Mauritius (including Rodrigues), just like its neighbour Reunion, is part of the Mascarene Islands. These islands were formed in a series of undersea volcanic eruptions 8-10 million years ago, as the African plate drifted over the Réunion hotspot. Unlike Reunion though, the islands Mauritius, Rodrigues and the smaller ones are not volcanically active anymore. The island of Mauritius itself is formed around a central plateau, with its highest peak in the southwest, Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire at 828 metres above sea level.
Discovered by the Portugese, claimed by the Dutch, the French and finally the British, Mauritian culture is an eclectic mix of the descendants of Europeans colonizers, African slaves and Indian labourers. The island’s culinary styles, which can be attributed to its distinct heritage, are exquisite; Mauritius is a favourite among cooking shows, with specials covering the island’s food cropping up constantly.
With great food filling their stomachs, tourists head for the island’s trendy beaches, where swimming and surfing are generally the order of the day. Mauritius has heavily promoted its aquatic attractions, developing diverse ways of enjoying the marine world, such as undersea walks and semi-submarine rides. Inland, rising mountains make for gorgeous scenery and excellent hiking. Though Mauritius is hardly a role model for good environmental treatment, the Royal Botanical Gardens offer a delightful glimpse of the diverse flora that once thrived on the island.
Mauritius was uninhabited until being permanently settled by European explorers in the 1600s. The island was known by Arab and Austronesian sailors as early as the 10th century. The Portuguese sailors first visited it in 1507 and established a visiting base leaving the island uninhabited. Five ships of the Dutch Second Fleet were blown off course during a cyclone while on their way to the Spice Islands and landed on the island in 1598, naming it in honour of Prince Maurice of Nassau, the Stadtholder of the Netherlands. In 1638, the Dutch established the first permanent settlement. Because of tough climatic conditions including cyclones and the deterioration of the settlement, the Dutch abandoned the island some decades later in 1710. France, which already controlled the neighbouring Île Bourbon (now Réunion) took control of Mauritius in 1715 and later renamed it Île de France (Isle of France). Under French rule, the island developed a prosperous economy based on sugar production. In the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) the British set out to gain control of the island. Despite winning the Battle of Grand Port, Napoleon’s only naval victory over the British, the French surrendered to a British invasion at Cap Malheureux three months later. They formally surrendered on 3 December 1810, on terms allowing settlers to keep their land and property and to use the French language and law of France in criminal and civil matters. Under British rule, the island’s name reverted to the original one. An independence campaign gained momentum after 1961, when the British agreed to permit additional self-government and eventual independence, which eventually happened on 12 March 1968.