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Mauritius - History

Mauritius History

Arab traders knew of Mauritius as early as the 10th century but never stopped to settle it. Portuguese naval explorers stumbled upon it in the wake of Vasco de Gama's voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. Still, apart from introducing pesky monkeys and rats, the Portuguese did little to influence the island. This was left to the next wave of immigrants, the Dutch. In 1598, Vice Admiral Wybrandt van Warwyck came ashore and claimed the island for the Netherlands, christening it after his ruler, Maurice, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau. It was another 40 years before the Dutch began to settle the country, preferring instead to use it as a supply base on the route to Java. The colony, however, never really flourished, and the Dutch departed for good in 1710, leaving in their wake the extinction of the dodo and the introduction of African slaves, Javan deer, wild boar, tobacco and sugar cane.

Five years later, French captain Guillaume Dufresne d'Arsal claimed the island, renamed it Île de France and gave it over to the French East India Company to run as a trading base. Popular settlement began in 1721, and within 15 years the first sugar mill had been built, along with a road network and hospital.

During the second half of the 18th century, the island's capital, Port Louis, became a free trading base and haven for corsairs - mercenary marines paid by a country to plunder the ships of its enemies. Tired of the competition, the British moved in on the corsairs (and on Mauritius) in 1810. After an initial defeat at the Battle of Vieux Grand Port, the Brits landed at Cap Malheureux on the northern coast and took the island. The 1814 Treaty of Paris ceded Île de France, Rodrigues and the Seychelles to the victors but allowed Franco-Mauritians to retain their language, religion, Napoleonic Code legal system and sugar plantations. In 1835, the slaves were freed and the labour force was supplemented by workers brought in from China and India.

While the Franco-Mauritian plantations produced wealthy sugar barons (as they do today), Indian workers continued to be indentured by the thousands. Through strength of numbers, Indians gradually bolstered their say in the country's management, aided in 1901 by a visit from Mahatma Gandhi. In 1936, the Labour Party was founded to continue the struggle for labourers' rights. The following year, their burden was lightened by a new constitution granting the vote to anyone over 21 who could sign their name. Under the direction of Dr Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (who was later knighted), membership swelled and the party flourished.

Mauritius was granted independence from Britain on 12 March 1968, and Sir Ramgoolam was elected prime minister, a title he retained for the next 13 years. He was succeeded by a coalition of the leftist Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) and the Parti Socialiste Mauricien, though tensions in the parties' upper ranks rattled the infrastructure throughout their reign. In 1986, three Mauritian MPs were caught at Amsterdam's airport with heroin in their suitcases, and the resulting inquiry implicated other politicians in drug money and led to several resignations. Mauritius officially became a republic in 1992.

Sir Ramgoolam's grandson, Navin Ramgoolam, won the elections in 1995 and led the country in its pursuit of prosperity until September 2000, when new elections were won by an alliance of the Socialist Militant Party and the Militant Movement - the former's Anerood Jugnath will be prime minister until 2003, when he will be replaced by the latter's Paul Berenger, who'll be the first non-Hindu to hold the office since the country gained its independence.

Tensions between the Creole population, descended from former slaves, and the Indo-Mauritian majority, exploded in 1999. Popular reggae singer Joseph 'Kaya' Topize was arrested during a rally to legalize marijuana and died of a skull fracture while in police custody. Riots broke out across the island, particularly in Port Louis.

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