By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacques) November 15, 2012
Mauritius is one of the three islands composing the Mascareignes archipelago, both Reunion island and Rodrigues island have been introduced in former articles so this third one will complete the series.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 29, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
With only 220km between Reunion and Mauritius, both islands may be considered as very similar but actually they are pretty different in many ways. Mauritius is 65km from North to South and 48km from east to west, making it 1865 square kilometers, somewhat smaller than Reunion which is 2512 square kilometers. Both islands are of volcanic origin but Reunion was born some 2.1 million years ago and can therefore be considered geologically young with its higher point at 3069 meters high, Mauritius will be the elder sister with 7.8 million years and obviously a much more eroded landscape with a maximum height of 828 m high. As a matter of fact Mauritius is a volcanic plateau cut by several mountainous chains. A large coral reef surrounds the whole island and there are many islets scattered here and there, both inside the reef and outside (Ile aux serpents, île plate, coin de mire). This important difference in terrestrial shape will of course greatly influence weather and the impact of man. On Reunion the high central mountains stop most clouds coming from the east, resulting on a very wet East coast compared to a dry West coast, while Mauritius has a more uniform rain map. There are basically two seasons: austral summer from November to April with temperatures between 22°C at night and 30°C during the day, austral winter with temperatures from 17°C to 24°C, most rains occurring in summer (also called cyclonic season). The fact that it is quite flat allowed men to use a very large part of the land for agricultural purposes, so very little of the original vegetation remains on Mauritius while most of it has been preserved by the steep relief of Reunion (which allowed us to win UNESCO'S world heritage status in August 2010).
Quite similarly to Reunion, Mauritius was very probably first discovered by Arab sailors during the years 1200 to 1400. Portuguese navigators were the first Europeans to set foot there (Domingo Fernandez allegedly stopped in 1516 though Diego Diaz might have done it in 1500). It was not before 1598 that a Dutch fleet with five vessels made it officially Dutch land and named it Mauritius so as to honor Maurits Van Nassau, Prince of Orange and king of Holland. But it was only in 1638 that the first human settlement took place with convicts and slaves from Madagascar and Indonesia. The Dutch definitely left the island in 1710 which came back to its status of desert land but with heavy damages to the forests and massive killings of animals (tortoises, parrots, dodo or Raphus cucullatus). In 1715 the French took over as they had already settled in nearby Reunion (Bourbon Island at this time) and renamed Mauritius as ‘Isle de France'. The first French settlers arrived in 1721, several famous governors successively ruled the island such as Mahé de la Bourdonnais, Pierre Poivre and so on. Sugar cane was introduced in 1639 and slowly grew to the point where it is nowadays the main crop. In 1810 the English victoriously fought and took over the island, naming it again ‘Mauritius' which has remained ever since. After much turmoil, cyclones, epidemics and pirate raids the island finally gained independence in 1968 and Mauritius became republic in 1992, with a prime minister as head of government.In 1835 slavery was abolished and thousands of workers were brought over from India, adding a serious ingredient to this melting pot. This results in a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and multi-confessional society; English is the official language, French is equally spoken in the street together with Creole, Hindi, Gujarat, Chinese are also often heard. Churches, mosques and Tamil temples can be seen close together without apparent problems.
Mauritius is famous worldwide for its large white-sand beaches, luxurious hotels and resorts, impeccable service, good food and altogether rather inexpensive life for tourists from abroad. And indeed, tourism is the number one industry (930,500 tourists visited during the year 2008, compared to the 1,200,000 inhabitants) with people coming from Europe, Asia, America, South Africa and of course many from Reunion (people in Mauritius would call tourists from Reunion ‘cousin'). Wealthy people from South Africa have massively invested in hotels since the political turnover and since a few years foreigners can buy land and invest in various businesses. As a matter of fact Mauritius is a very pleasant place to stay; nice tropical weather, clean beaches, clear water, friendly people, large selection of food, what else would we need to relax? Of course after relaxing we need some action which can be wind-surfing, kite-flying, diving, big game fishing, golfing, and horseback riding. And if you still have money you can indulge in casino of course...Plant lovers will pay a visit to the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden (on which a future article will give details). The clothing industry has been a very important one with many factories taking advantage of the rather low working cost but the recent Chinese competition has slowed it down seriously. Cane sugar is another one of the main income source, 34% of the land grows sugar cane and the product is exported--mostly to Europe (85%) goes to UK. Although sugar cane takes 90% of agricultural land it is not the only crop, fruits and veggies are produced and some are exported (bananas, mangoes, litchis) as well as cut flowers (anthuriums) . A growing part of incomes comes from modern technology; multi-media, printing, computer services, phone services.
So all in all Mauritius is worth a visit and if you want to stretch your legs after too much beach bumming you can fly to nearby Reunion and enjoy the hundreds of paths and trails going through the cirques, peaks and forests.
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html