According to reports from the Portuguese who first landed on the island of Mauritius in the 16th century, the island was uninhabited. However, it was immediately sought after by the colonial powers, who subsequently quarreled with military and diplomatic means. In the period 1598-1710 it was occupied by the Dutch who gave it the name Mauritius. They were attracted to the island’s rich ebony forests. In 1721 it was recolonized by the French Bourbons, who named it Ile de France. During the conflicts between France and England over control of India, Mauritius took a crucial strategic role. In addition to trade with India, treaties were concluded with Madagascar and Mozambique in order to use the coasts of these countries for the expansion of sugar cane plantations.
During the French Revolution, Mauritius gained some form of autonomy, but in 1810 it fell into the hands of the English. When Napoleon was finally defeated in 1814, the Paris Treaty formally recognized it as a British colony. It was the British who introduced the cultivation of sugar cane, which until today has been the island’s most important resource.
According to Countryaah, the first decades of the 19th century were marked by a significant increase in sugar production, but in 1835 slavery was abolished, despite fierce opposition from local European sugar plantation owners. The slaves then made up 70% of the island’s population, and the release triggered a widespread labor shortage. The landowners tried to solve the labor problem from this point up to the beginning of the 20th century by introducing 450,000 Indian “contract workers”. Over time, this population group became an important sector of the country’s economic and social structure until today it constitutes the country’s population majority. Despite this, the local culture still has a number of French features.
At the beginning of the 20th century, workers began to strengthen their organizational forms. In 1936, the Indian-dominated trade union movement organized itself into the Labor Party, but its leadership was eradicated through murder, imprisonment or exile. It happened in the wake of a series of strikes and demonstrations that were turned down violently. In the same period, Doctor Seewoosagur Ramgoolam began his political career as leader of the Advance group, and, encouraged by the colony administration, in the late 1940s he succeeded in conquering the leadership of the Mauritius Workers’ Party (MLP).
During World War II, Britain did not have the capacity to guarantee the security of its colonial areas. It opened up stronger demands for autonomy while increasing US political and military influence. Politically, the people of Mauritius managed to force the British government to accept a Mauritanian representative in the British colonial government. In 1957, a new government structure was introduced introducing the Prime Minister’s post. The first general elections took place in 1959 and MLP’s electoral victory in 1961 made Seewoosagur Ramgoolan the country’s first prime minister.
From Mauritius, the British administered the islands of Rodrígues, Cargados-Carajos and the archipelago of Chagos. In 1965, Britain threatened Prime Minister Ramgoolan to accept Chagos and other islands to form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and the United States installed a huge naval and air base on the coral island of Diego García. Diego García’s original population was secretly transferred to Mauritius in 1971, where it would settle in the capital of Port Louis. This sparked a scandal when it was discovered several years later by the United States Congress. Despite this, the island was not returned to Mauritius and its inhabitants were not allowed to return home.