attractions in Mauritius

Given the varied history of Mauritius, there is an abundance of museums and cultural points of interest to visit during your stay.


Frederik Hendrik Museum

The Dutch were the first to really settle on the island in 1598. They landed at Grand Port in the southeast, driven by a storm. They remained here until 1710 and left discouraged by the successive storms, the infestations of pests and epidemics. It is therefore in the south-eastern region, around Vieux Grand Port, that you will see the remnants of this period. Dutch First Landing is a monument to mark the point of their first landing on the coastal road near Ferney, Mahebourg, with the majestic Lion Mountain in the background. At Vieux Grand Port, the Frederik Hendrik Museum and ruins relate to the Dutch stay on the island. The island was named Mauritius – Ile Maurice after Prince Maurice de Nassau.


Pointe du Diable

On the way to Vieux Grand Port, stop at Pointe du Diable, also known as Pointe Canons, with its series of cannons installed by the French to defend this part of the island from the British invasion. 


Naval Museum

Mahebourg, in the south-east of the island, contains a lot of vestiges of the history of Mauritius. The Naval Museum is a must to learn about the maritime history of the island; you will also find a memorial monument to slaves next to the waterfront and the Lavoir (wash house). 


Cavendish Bridge

At the entrance of Mahebourg, you can drive across Cavendish Bridge, also known as the Ville-Noire Bridge, built during the British era in the early 20th century. Constructed in 1856 for sugar cane transportation, Cavendish Bridge, commonly known as the ‘Pont de la Ville Noire’, literally ‘the black town bridge’, was originally constructed from wood, while all other bridges in Mauritius were made from steel. Between 1908 and 1911, it was transformed into a reinforced concrete bridge. At 155 metres, it is one of the longest bridges on the island.



Museums are of course a very good way to discover the history of Mauritius. In addition to those of Mahebourg and Vieux Grand Port, most of the museums are located in Port Louis, including the Natural History Museum, where you will discover the history of the famous Dodo. A French colonial building from the eighteenth century houses the National History Museum. Old maps, engravings, crockery, pirates’ swords and even fragments of shipwrecks recount the rich maritime history of the island. The crown jewel of this fascinating museum is the bell recovered from the wreck of the St Géran. You can also learn about the history of the island at the Blue Penny Museum with its famous exceptional stamps that have travelled across the world.

Aapravasi Ghat

Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can find out about the history of indentured labourers who arrived in Mauritius shortly after the abolition of slavery in 1835, through artefacts and testimonies from their descendants. 


Le Morne Cultural Landscape

Slavery is part of the history of Mauritius. The site that symbolises it the most is Le Morne cultural landscape, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a commemorative landmark of the harsh slavery period in Mauritius. 

It was on this imposing mountain that the runaway slaves, called the ‘maroons’, used to hide. Protected by isolated wooded and almost inaccessible cliffs, the escaped slaves formed small settlements in the caves and on the summit of Le Morne mountain. It is said that when the British passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1834, a group of officials went to Le Morne to let the runaway slaves know that they were finally free. As they approached, the slaves feared that they were going to be re-captured, climbed the mountain and threw themselves off. They chose to commit suicide rather than being captured. 

At the foot of the mountain, you can see the Slave Route Monument and you can find out more about the island’s slavery history at the Intercontinental Slavery Museum in Port Louis. 


Martello Towers

You might come across some intriguing monuments in coastal areas. These are the Martello Towers, circular stone defence towers built by the British during the first half of the 19th century to defend the island from their all-time enemies, the French. La Preneuse Martello Tower has been restored and transformed into a museum and is open to the public for guided tours. The Martello Tower at La Preneuse was built by the British between 1810 and 1846 to protect them against the French navy. Since being restored in 1999, the tower is now accessible for guided tours.


Historic homes

History is also revealed through architecture in Mauritius. Fortunately, Mauritius still has some beautiful colonial and Creole-style homes that testify to the country’s past, the oldest dating back to the 18th century. Most of these buildings are part of family legacies and some are open to the public, such as Maison Eureka in Moka and the Château de Labourdonnais in Mapou. You can also stroll around the streets of the capital city, Port Louis. In the vicinity of St Georges Street, you can admire the few beautiful houses that have stood the test of time.


Battery of Devil’s Point

Under the French occupation, 27 defence guns controlled access to the island. The fearsomely effective battery of the Devil’s Point for a long time prevented the English from approaching Grand Port.