Mauritian History 1800-1900

Written on 09/29/2021
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The British Takeover & The legendary Battle of Vieux Grand-Port

The year 1810 witnessed one of the biggest naval battles that Mauritius has known in history, opposing the French and the British navy. In August 1810, the British made a first attempt to conquer the island, and ten days before the attack, the British ships had cleverly appropriated the Ile de la Passe, a veritable sentinel of the Grand-Port harbor. Yet, what they did not know was that the French already expected that they would enter the island by this specific area and the French were better prepared for the battle. The intentions were clear, the battle was inevitable. 

Captain Duperré on the French Army’s side and Captain Willoughby for the British Army, fought the battle of Vieux Grand-Port which lasted two days. In addition to being less numerous, the British had poor knowledge of the place. With a low water level, the drifting hulls of Union Jack ships collided with sandbanks and corals, all the British ships were then sunk marking Napoleon's only naval victory.


The victory was however short-lived. By losing this first battle, the British understood where not to enter the island. The strategy elaborated by the British was to enter the island by the most unexpected place with a bigger army. So, in December 1810, they made a second attempt to enter the island and chose to enter by Cap Malheureux, a place that was quite difficult to access, except in extreme calm weather. 

For the little anecdote, contrary to what people used to say, Cap Malheureux was not named because the British entered Mauritius by this place. It was already named Cap Malheureux as it was not accessible at all during rough weather.

The British takeover first started with Rodrigues island (at 650km East of Mauritius), where they housed a mass of boats. The difference, in how the British succeeded in their landing in December 1810, were the mercenaries they took from India. They paid those mercenaries, and from the 25,000 soldiers, nearly half (around 16,000) were from India and were all paid to take over the island. From this strategy used by the British, we can see that the wage system prevails over the slavery system. With an army four times bigger than the French army (it was 1500 men for the French against 25 000 men for the British), the British won this second battle and grabbed the only missing island from his chessboard.

Decaen knew that the enemy would be preparing another attack. Internal debates were going on in the colony of île de France to know how to counterattack the opposing party. The question about arming the slaves was even raised but Decaen refused to know that the slaves could attack them as well, and the fear of another ‘Saint-Domingue Revolution’ was not out of their mind. They tried to find another solution but did not find any better and since they couldn’t rely on their slaves, in other terms the French found themselves locked into their own system of slavery. Even if slavery was still present in both countries, the British understood that with a wage system, they could earn much more, and they actually proved it by taking over the island.


Without any means of resistance, French Governor-General Charles Decaen (1803-1810) and his army had to surrender and give way to Governor Farquhar who erased nearly a century of French domination, île de France is no more, long live to Mauritius!

Why was the island renamed Mauritius by the British?

Another question that was left unanswered but was quite obvious, why did the name Mauritius (a name previously given by the British) come back. The answer is as such, at some point, the royal family of England also reigned over the Netherlands. The Van Nassau family was related to the royal family of England and they decided to keep the name Mauritius initially given by the Dutch.

Why did the British choose Mauritius too?

The relationship between those two countries has never been really great. Not only was île de France a port for refueling and trading but for 10-15 years, there were ‘corsairs’ watching the port. Corsair was another system similar to the mercenary system, which is based on a salary. The French kingdom paid ‘corsairs’ and the latter had an official contract with the King of France which stipulated that they could chase away any boat as long as it came from a British port. This had a major impact on the British since they couldn’t trade properly and trading became risky for them. Thus, taking over the island was a kind of counterattack by the British. It was a sort of retribution for all these years of attacks against their navy. 

Another reason why the British also chose Mauritius, is due to its geographic location, it was the ideal island of the entire Indian Ocean for refueling after a long journey at sea, unlike île Bourdon (now Réunion Island). That is why even though they captured all three islands (Mauritius, Rodrigues, and Réunion) afterward they decided to give back Réunion Island to the French (since it was the least essential island to them), to restore the bond between the two royal families, once the Treaty of Sèvres was signed at the end of the Napoleonic era. Kings were literally put on thrones by the British.

Mauritius was also very favorable for the trade and it had two greatly accommodating bays: Mahébourg and Port-Louis, which is neither present in Réunion nor in Rodrigues. Another reason why the island was covered by the British: the so-called île de France, was strategically and economically important. Not necessarily by what the island was producing since 1810, (it was not recognized for sugar production under Farquhar governorship; a few years later, that industry was highly developed) but the island was economically important due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean as it secured the road between India, which was the main economic interest of this time, and the Cape of Good Hope which they already possessed. Hence, having this island in the middle of the Indian Ocean was primordial to them. Another industry apart from the sugarcane monoculture that developed under British colonization was the production of burlap material (Goni/ toile de jute). At that time, Mauritius was not only exporting sugar but also different materials such as burlap.

Why did some French stay despite them losing the battle?

The answer to this question is quite logical, even if the British were interested in the island’s strategic location, during this period, it was not producing anything important for trade and export, and was not a self-sufficient island. Yet, it allowed great control of the route through the Indian Ocean. 

Given the small size of the island, and especially since there was already a local population contributing to the development of the island, to avoid any useless conflict situation with the Mauritian population, the British allowed everyone to stay. In fact, after conquering Mauritius, their next target was the gigantic lands of Australia as it would be more conceivable to move their population there rather than in Mauritius. Yet, what was of utmost importance to the British was to have the French population on their side, the British's goal was to avoid any conflictual society.

In 1830, the French population had to pledge allegiance to their new king, most of them accepted to do so as they were against the Napoleonian dictatorship but around 5% of them did not agree and went back to France

Construction of the Citadel

To ensure that no counterattack would be prepared by the French to take over the island again, in 1831, the British decided to construct the Citadel Fort. The Citadel cost £49,000 and was built in such a way that it was unassailable, highly water autonomous and from the fort, they could easily get in and out but not their enemies, and food supply stock was planned in the fort for 200-300 men, its construction was meant to control the island. Yet, the Citadel has never been used for its initial purpose.


In the meantime, negotiations on the island took place. The white Mauritian population who were not on really good terms with the British heard that abolition of slavery was planned. With the abolition of slavery, the British understood that conflicts would undoubtedly rose from this situation with the White Mauritians as the latter was going to lose their workforce. Hence, the White Mauritian decided that negotiations with the British were highly needed to be able to anticipate the coming changes. This is where Adrien D’espinay intervened as the official representative of the White population, who went to London to negotiate in favor of the Mauritian planters. The deal was, the White Mauritian will agree with the abolition of slavery in exchange of compensation per slave and the amount allocated to the planters for the loss of their slaves was enormous, this amount represented £2 million which equals 40 times what the Citadel cost. With the compensation and the abolition done, no big conflicts arose, hence the reason why the Citadel has never been used for its initial purpose.

Another injustice committed was that the masters were compensated and not the slaves, for having a ‘free workforce’ for over a century.

Different languages present in Mauritius island

To enable smooth communication between masters and slaves, Mauritian Kreol was already present in the colonies but the masters were still speaking French among them during their whole domination period (maybe the reason why the French language is still fluently spoken by most Mauritians). Yet, Malagasy was also another language very present in the colony until British rule since quite a number of slaves were from Madagascar. The diversification of language was so strong that Kreol became necessary to regularize oral communication among everyone (slaves, masters, and indentured laborers) in the colony.


Although the administration switched to the British system, the written press stayed in French (still in the 21st century written press in Mauritius is in French) simply because the majority of the elite class such as the tradespeople, the ‘bourgeois’ and the intellectuals spoke fluent French while the people spoke Kreol. The British who were in minority, were making round trips to the island and never stayed for a period longer than 5 years and the written press was mainly targeting the elite class, this explains the great francophone impact it had and still has on the written press in Mauritius.

An important point to be noted is that the history of the written press in Mauritius can be traced back to 1767 with the first printing materials which Pierre Poivre introduced on the island. One year later, the “Imprimerie Royale” was created. However, the oldest printing was claimed to be an almanac printed in 1457. Mauritius island was among one of the first colonial countries to own a newspaper industry.


Another strategy used by the British was to keep Farquhar as Governor, why? Governor Farquhar was married to a French woman and was very familiar with the French language. Therefore, he was the most appropriate person to deal with the French and negotiate with them.


1835: Abolition of Slavery

As mentioned in the previous article, the first abolition took place in 1794 but was restored in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte. Since the British were for a system other than slavery, the official abolition of slavery took place in 1835. The 1835 abolition of slavery was another kind of injustice to human beings. Not only were the masters the only ones who got a huge compensation, but in most cases, the slaves were not re-employed by their masters and had to look for other small jobs in agriculture, fishery, and other artisanal jobs. This is not often told but when being a slave, you had the right to cultivate and obtain a small profit on the products sold. Some tried to fend for themselves, some succeeded while others did not and they found themselves in extreme poverty.

An important point to be noted is that the slave trade was abolished in 1812 while slavery was in 1835. Also, from 1835 to 1839 the slaves were not totally free, it was the apprenticeship phase whereby the slaves would learn another job and re-adapted themselves into the society.

In need of manpower: Slaves and The arrival of Indentured Labourers

When the slaves were free, rehiring them would certainly have created a conflictual situation between the masters and their ex-slaves. A possible situation was that the slaves would not want to work again for someone who enslaved them for over a century, they rather chose freedom and tried to find other jobs.

With the £2 million of compensation in parallel with the economic boom of the sugar industry, this represented an opportunity for investment and employment in Mauritius island. As mentioned earlier, under British colonisation the system shifted into a wage system and since the French masters lost the free manpower, another solution was needed. This is where the chapter on indentured labourers began. From 1834 to 1924, labourers coming mostly from India were quite frequent. The first labourers arrived in Mauritius on November 2nd 1834 and were called the ‘coollies’ as they were from Calcutta in India. The reason why most came from India was that at that time people were trying to escape the numerous catastrophes in India back then.

A very important fact which deserves a real highlight (and maybe a debate) was the glaring differences in conditions that existed between the slaves and indentured labourers. Some tried to portray and create the ideology that the system of slavery was similar to the wage system but this is not the case. 

Some examples of the differences in their conditions were that the indentured labourers had the right to kept their family name, start a family, live with their family, they had the right to return to their country once their contract was over (from the 450, 000 who came only 150,000 went back), they had religious freedom which was banned for the slaves (forced baptism), they also had the right to own a small plot of land and above all, as little as it was, they received a wage.

Life under British colonisation

The British period lasted from 1810 to 1968 which is more than a century. During their colonial rule, the colony had known different governors and each brought something. The island’s sugarcane culture was further developed and production was tripled (under Farquhar’s governorship), electricity was introduced to other parts of the island, and constructions of reservoirs to enable water distribution were also established.

Although the British stayed a longer period than the French, they never really settled but rather made round trips to the island. 

The story of Louis: The Black Mauritian Slave who led South Africa’s first large-scale slave rebellion in 1808

Photo Credits: SA History

We’ve all heard about the strikes and rebellions against slavery, yet did you know how did it all started? These valiant acts found their roots back in Africa in 1808, most precisely in Cape Town, the once Capital of the Cape colony saw its first slave rebellion. The 1808 slave revolt was the first mass resistance by the slaves ever seen in South Africa. 


Led by Louis, a black Mauritian slave, the idea was to march into Cape Town and attack the Amsterdam Battery Fortification before negotiating a peace treaty that would result in the foundation of a free state and the abolition of slavery for all slaves. This plan was initiated by Louis, James Hooper and Michael Kelly (two Irishmen), three slaves Jeptha (from Batavia), Abraham and Adonis. They would be later joined by an Indian slave and two Khoi (originated from southern africa) men. Except the fact that Louis was one of the privileged slaves who married a free black woman, little is known about Louis.