HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC OF MAURITIUS:
THE FRENCH OCCUPATION

 
The Republic of Mauritius a Brief History

Mauritius and the French Occupation:
The Birth of a Nation, Dignity and a Sense of Belonging

The occupation, development and destiny of the small Island of Mauritius was determined by international politics in Europe and commercial trade between Europe and the East. At the time of the departure of the last Dutch settlers in 1710 the French East India Company had already firmly colonised Bourbon, the island now known as Réunion and had established it as an important trading centre. The French were also established in Madagascar and therefore had every interest in consolidating their influence in the Indian Ocean with the addition of another island. The Dutch settlers often felt isolated despite some support from the distant Cape of Good Hope. During French rule, on the other hand, the settlers had the support of France and a sense of belonging that previous Dutch settlers lacked. They were able to develop gradually an awareness of contributing to the creation of a nation where as yet none existed. These were powerful factors in the development of a successful and prosperous colony.

It was only five years after the departure of the Dutch that, on 20 September 1715, Captain Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel landed at Port Louis. The first decision made on taking possession of the island was to change its name, leaving no doubt as to whom the island now belonged. He named it Île de France. Possession was taken but no colony was founded. Settlers started to arrive only in 1721 and the first wave of settlers was a mixture of French East India Company representatives and slaves from Madagascar and other parts of Africa.

There followed a general tendency to rename significant areas on the island. The island itself became Île de France, Warwick Bay became Port Bourbon, after the island of Bourbon (Réunion) and the North West Harbour became Port Louis, after the King of France. Port Louis became the capital but the headquarters remained on the island of Bourbon. This renaming of place names also contributed to the creation of a sense of identity and belonging, familiar names indicating realities with which the settlers could identity. Thus a keen sense of belonging to a major European power, a monarch and to an African neighbour sharing a similar identity began to take root in the collective consciousness. The assurance of protection from a distant land and king and the comfort of more immediate support of a sister island sharing the same destiny proved to be reassuring. The Dutch settlers experienced no such bond, no such reassurance. This awareness, although intangible, was a powerful force working below the surface helping events and circumstances to mould a crowd of settlers into a civilised society. It was a cohesive force binding people from diverse ethnic backgrounds into a common identity that transcends the differences and divisions of individual consciousness. Unambiguously linked to France, to the French king and to its immediate French neighbour, the Island of Bourbon the settlers on Mauritius had an all round sense of belonging which generated a sense of security that tended to counterbalance somewhat the vulnerability and insecurity of actually living on the island.

Although a necessary preparation for the construction of a cohesive society, this sense of belonging and identity could not distract the settlers from their harsh day to day reality. Just like the Dutch before, many abandoned the island during the first years of occupation and the French had similar problems with their slaves. Being badly treated the slaves escaped and hampered the activities of the settlers.

It was only later that the colony was consolidated and able to bring to fruition the collective awareness that was maturing beneath the surface. The arrival of Governor Bertrand François Mahé de Labourdonnais in 1735 constituted a milestone in the political and social development of the island. A new influx of ideas, energy and organisation was to give the island a new leash of life, a new vitality. A whole series of radical social reforms were carried out. A hospital was built, hovels in which the settlers lived were replaced by new houses, living conditions were vastly improved and a system of local government took root. Forts, barracks, and a network of roads were constructed. Port Louis was transformed into a major port where a new ship building industry was developing. A complete overhaul of the social structure was set in motion and all groups of society benefited in some way. Even the slaves acquired new skills that gave them dignity and self confidence. Other settlers were encouraged to use their skills at sea in a newly created naval force. Agricultural reforms were also enacted. Agriculture was now geared towards the cultivation of more marketable products: cotton, indigo, coffee and a sugar factory was constructed in 1744. As Labourdonnais was Governor of both Bourbon and Île de France he had the headquarters moved from the Island of Bourbon to where it was more needed, in Île de France. A different quality of settler started to arrive here, not only from Bourbon but also from France.

Labourdonnais' naval reforms enabled him to lead personally a fleet of ships in an expedition against the British in India. The fleet sailed from Île de France in 1746 and captured the important outpost of Madras. This is the height of the golden age of Mauritius, the age when heterogeneous ethnic groups began to form a society at home aware of the fact that they working towards the common good and the future of a new nation while at the same time making their own small contribution on the world stage. A new national identity was emerging, a new national self confidence, a new sense of belonging, a new sense of importance. It is with Labourdonnais that we have the real birth of a nation.

The Madras affair, though marking the height of his career, was also the beginning of the end. It was the turning point in his life, his most prestigious moment yet also the beginning of his downfall. A man of sound principles working for the good of the whole of the society entrusted to him he refused to accept the orders of his superior Dupleix to reduce Madras to ashes. Having conquered this important outpost he knew the British would pay handsomely to have it back. He wanted the conquest to turn to the economic advantage of the French. Dupleix, outraged by Labourdonnais' refusal, accused him of having accepted a bribe to save Madras and had him removed from his position in Île de France. He was recalled to France and locked up in the Bastille. Although found to be innocent the time spent in the Bastille had its toll on this charismatic leader and he died at the age of 54.

Mauritians erected a statue of Labourdonnais in 1859 to celebrate his contribution to their history and civilisation. The town of Mahebourg is also named after him and so is the capital of the Seychelles, Mahé. The Mauritians are fully aware that he gave them a sense of dignity, self confidence and a taste of glory. His statue in Port Louis looks out beyond the harbour he created out towards the open sea, Mauritius, no longer inward looking but opening up to the vast world beyond with a newly found self-confidence. Where the Dutch failed the French succeeded.

 

 

History of Mauritius The French Occupation Part II available soon
History of Mauritius the Dutch Occupation

 

 

 

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