Mauritian History from 1600 to 1700

Written on 08/24/2021
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Dutch Settlement 1600- 1700

From the historiography available, we were portrayed a eurocentric perspective of Mauritian history. Focusing on the Dutch, we now undertake to provide new facts while breaking down old myths about the first colonizers known to our island.

Mauritius Island: Landing of the Dutch in 1598

By 1598, Ilha do Cirne (name given by the Portuguese) was no longer a desert island. A storm dispersed a fleet of eight Dutch ships on their way to the East Indies, led by Admirals Van Neck and Van Warwyk, shortly after passing the Cape of Good Hope. With five vessels, Van Warwyk set an eastward route and came across Ilha do Cirne in the afternoon of September 17th 1598. The next day, he dispatched boats in various directions in search of a suitable landing spot. On the morning of the 19th, he discovered a spot on the south-eastern coast and anchored there. He assumed ownership of the island in the name of the States after ensuring that it was not populated, and named it Mauritius after the Statholder, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen ( Maurice of Nassau ).

The British decided to rename the island Mauritius two centuries later, was because the royal family of England ruled the Netherlands at one point. Since Maurice of Nassau’s family was also linked to the royalty in England, they decided to keep the name given by the Dutch. 

First attempt at colonisation

The harbour Van Warwyk settled in was named after him, Port Warwyk. Maybe as an attempt to locate or mark their territory, a board depicting the arms of Holland, Zeeland, and Amsterdam was affixed to the trunk of a tall tree near the beach. A plot of ground was cleared and planted with orange and lime trees, as well as peas, beans, other vegetables, and domestic fowls. The squadron stayed for roughly a fortnight before moving on to Batavia. Mauritius was seen as a suitable resting point and this led to Van Warwyk to write a favorable report depicting the abundance of refreshment to be obtained on the island, alongside the quality of its climate, enticing other travelers to come. 


However, a noticeable fact was that while many visited the island, some landing at the south-eastern port, some in the north-western, yet no attempt at colonization was ever undertaken by them. Pieter Both of Amersfoort (who is today known for being one of the most famous mountain in Mauritius) on his way to his governor-generalship in Batavia in 1610, stopped in Mauritius to have his ship overhauled after it was seriously damaged by inclement weather. After his term of service ended five years later, he wanted to return to Mauritius on his way home; however, he was trapped in a terrible storm in February, and died on the reefs of Tombeau Bay. Three men narrowly escaped being destroyed and were later picked up by a wayward ship. Following this calamity, it appears that the Dutch avoided the coastlines they previously enjoyed, and their records for a long time make no reference to Mauritius.


During those years of desertness, the island was visited several times and many landed there to obtain cargoes of ebony, which was seen as extremely valuable at the time. The Dutch East India Company decided to seize Mauritius in order to put an end to the depredations of foreigners. It was unsurprising that they began the monopoly of ebony as well, given how many monopolies they already had.


Mauritius’ commanders

Mauritius was under 16 different governors, admirals, commanders and opperhoofd (upper-head). The last three heads were the ones with the longest ruling power but let us delve into the previous one first: Cornelius Simonsz Gooyer. In Mauritius from 1638-1639, he arrived on the 7th of May with a detachment of 24 enlisted men, who took up quarters and built a fort at port south-east. Their major job was to prepare ebony supplies, which a ship would occasionally transport to Batavia. Gooyer was in office only for a year before being succeeded by Adriaan van der Stel the following year. Van der Stel brought a variety of seeds and fruits, as well as sugarcane saplings, with him. Rabbits, sheep, geese, ducks, pigeons, and stags were among the animals he brought. These animals proliferated throughout time and were sources of fresh supplies for passing sailors. 


At some point, Van der Stel was given orders to cut down all of the island's ebony trees, a task which required extra personnel . He traveled to Madagascar and purchased a total of 155 slaves. However, fifty-two fled away within a few weeks, and only eighteen were apprehended. Van der Stel and his men were able to send 6,000 pieces of ebony to Batavia for nearly three years. He also gave agriculture a lot of consideration. Rice, indigo, tobacco, and cane farming were undertaken. A large number of fruit trees and vegetables were also planted. However, despite their efforts, their food supply was not guaranteed. The fort and its agriculture were devastated by a hurricane in 1644. One year later, Van der Stel was recalled, being succeeded by Jacob Van der Meersch, who stayed three years and then tendered his resignation. In 1648, Reynier Por took his place, but after four years of residence, he was recalled. 

Joost Van der Woutbeek and Maximiliaan De Jongh shared the authority on the island in 1653. This went on for a few months until the system was found to be in violation of the Company's guidelines at Batavia, and Van der Woutbeek was asked to retire. At that point, Mauritius was made a smaller colony, dependent on the Cape of Good Hope; the garrison was reduced to twenty men, and the commander's salary was lowered accordingly. De Jongh declined to continue in office, and Abraham Evertsz was appointed in his place.


In 1653, the Directors (of the Dutch East India Company) agreed to leave Mauritius entirely unless compelling reasons for its retention could be provided. Because there appeared to be no such good reasons in Batavia, the Governor-General wasted little time in dispatching a ship to evacuate the residents. The abandonment occurred on July 16th 1658. Everything was destroyed by fire, and it was reported that it would be impossible to find a single ebony tree worth cutting down in Mauritius for the next twenty years, so foreigners would be hesitant to settle there. However, only a year after, August 24th 1663, orders were finally sent to the Cape for the re-occupation of Mauritius, but it took about a year to be carried out.


Jacobus Nieuwland landed at Port South-East with twelve men in 1664 but died soon due to an illness. The same year, the ebony trade was subsequently resumed, and Dirk Jansz Smient was dispatched to the island with thirty-two men. The forests in the northern and western sectors had been destroyed to a large extent, however, Smient discovered a plain near the eastern shore where ebony grew abundantly, which he named Noortwyk Vlaakte (Northerly Plains) now known as Flacq. He decided to build a road from there to a little harbour, today named Trou d'Eau Douce, where the ebony was shipped to the Fort in barges. 


In 1669, Smient was removed from office and replaced by George Frederik Wreeden, a habitual alcoholic with a bad reputation. He did not stay long at the island's governance, and in 1672, when more inebriated than usual, he drowned with five of his companions at sea. Wreeden should have been succeeded by Wabrandt, his secretary, but the colonists gathered and unanimously elected Swen Felleson, the head cooper, a decent guy, no doubt, but unfit for the post. Those of higher status refused to obey his directives, even though the men of his class did. 

Philip Col was dispatched to the island on the orders of Hubert Hugo, who had been  nominated by the Cape authorities to the government of Mauritius. With orders to investigate the situation and assume supreme command if necessary, Col did not hesitate to do so under the prevailing conditions on the island, exerting himself to restore order. However, his way of doing things was quite questionable. 

When Hubert Hugo arrived in Mauritius on the 13th february 1673, he tried to reinstate a system which the inhabitants of the island had to abide by, which created much discontent. Continual complaints were made about him and, disgusted by the situation, he eagerly accepted his transfer. Isaac Lamotius was then assigned to the colony. Being well-educated, he was a skilled draughtsman, he drew up a detailed map of the island, the first of which revealed its layout. However, due to his despotic authority and excesses, the Governor of the Cape sent a Commissioner, Roelof Deodati, to investigate his transgressions. Deodati seized authority of the island after Lamotius was convicted.


The ministry of Roelof Deodati was possibly the most notorious during the Dutch period. He was known for his cruel treatment of Francois Leguat and his comrades, the Rodrigues colonists who had sailed from there in a small vessel of their own design and arrived in Mauritius on May 29, 1693. The socio-political conflicts in Europe at that time, particularly the fact that France and Holland were on opposing sides in the Nine Years' War (1689–1697) led to strained relations. From other points of view, even though Leguat was a Protestant, the Dutch most probably saw him as a French above anything else according to Emmanuel Richon.


Deodati held them in solitary imprisonment on Isle Marianne, a desolate rock opposite Grand Port, for over three years in order to prevent them from complaining to Batavia about his expropriation of a piece of amber they had picked up at Rodrigues without realizing its intrinsic value. After being hit by a hurricane in 1695, a group of maroon slaves set fire to the Fort a few months later. They were apprehended, sentenced to death, and murdered on the spot with such brutality that Deodati was instructed to send criminals to the Cape instead of taking the law into his own hands in the future.


The colonists, however, were still subjected to maroon slave raids on a regular basis. Natural catastrophes were also quite common: epidemics wiped out their main sources of food, wild oxen and deer attacks, another storm hit in 1702, resulting in a massive flood that washed a lot of animals, both wild and domesticated, out to sea. Deodati relinquished his government as a result of these recurring disasters. He was allowed to retire on September 27th 1703, and the administration was given to his assistant, Abraham Momber Van de Velde, a hardworking man who was completely honest and uninterested, but not very bright. Van de Velde was the last commander of the island and  during the next few years of his command, the situation on the island was worsening, with more catastrophes and rebellions from the slaves. Maroon slaves became further enraged and set fire to the Noortwyk buildings and to the Fort Frederick Hendrik. According to another school of thought, marronage might have been the primary cause of the Dutch’s departure. The freed slaves were probably seeking revenge as after all, it was the people who had enslaved them, and they were numerous, so why not attack them?  


The Court of Directors had already lost all faith in Mauritius' prospects since the hurricane of 1695 and the arrival of pirates. They dispatched orders to the Cape and Batavia in July 1706 to remove the entire inhabitants. However, it was not until September 23rd 1707, that a vessel arrived to return those who had chosen to settle at the Cape. On February 13th 1710, all colonists left the island, the entire establishment had been wrecked, buildings had been burned down, and crops had been ravaged. Yet, eight people remained - two maroon slaves, four deserters, and two Malays who declared themselves too ill to complete the journey.

The dodo’s extinction

Contrary to popular belief, the Dutch were not the cause of the Dodos’ extinction. In fact, the Dutch called the dodo WalghVoghel, which means the disgusting bird - hence not good to eat. The Dutch tried to eat them, because they seemed appetizing but it appears that they were not tasty at all, took a lot of time to cook and their flesh was very hard to chew. Opposite to what was often said, Dodos were tenacious, not easy to chase as it would defend itself and those who attacked it would be pecked.

Some possible reasons behind the extinction of the Dodo were the destruction of the natural habitat and the introduction of other species who ate their eggs. Moreover, as previously mentioned, there were better things to eat like the dugong dugon. Abundantly found in the lagoon, the mammals were easy to hunt while yielding a lot of meat. Hence, based on documentation, the Dutch exterminated the dugongs and the giant tortoises rather than the Dodos.

The Fluyt

The sailing vessel used by the Dutch during that time period was known as the Fluyt. As its name suggests, it was quite flat, long and tapered. Compared to their previous sailing vessels, these were a big revolution. Unfortunately, the only problem they encountered was, even as good navigators, they would easily lose time in calm waters. Nevertheless, they were still the first ones to have crossed the oceans. One noticeable aspect was that they did not carry water on their vessels as water would evaporate, they would rather carry alcoholic drinks such as wine. That is the reason why, maybe, most sailors were portrayed as alcoholics.

Mauritius Island: Storehouse of the Dutch!

Mauritius was seen as a port of call, where travelers could rest in between their long journeys as it usually took six months to sail to and from the island. Moreover, with the raging diseases at that time, there was a need to have a stop-over to regain strength when they sailed to the Cape or Batavia. Scurvy, which is a Vitamin C deficiency, was one of the most common illnesses sailors were facing. With Scurvy, one could experience spontaneous bleeding, pain in the limbs, and especially the legs, swelling in some parts of the body, and sometimes ulceration of the gums and loss of teeth. 

The first slaves in Mauritius

From parts of Africa and Madagascar, the first slaves were introduced during the Dutch period. Their usefulness was mainly for labour such as for the building of the fort Frederick Hendrik, for port activities, anything that involved cultivation but not only sugarcane (maybe only 2% of the slaves population were used for sugarcane cultivation). An interesting fact about sugarcane was that it was introduced by the Dutch but the omnipresent monoculture of sugarcane that the whole island has known till now, was brought by Farquhar, a long time after. 


Some argued that there is a tendency to extrapolate history - when you say that the Dutch introduced sugarcane, you get the impression that they were behind its development over the island, when in fact sugarcane cultivation became widespread under the British period. They wanted to cultivate it as much as possible since sugarcane was a very resistant plant, which would grow back easily even after devastating cyclones.


The Dutch they finally left the island in 1710. Reasons behind their departure were nuisance such as rats, violent cyclones causing the destruction of the crops and houses and of course the maroons' rebellion. When some slaves manage to escape, the logic was that they take revenge from those who enslaved and mistreated them. A glaring example of their rebellion was the burnt down of the Fort Frederick Hendrik (which happened several times) but this was also a way for the maroons to steal food from the Dutch as after all, they had to survive. Perpetual attacks of the maroons could top the list of reasons why the Dutch left the island.


When the Dutch left in 1710, the slaves remained on the island and managed to live on their own. Unlike what we used to hear, when the French arrived in Mauritius in 1715, it was not deserted as the island was already occupied by the maroons. They were considered to be a small population which managed to build a life there after the Dutch’s departure and surely births took place during those five years.

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