THE REPUBLIC OF MAURITIUS is a democratic and prosperous country whose entire population has ancestral origins elsewhere: Europe, Africa, India, and China. Until recently, the country's economy was dominated by the production and export of sugar, a legacy of its French and British colonial past. After independence in 1968, government-directed diversification efforts resulted in the rapid growth of tourism and a manufacturing sector producing mainly textiles for export.
During French colonial rule, from 1767 to 1810, the capital and main port, Port Louis, became an important center for trade, privateering, and naval operations against the British. In addition, French planters established sugarcane estates and built up their fortunes at the expense of the labor of slaves brought from Africa. The French patois, or colloquial language, which evolved among these slaves and their freed descendants, referred to as Creole, has become the everyday language shared by most of the island's inhabitants. French is used in the media and literature, and the Franco-Mauritian descendants of the French settlers continue to dominate the sugar industry and economic life of modern Mauritius.
The British captured the island in 1810 and gave up sovereignty when Mauritius became independent in 1968. During this period, the French plantation aristocracy maintained its economic, and, to a certain degree, its political prominence. The British abolished slavery but provided for cheap labor on the sugar estates by bringing nearly 500,000 indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent. The political history of Mauritius in the twentieth century revolves around the gradual economic and political empowerment of the island's Indian majority.
Mauritian independence was not gained without opposition and violence. Tensions were particularly marked between the Creole and Indian communities, which clashed often at election time, when the rising fortunes of the latter at the expense of the former were most apparent. Nonetheless, successive governments have, with varying success, attempted to work out a peaceful modus vivendi that considers the concerns of the island's myriad communities.
These varied interests have contributed to a political culture that is occasionally volatile and highly fluid, characterized by shifting alliances. A notable lapse from democratic practices, however, occurred in 1971. The Mauritius Labor Party (MLP)-led coalition government of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, faced with the radical and popular challenge of the Mauritian Militant Movement (Mouvement Militant Mauricien--MMM) and its allies in the unions, promulgated the Public Order Act, which banned many forms of political activity. This state of emergency lasted until 1976. The resilience and stability of Mauritian society, however, was demonstrated by the fact that an MMM-led government eventually gained power through the ballot box in 1982.
Despite many differences, the major political parties have worked successfully toward the country's economic welfare. For this reason, Mauritius has evolved from a primarily agricultural monocrop economy marked by high unemployment, low salaries, and boom-or-bust cycles to one dominated by manufacturing, tourism, and expanding financial services. As Mauritius faces the future, it can look back on its dazzling economic performance in the 1980s and attempt to build on that success by continuing its tradition of political stability, foresight, and prudent development planning.
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