Mauritian History from 1500 to 1600

Written on 07/28/2021
Discover Mauritius™

The Indian Ocean from a new perspective

The history of Mauritius has always been told from a eurocentric perspective. The education system in Mauritius has depicted a widely spread historical account about how the Dutch were the first to set foot on our paradise island, and then later came the French, who later lost to the British.  The lack of extensive historical evidence might have been a reason why such discrepancies can be seen in our history. The Discover Mauritius team throughout the last months had as our main job to decipher and amend the available information regarding Mauritian History. Today, we come to you with not only facts but also debunking historical stories!

The first to step on Mauritius Island ?

With the limited existing historical evidence, it’s quite hard to know who was actually the first. There is the available historical evidence provided by the national library or Archives found in the industrial zone of Coromandel, but such information can be problematic as it has been written by the elites, specifically western powers (Europeans). From what we have gathered, the first to walk on our sandy beaches and meet our renowned Dodos is hard to narrow down, but fear not! While we cannot confirm who was the first, we can nevertheless tell you some facts which might not be known to many !

The contributions of Arab Sailors in the Indian Ocean

Contributor : Philip Fleuriau Chateau Source: The Maritime History of the Indian Ocean – Ed. By Ameenah Gurib-Fakim & Khal Torabully


First thing first, it can be claimed that the Arabs could have been the first to grace our island during the 15th century with their presence, but however, it is still debatable. Here are the reasons as to why : From centuries ago, the Arabs have been known for their astronomical knowledge. Through the constellations, they were able to find their ways through the oceans and the seas. Hence, they would often pass through the Indian Ocean. However, there has been no tangible evidence today of their stopping by Mauritius. Thanks to the contribution of the Blue Penny Museum, we were provided with the map  which shows us the talented cartography of the Arabs, but the latter doesn’t depict much, aside from the islands found in the Indian Ocean. The only element we came across  was the name given by the Arabs to the Mascarene islands.


Along the same lines, the possibility of Chinese travellers who often visited the Indian Ocean has also been considered. But like the Arabs, no tangible proof of their setting foot on Mauritius. Some historians even pointed out that the Malagasy could be among the firsts, as migration was quite common among those originating from indo-malaysian regions, and with their pirogues they could have crossed the ocean more than once.

It is quite a mystery to know who was the first to set foot here. We can conclude that it is an enigma which might never be uncovered.

Dina Arobi: The deserted island

The Cantino planisphere (1502)

The first names given to our islands by the Arab Sailors during their mastery of the Indian Ocean were quite interesting. Based on acquired knowledge and information, and through the study of the Alberto Cantino Planisphere (1502), were depicted a group of three small islands southeast of Madagascar that bear Arabic-Sanskrit names: Dina Mozare, a corruption of Diva Mashriq or Eastern Isle for Rodrigues, Dina Margabim, a corruption of Diva Maghrebin or Western Isle, for Reunion , Dina Arobi, from Diva Harab, "Desert Isle"- Others translate this as "Square Isle" for Mauritius. Due to the westernmost location of Reunion Island, margabim was used to refer to its position. Same would be applied to Rodrigues,  being geographically positioned to the east, while Mauritius lies between the other two islands. All three names derived from the Arabic language. 


While it is suggested that Dina Arobi or Dina a Robin could mean "desert island," others argue that it could also mean "island of the poisonous fish," owing to the "intoxication from the toxin in some reef fishes."

What has been documented so far is that Arab sailors, who mainly followed the coastlines, could have been the firsts to discover these islands. However, even if they documented the islands, there is no evidence that they stopped by Mauritius. However, we nonetheless did some digging here and there, and discovered that there might have been some wax tablets left by the Arabs, with inscriptions on them, later found by Europeans sailors, Dutch specifically,  who visited Mauritius. 


These tablets were said to contain messages intended for compeer Arab travelers to find if ever they crossed the Indian Ocean and got to the islands. 


According to reports, this image depicts some of the writing on the wax tablets.


Another piece of information to be considered is how the Arabs, specifically from the Arabian Gulf, periodically traveled across the Indian ocean with the help of their overly performant sailing vessels, known as Dhows, whose seaworthiness was better than any other European ships of that time. For a better understanding and perspective, it is necessary to learn more about these sailing vessels. Hence, a “dhow” refers to a tiny wooden boat with one or more triangular sails. It has been around for almost a thousand years, dating back to the 9th century, and is an important aspect of the Arabian Peninsula's coastal culture.  These traditional sailing vessels were primarily used for trading and even today, they are still widely used in commercial and maritime transportation in the region. The sailing vessels have a raised hull and a sharply pointed bow. Dhows are usually made of wood and have at least two triangular sails; some of them even have a single huge sail that not only makes sailing easier but also gives the boat a lot of power. Compared to Galleons or Caravels, which were unsuitable for long voyages due to their build (think about a weighed down object on water; we aren’t the smartest at science but we know for a fact that it would sink in the blink of an eye ), the Dhows were key to a successful expedition.

Moreover, compared to Europeans, the Arabic sailors were not scared of the sea: since as far as the 10th century, they set on journeys, following the coastlines. It was not until the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century that the most famous of all Arabs recorded the sailing directions, rules of navigation, and astronomical observation, as well as theoretical knowledge necessary for establishing the ship's path and location, in nautical manuals. They were mostly involved in mercantile activities and to summarize the Arabian sea trade on the eve of the Portuguese arrival into Asia, Arabs and Indians controlled everything from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to the Isthmus of Suez in the north, from the European continent's borders to the Persian Gulf, India, and the Indies. Hence, as; they were explorers and used the stars to navigate through the oceans: “ (Arabs) are people who migrated and had a great knowledge of the sky.  So in order to travel, it's better to know where you start and where you are. If you can't know where you are and where you're going, well, you're lost, that's how it's going to be. In comparison, Europeans such as the Dutch, and especially the Portuguese and Spanish of that time, did not even know where they were. It is said that, the Arabs like the Chinese, had more experience alongside their beliefs, which differed vastly from the Europeans, who for centuries believed that the land on the Northern and Southern hemispheres were equally balanced. Hence, Mauritius was most likely used as a stopover for the Arabic sailors along their trade routes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Bem-vindo à ilha deserta…. Or not

We now focus on the Portuguese, who did leave some evidence for us to trace them back as these did leave some impact on the foundation of our history. Being the first Europeans to land on our island, the Portuguese are claimed to have discovered Mauritius in the early 1500s. Domingo Fernandez, a Portuguese pilot is said to have named the island, then referred to as Dina Arobi, as ‘Ilha do Cirne’, the Swan Island.  The meaning behind this name is that as swans never existed in Mauritius before , it was assumed that the Dodos were the closest creatures which looked like the latter, which Europeans might have been accustomed to in their countries.


This may seem quite an extreme comparaison; how could a graceful bird be contrasted to the fat dodo ?! We furthered our research and the most plausible explanation is that cirne originates from sirene, referring to sirens. An omission of the letter “e” could have been made when the word was first transcribed, hence sirne, and later cirne due to a mix-up between the letter "ç" which is pronounced "s," and the letter "c”. Here is another element which might confuse you now.From our readings, we learned that aside from our legendary Dodos, we had an animal highly appreciated by the sailors in Mauritius : the dugong (Dugong dugon). Hence , the large abundance of these mammals in the coastal waters of Mauritius might have been a reason for the island being referred to as Ilha do Cirne, due to the rich mythology linking dugongs to the fabled sirens since ancient times.


Impression of the Dugong dugon known as lamentin in our patois, by French Huguenot Francois Leguat in 1708.


Contrary to popular belief, the Dodos were not good to eat ; rather, the dugongs were seeked out and preferred over the flightless bird - whose revolting taste disgusted the settlers and sailors. The sea animals had one of the best meat ; delectable and the best you could have on land or at sea according to primary accounts. Dugongs in Mauritius went extinct before those in Rodrigues, as happened with giant land turtles. Hence, although there are no longer any dugongs living in the island's reef lagoons, their abundance in the past might have prompted Portuguese sailors in the 16th century to refer to Mauritius as the "Island of the Siren."

The Mascarenes Archipelago

The names given to the Rodrigues alongside the Mascarene Islands stem from Portuguese origin. Pedro de Mascarenhas, a Portuguese sailor, landed on an “unnamed” island in the Indian Ocean on February 9, 1513. Diogo Rodrigues, another Portuguese navigator and friend to the latter, would later name the archipelago he had just discovered after the Viceroy Pedro Mascarenhas while Rodrigues, the smallest of the archipelago's three islands, would be named after him. 


The ones that went away 

All this sailing and no settling ? Unfortunately, the Portuguese  only developed their navigating skills later in the century,  and during that current time period, their ships were not performant enough. As previously said, compared to the Arabs sailors during the previous century, Europeans’ navels weren’t the most suitable for their voyages due to the build of the vessels, the caravels - these boats were frail, with only one mast and a fixed square sail, and  were unable to withstand the navigational challenges of southward oceanic exploration, hence the strong winds, shoals, and powerful ocean currents often overcame their capacities. From other points of view, the Portuguese were mostly involved in coastal trading; they mainly followed the coastline. Their ships did not allow them to cross the oceans and the Portuguese did not have a knowledge of the sky like the Arabs - who had at the same time much more powerful ships, which could cross the Indian Ocean,and they had no fear of the sea.


Moreover, the goal of the Portuguese was not to settle in the Mascarene islands ; they could have used the islands as stopping points, to replenish and rest after their expeditions but nothing more. Their crusades to and from Ilha do Cirne (Mauritius) would always last for more than six months, would it be worth the trip during that time ? However, because the Portuguese (along with pirates from various places) were the only ones to visit the island, it was widely thought to be a Portuguese territory up until 1598. 

The start of the colonization

Mauritius was an important port-of-call for Arab sailors seeking shelter from storms and European travelers looking for a stop between the Cape of Good Hope and the distant coasts of India. All sailors and merchants trading between the ports of Africa to the west and India and the Orient to the east used it as a key site. Mauritius provided them with the opportunity to restock their supplies ; it was important not only for fresh water, but also for effective communication: traders could leave notes for their fellow mariners who were scattered over the Indian Ocean. This would lead to the next century, and the origins of colonial history in Mauritius.


Hence, the Dutch and their foundation for colonization and slavery on the island is depicted next ; what enabled them to settle but also whether their settlement was successful or not - debunking the myth of them being the reason to the extinction of the Dodos alongside the true reasons to their departure. Was it really due to the conditions, mainly the social and climatic ones, on the island or were there other reasons ?  

Information provided by Emmanuel Richon, Museum Curator of the Blue Penny Museum