The Republic of Mauritius a Brief History
Mauritius and the Dutch Occupation

Mauritius lies in an important strategic geographical position, known by traders throughout the centuries. It attracted the interest of rival European states especially during important periods of mercantile or colonial expansion. The Arabs had visited Mauritius and surrounding islands and apparently gave the name "Dina Arobi" ("Isle of Desolation") to Mauritius.

Portugal, France, Netherlands, Britain, nations whose spheres of interest stretched from Europe to the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, found the island convenient as a port of call for their traders on their voyage along the famous Spice Route from Europe round the Cape of Good hope to the East Indies. Mauritius was a convenient little island satisfying the needs of giant nations.

The island's links with Europe date from the era of colonial expansion with the arrival, in 1510, of Portuguese explorers and traders journeying along the East India trade route. The DodoThe Portuguese found the island a useful stopover en route to their colonies as they journeyed round the Cape. However, despite its usefulness to the Portuguese and despite Portuguese colonial policies (it colonized Mozambique in 1508) they decided not to settle there. Evidence of the Portuguese sighting and visit of Mauritius is evident in the name given to the group of islands of which Mauritius is part "Mascarenes" named after the Portuguese captain, Pero Mascarenhas. Portuguese influence is also seen in the name of another island, now a dependency of Mauritius, Rodrigues, named after Diego Rodrigues who discovered it in 1528. The Portuguese also gave the island of Mauritius a name, Swan Island, "Ihla do Cerne".

Dutch traders travelling along the Trade Route were blown off course and eventually came across Mauritius by chance. They landed at the south-east harbour of Grand Port. Unlike the Portuguese the Dutch did settle there and held control of the island from 1598 to 1710 with a gap of six years absence 1658-1664. It is with the Dutch that we have the beginning of the history of Mauritius as a colony of a foreign power. Colonial authority was asserted by the Dutch when Vice Admiral Wybrandt van Warwyck named the island "Mauritius" in 1633. The name "Mauritius" was also the name of one of the ships in the fleet. Not insignificantly it was named after an important figure in Dutch history, Prince Mauritius van Nassau, Stadthouder (governor) of the Netherlands, a son of Willem van Oranje (William of Orange). He was a colonial administrator and seized Brazil from the Portuguese.

The first Dutch settlers came from Cape of Good Hope accompanied by their African slaves. They were interested in colonising the island as the Dutch, struggling for independence of Spain, were emerging as a major mercantile nation. The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC, ‘Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie’, The United East India Company) was also in need of a stopover island on their way to the East Indies. They were also interested in settling in Mauritius to offset rival nations Britain and France from doing so as these nations also made use of the same Spice Route to the Indies.

The settlement started in earnest in 1638 with the construction of a fort, Fort Frederik Hendrik at Warwijck Harbour, now Grand Port Bay. The fort was named after Prince Frederik Hendrik van Oranje-Nassau. The first governor of Mauritius was Cornelis Simonsz Gooyer. At that time there were 25 colonists. Over the years slaves were brought over from Madagascar and convicts from Batavia to hew down the ebony trees for export and the population increased to around 500, agriculture began to take root and products were sold to ships passing by, French, English and pirates who were always in the area ready to plunder the ships on the now well established trade route.

This society of settlers, convicts and slaves from various parts of the globe was unstable and potentially dangerous. The slaves managed to escape and did all they could to hinder the development of their former masters. Crops were destroyed and cattle killed. A far cry from the image of a quiet, harmonious, utopian society that seems to prevail today. Hard times indeed for the colonists who were also plagued by the rats they themselves had unwittingly brought with them in their ships. The rats destroyed crops and greatly hampered early attempts at farming. Little wonder, therefore, that the first colonists despaired of ever prospering and furthermore little help was forthcoming from the Netherlands. Quite understandably, when the Dutch firmly established their colony in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, they finally abandoned the island leaving it in the hands of the fugitive slaves.

There were actually two distinct phases in the Dutch rule in Mauritius the first lasting from 1638 until 1658 and the second phase of occupation from 1664-1710. There was, therefore, a period in which the island once again became practically uninhabited.

Pieter BothWhen the Dutch occupied the island again it was done more systematically and with the support of the colony in the Cape of Good Hope. Agriculture was better organised with the cultivation of tobacco, indigo, maize and sugar cane. Hunting was also possible with the introduction of deer from Java. In this second phase the colonists concentrated their efforts on the eastern side of the island in the Flacq area because of the scarcity of ebony trees in the southeast. Forts were built and the infrastructure for a permanent colony put in place. However, all their efforts came to nothing when a strong cyclone struck in 1695 destroying everything they had built up over the years. The Dutch government decided not to support or finance it any more and the second phase of colonisation ended 1710.

The sailors also brought with them a variety of animals which also contributed to the extinction of the Dodo bird. The first slaves came with their Dutch masters from Cape of Good Hope and other slaves were later imported from Madagascar during the rule of the second governor of Mauritius. Towards the end of the second phase of the Dutch occupation it is estimated that the total population on Mauritius was 244.

Soon after the departure of the last Dutch settlers the lure of an island left to its own fate was irresistible to the French who already had established a colony in the nearby island of Bourbon (Réunion). French occupation of Mauritius began in 1715.

The legacy of the Dutch lies mainly in the introduction of the sugar cane, which has since become one of the main sources of income for many centuries. One of the unfortunate consequences of the Dutch settlers was the destruction of the ebony forests which were the main source of sustenance for the Dodo bird, a native species of the island.

Dutch influence on the island can clearly be seen in place names of Dutch origin which include the name of the second highest mountain in Mauritius named after Pieter Both, first Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies shipwrecked in Tombeau Bay.

top: Reconstruction of a Dodo
bottom: Pieter Both, first Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies


Mauritius: A Brief Introduction its location and general information
History of Mauritius French Occupation





Know Britain Home Page
General Index