When Roger Federer the tennis icon set foot in Mauritius for holiday several years ago, he was just following the tradition of millions who had dreamt of holiday in this idyllic Indian Ocean Island. They dream of those silky beaches and the waving palm trees. But very few ever realize their dreams because holiday in exotic destinations is a preserve for the few who can afford it.
However, there is much more to Mauritius than the rolling waves, whispering palm trees and charming beaches.
The people of Mauritius represent a modern day miracle. They are a melting pot in every sense of the word. Their ancestors came from different parts of the world and only arrived in Mauritius after 1507. They came from as close as Madagascar and from as far as India, Indonesia and other parts of the Far East. These early Mauritians even came from France, Netherlands and England. Mauritians are the beautiful result of this ancestral mix.
Where else in the world do you have such multi-ethnic ancestral mix? Not many places.
The first French settlers arrived in Mauritius in 1715.
‘Icroyable!’ Amazing! They must have said when their small ship arrived in Isle de France, as Mauritius was known back then. The Island was still part of the French Empire and was being managed by the French East India Company. Today, there are Mauritians with a French ancestry but a Mauritian heartbeat. This Island is their beloved home.
Long before the French came calling and baptized Mauritius as ‘Isle de France’ it was known as Dina Arobi, named thus by the Arab sailors. These Arabs are the first known tourists to Mauritius. A couple of years after their arrival, Domingo Fernandez Pereira, the Portuguese sailor, set foot on the island.
‘Maravilhoso!’ Marvellous! Domingo must have shouted when his ship approached the lone island at around 1511. What was so marvelous about an inhabited lonely island? The pristine marine ecosystem was undoubtedly even more marvelous than it is today. Mauritius today has at least 1,700 marine species whose splendor is breathtaking.
The early Portuguese voyagers are said to have named Mauritius Cirne, after dodo, the legendary flightless birds that swarmed Mauritius back then. In these maiden days, terrestrial biodiversity seems to have had a bigger impression on the Portuguese tourists! Yet more evidence that Mauritius has always been more than the beaches and palm trees. In fact, Mauritius is an IUCN Center of Plant Diversity. Together with its fellow neighboring islands Reunion and Rodrigues, it is a biodiversity hotspot.
When Don Pedro Mascarenhas, another Portuguese tourist arrived a few years down the road, he decided to name Mauritius, Rodrigues and Reunion after himself. So the three islands became Mascarenhas. What interesting days those were! You just arrive in a pristine land and name it after yourself!
A decade or two after Mascarenhas left Mascarenhas, essentially abandoning himself, the Dutch arrived. They too named the island after someone – their prince back home. He was known as Prince Maurice Van Nassau. Dutch settlements followed but didn’t stay put. Although the Dutch left in 1710, they left behind a lasting legacy – sugarcane. Their sweet remnants have outlived them and become a central part of Mauritius.
The French arrived in 1715 after the Dutch departure and made Mauritius a French colony, even name it, Isle de France, Island of France. This French honeymoon however ended in 1815 when the British attacked and overpowered them, leading to the restoration of the Island’s earlier name – Mauritius. Unlike in other British colonies, especially in mainland Africa, the British promised to respect local language and customs.
Although a colonizer by any other name still smells as bad, the British undertook commendable action in 1835 when they abolished slavery. Most of the slaves, drawn from mainland Africa and Madagasar, had been working on sugarcane plantations. Ironically, the closure of this sad chapter in the young Island’s life opened a beautiful chapter when Indian labourers were brought in to work on the labour plantations. The beauty is not in the labour but in their arrival, because their offspring are now a big part of Mauritius.
The result of this mix of ancestors are Mauritians who share the same country but diverse cultures. Their harmonious co-existence is a study of harmony in diversity. As for its marine and terrestrial ecosystems, they are so dazzling that if Mauritians were to follow in the footsteps of Don Pedro Mascarenhas, the French explorer who named the island after himself in the medieval era, then the island would simply be known as ‘Ecosystem.’