It is believed that the first people to set foot on the island of Mauritius were Arab sailors and merchants. Arabs merchant ships have been sailing the Indian Ocean for centuries. Important trading routes linked the east coast of Africa and Madagascar with the Arabian Peninsula, India and Indonesia.
Prior to 1598 there was no human habitation on the island of Mauritius. At that time it was only an indigenous habitat with dense forests, peaks and mountains, streams and rivers, and some species of birds, unique among which was the famous Dodo.
In maps of the Middle Ages Mauritius is shown by an Arabic name 'Dina Arobi'. It is believed that Arab sailors knew the island as early as the 10th century, but they never settled there.
In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope and called at various Arab-Swahili cities along the East African coast on his way northwards. It was at one of those city ports that an Arab or Indian pilot showed him the way to Goa, India. Within the next ten years, numerous Portuguese expeditions explored the Indian Ocean, visiting Madagascar, the Seychelles and the Comoros Islands.
Around 1507, the Portuguese seaman Fernandez Pereira sighted Mauritius and named it Cerne. The group of islands consisting of Mauritius, Reunion and Rodrigues were given the names of Mascarenes after the Portuguese captain, Pero Mascarenhas.
The Portuguese never attempted to settle on any of the Mascarenes islands. They were more interested in protecting their trade routes with India and therefore established settlements along the coast of Mozambique instead.
The Dutch were the first people to establish a permanent presence on the island. In 1710 they abandoned the island for good after two unsuccessful attempts of colonization. A French sea captain, Dufresne d'Arsel claimed the island for France in 1715 and called it "ile de France" but it was only in 1721 that a small party was sent to began settling on the island. The island remained French till the British invaded in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars.
Under the French, the island became a relatively prosperous colony with numerous French immigrants settling there. The French presence has had a profound influence on the fate of Mauritius. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British invaded Mauritius in 1810. The British occupation of the island lasted till 1968 when they granted the country independence. The only reason for the British to be interested in the island was that it lay along the sea route from England to British India and that the French presence in Mauritius was a threat to British shipping. Indeed, a number of French navy vessels and corsairs harassed British vessels en route to India or to England.
The British Admiralty of the time viewed Mauritius as the key to the control of the Indian Ocean and possession of the island became a military imperative. The control of the Indian Ocean by the British Empire can be said to have been complete and remained virtually unchallenged till the entry of Imperial Japan into the Second World War in 1941.
Just as the French presence was determinant in the making of Mauritius, the British occupation has shaped tremendously the destiny of this country. Mauritius is one of the few countries in the world to have been colonized by the French and the British successively. Like the French, the British left behind the English language and a system of laws.
Today Mauritius is a republic within the Commonwealth with a population of 1.2 million. Being a multi-cultural society, the Mauritian population enjoys a rich ethnic background, consisting of Hindus, Muslims, Tamils, Blacks of African and Madagascan descents, Whites of French descents, Mulattos and Chinese. The main religions are Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. However other religious denominations also flourish. This is a small country where religious festivals, rituals, customs and traditions abound in all their splendours. With such diversity in the cultural fabric of a society, Mauritius is often described as a miniature representation of the world itself, where 'East meets West'.
Mauritius is a success story in terms of its Constitution: it is a democracy based on the Westminster model. Their education and the health service are free. The literacy rate, at over 95%, is one of the highest in the world. Although English is the official language the majority of the Mauritian population speak Creole patois (a sort of a native dialect) in their daily lives, together with French if need be. English is used as a medium of education and for official and administrative purposes mainly. Apart from English, French and Creole patois, which most Mauritians use, each ethnic community have their own languages such as Hindi, Bhojpoori, Urdu, Tamil, Telegu, Chinese, etc. From a poor country in 1968, at the time of independence, Mauritius has risen to a middle income country in 1997.
Below is an analysis of Mauritius according to The 2006 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal:
Category: Mostly Unfree
Total area: 1,860 sq. km
GDP: $5.0 billion
GDP growth rate: 3.2%
GDP per capita: $4,167
Major exports: clothing, food, beverages and tobacco, textiles, sugar
Exports of goods and services: $3.2 billion
Major export trading partners: UK 31.0%, France 21.4%, US 17.5%, Madagascar 63%
Major imports: textile fibre, machinery and transport equipment, food, beverages, mineral fuels, chemicals
Imports of goods and services (fob): $3.0 billion
Major import trading partners: South Africa 12.1%, France 12.0%, China 8.4%, India 8.2%
Foreign direct investment (net): $27.1 million
The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal
By Purity Njeru
Ms. Njeru is an African Executive staff writer
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