1902 Encyclopedia > Mauritius

Mauritius




MAURITIUS, formerly called the ISLE OF FRANCE, an island in the south-western portion of the Indian Ocean, between 57° 18' and 57° 48' E. long., and 19° 58' and 20° 31' S. lat., 550 miles east of Madagascar, and 115 miles north-east of the island of Reunion, 940 miles south-east of the Seychelles, 2300 miles from the Cape of Good Hope, and 9500 miles from England via Aden and Suez. The island is irregularly elliptical—somewhat triangular—in shape, and is 36 miles long from north-north-east to south-south-west, and about 23 miles broad. It is 130 miles in circumference, and its total area is about 713 square miles. The island is surrounded by coral reefs, so that the ports are difficult of access.

From its mountainous character Mauritius is a most picturesque island, and its scenery is very varied and beautiful. The most level portions of the coast districts are the north and north-east, all the rest being broken by hills, which vary from 500 to 2700 feet in height. There are three principal masses of mountain : the north-western or Pouce range, in the district of Port Louis ; the south-western, in the districts of Riviere Noire and Savanne; and the south-eastern range, in the Grand Port district. In the first of these, which consists of one principal ridge with several lateral spurs, overlooking Port Louis, are the singular peaks of the Pouce (2650 feet), so called from its supposed resemblance to the human thumb; and the still loftier Pieter Botte (2676 feet), a tall obelisk of bare rock, crowned with a globular mass of stone. The highest summit in the island is in the south-western mass of hills, the Montagne de la Riviere Noire, which is 2711 feet above the sea. The principal ranges in this mountain mass are three in number, arranged in a triangular form,-and are called respectively the mountains of La Pierre Rouge, La Riviere Noire, and Savanne. The south-eastern group of hills consists of one chief range, the Montagne du Bambou, with several spurs running down to the sea. In the interior are extensive fertile plains, some 1200 feet in height, and forming the districts of Moka, Vacois, and Plaines Wilhelms ; and from nearly the centre of the island rises an abrupt peak, the Piton du Milieu de l'lle, to a height of 1932 feet above the sea-level. Other prominent summits are the Trois Mamelles, the Montagne dn Corps de Garde, the Signal Mountain, near Port Louis, and the Morne Brabant, at the south-west corner of the island.

The rivers are of course small, and none of them are navigable beyond a few hundred yards from the sea. In the dry season most of them are little more than brooks, although they soon become raging torrents when swollen by the heavy rains of the wet period of the year. The principal stream is the Grande Riviere, with a course of about 10 miles. A remarkable and very deep lake, called Grand Bassin, is found in the south of the island, and is probably the extinct crater of an ancient volcano; other similar lakes are the Mare aux Vacois and the Mare aux Jones, and there are some other deep hollows which have a like origin.
The geological structure of Mauritius is undoubtedly a result of volcanic action, all the rocks being of basalt and greyish-tinted lavas, excepting some beds of upraised coral. Columnar basalt is seen in several places. There are many caverns and steep ravines, and from the character of the rocks the ascents are rugged and precipitous. The island has few mineral productions, although iron, lead, and copper in very small quantities have in former times been obtained.

The climate is pleasant during the cool season of the year, but oppressively hot in summer (December to April), except in the interior plains, where the thermometer ranges from 70° to 80°, while in Port Louis and the coast generally it ranges from 90° to 96°. The mean temperature for the year at Port Louis is 78°'6. During the last thirty years the island has been subject to severe epidemics, which have been extremely fatal. In 1854 a visitation of Asiatic cholera swept off 17,000 people; and in 1867 a still more destructive inroad of malarial fever, of an unusually fatal type, almost paralysed the whole community for many weeks, carrying off 30,000 people, and greatly affecting the finances of the colony. The seasons are divisible into two, the cool and comparatively dry season, from April to November, and the hotter season, during the rest of the year. From the month of January to the middle of April, Mauritius, in common with the neighbouring islands and the surrounding ocean from 8° to 30° of S. lat., is subject to severe and destructive cyclones, accompanied by torrents of rain, which often cause great destruction to houses and plantations. These hurricanes generally last about eight hours, but they appear to be now less frequent and violent than in former times, owing, it is thought, to the destruc-tion of the ancient forests and the consequent drier condi-tion of the atmosphere.

The soil of the island is of considerable fertility; it is a ferruginous red clay, but so largely mingled with stones of all sizes that no plough can be used, and the hoe has to be employed to prepare the ground for cultivation. The woods with which the island was largely clothed when first discovered have been to a great extent cut down, and the greater portion of the plains is now a vast sugar plantation. The bright green of the sugar fields is a striking feature in a view of Mauritius from the sea, and gives a peculiar beauty and freshness to the prospect. The soil is suitable for the cultivation of almost all kinds of tropical produce, and it is to be regretted that the prosperity of the colony depends entirely on one article of production, for the con-sequences are serious when there happens to be a failure, more or less, of the sugar crop. Guano is extensively imported as a manure, and by its use the natural fertility of the soil has been increased to a wonderful extent.

For purposes of law and government Mauritius is divided into nine districts, named respectively Port Louis, Pamplemousses, Riviere du Rempart, Flacq, Grand Port, Savanne, Moka, Plaines Wilhelms, and Riviere Noire. The capital and seat of government, the city of Port Louis, is situated on the north-western side of the island, at the head of an excellent harbour, a deep inlet about a mile long. This is protected by two forts,—Fort William and Fort George,—as well as by the citadel in the city, and its value is further increased by three graving docks con-nected with the inner harbour. Lighthouses have been erected on Flat Island and at Cannonier's Point. Port Louis has a population of about 70,000, but from the lofty mountains by which it is enclosed its situation is hot, and from the small amount of tide in the harbour effectual drainage is difficult, so that it is not a very healthy town. The public buildings are of no great architectural beauty, the government house being a three-storied structure with broad verandas, of no particular style of architecture, while the Protestant cathedral was formerly a powder magazine, to which a tower and spire has been added. The Roman Catholic cathedral is more pretentious in style, but is tawdry in its interior. In the city are large barracks and military stores. A maximum contribution of £45,000 is paid to the imperial government by the colony towards the expenses of the troops stationed in the island, but this sum is reduced when the garrison is below a certain standard. In 1880 the amount paid was £29,972. The governor and chief officers of government reside out of Port Louis in the cooler uplands of the interior, as do also a large number of the principal inhabitants, especially since the completion of the railways has made access easy to many portions of the island. The most favourite place of residence is at Curepipe, a place situated about 1800 feet above the sea; here the climate resembles that of the south of France, and it has been so much resorted to of late years that it is rapidly becoming a large town. The construction of the Mauritian railways has given a great impetus to the trade of the colony; the system embraces two lines, of a total length of 87 miles. The main roads of the island are kept in good order, but much yet remains to be done before the road system can be said to be complete throughout all the districts.





The prosperity of Mauritius, as already mentioned, depends almost entirely upon its sugar-crop, and the export trade of the island has greatly increased during the last twenty years, as will be seen by the following statistics:—

== TABLE ==

Of the imports the principal items are rice (about a fifth of the whole), wheat, and other grains, plain and coloured cottons, and haberdashery. Madagascar supplies cattle to the colony, and also rice, although the greater portion of the latter import comes from India. Horses are imported from the Cape, ponies from Burmah and Pegu, mules from Spain, and sheep from Bombay and the Cape. Of the exports, sugar forms of course the great item, amounting, on an average, to nearly nineteen-twentieths of the whole; the increase in its production is showi* by the following figures, giving values of the sugar ex-
ported :—

== TABLE ==

In 1877 the quantity of sugar exported was 189,164 tons; while in 1854 the quantity was 102,000 tons. The next item is rum, which was exported to the value of £45,386 in 1878; and the production of cocoa-nut oil has increased from 7569 gallons in 1864 to 253,263 gallons in 1878, the latter quantity being worth £37,263. The value of the coffee exported in 1879 was £25,064. The currency consists of rupees and cents; and on the 1st of May 1878, the metric system of weights and measures came into use in the island.

Mauritius being an oceanic island of small size, its present fauna is very limited in extent, and does not contain much that is interesting. When first seen by Europeans it contained no mammals except a large fruit-eating bat (I'teropus vulgaris), which is plentiful iu'the woods ; but several animals of this class have been introduced, and are now numerous in the uncultivated region. Among these are two monkeys of the genera Macaeics and Cerco-pithecus, a stag (Cervus hippclaphus), a small hare, a shrew-mouse, and the ubiquitous rat. A lemur and one of the curious hedgehog-like Inscetivora of Madagascar (Ccntetcs ccaudahis) have probably both been brought from the larger island. The avifauna resembles that of Madagascar ; there are species of a peculiar genus of cater-pillar shrikes (Campcphagidm), as well as of the genera Pratineola, Hgpsipctes, Phedina, Tchitrea, ZosUrops, Foudia, Colloealia, and Coracopsis, and peculiar forms of doves and parroquets. The living reptiles are small and few in number, but in the surrounding seas are great numbers of fish ; the coral reefs abound with a great variety of molluscs ; and there are numerous land-shells. The extinct fauna of Mauritius has considerable interest. In common with the other Mascarene islands, it was the home of the Dodo (Didus ineptus), one of a group of birds incapable of flight; there were also Ap/iau-apteryx, a species of rail, and a short-winged heron (Ardca mega-cephala), which probably seldom flew. The defenceless condition of these birds has led to their extinction since the island was colonized. Several species of large fossil tortoises have been dis-covered ; but, strange to say, they are quite different from the living ones of Aldabra, in the same zoological region.

Owing to the extensive destruction of the primeval forests of the island for the formation of sugar plantations, the indigenous flora of Mauritius is only seen in parts of the interior plains, in the river valleys, and on the hills ; and it is so much mingled with trees and plants introduced from other parts of the world that it is not very easy to distinguish between what is native and what has come from abroad. The principal timber tree is the ebony (Dios-pyros cbencum), which grows to a considerable size. Besides this there are bois de cannelle, olive-tree, benzoin (Oroton Benzoe), colo-phane (Colophonia), and iron-wood, all of which are useful in carpentry ; the cocoa-nut palm, an importation, but a tree which has been so extensively planted during the last hundred years that it is extremely plentiful ; the palmiste (Palma daelylifcra lati-folia), the latanier (Corypha umbraeulifera), and the date-palm. The vacua or vacois, a species of Pandanus. is largely grown, the long tough leaves being manufactured into bags for the export of sugar, and the roots being also made of use ; and in the few rem-nants of the original forests the tree which is smdi a prominent one in the coast flora of Madagascar, the traveller's tree (Urania speciosa), grows abundantly. A species of bamboo is very plentiful in the river valleys and in marshy situations. A large variety of i'rnit is produced, including the tamarind, mango, banana, pine-apple, guava, shaddock, fig, avocado-pear, litchi, custard-apple, and the mabolo (LHospyrgs discolor), a fruit of exquisite flavour, but very disagreeable odour. Many of the roots and vegetables of Europe have been introduced, as well as some of those peculiar to the tropics, including maize, millet, yams, manioc, dhol, gram, &c. Small quantities of tea, rice, and sago have been grown, as well as many of the, spices (cloves, nutmeg, ginger, pepper, and allspice), and also cotton, indigo, betel, camphor, turmeric, and vanilla.

Mauritius appears to have been unknown to European nations, if not to all other peoples, until the year 1507, when it was discovered by the Portuguese. It had then no inhabitants, and there seem to be no traces of its previous occupation by any people, either savage or civilized. The island was retained for most of the 16th century by its discoverers, but they made no colonies in it. In 1598 the Dutch took possession, and named the island "Mauritius," in honour of their prince Maurice. It had been previously called by the Portuguese " Ilha do Cerne," from the belief that it was the island so named by Pliny. But, although the Dutch built a fort at Grand Port, they made no permanent settlement in Mauritius, finally abandoning the island in 1710. Five years afterwards the French, in their turn, took possession of what had seemed so worthless to two European powers, but it was half a century before the Govern-ment of France appreciated the value of their colony, since from 1715 to 1767 it was held by agents of the French East India Com-pany, by whom its name was again changed to "lie de France." The Company was fortunate in having several able men as governors of its colony, especially the celebrated Malie de Labourdjnnais (1735-46), "a man of eminent talents and virtue," who intro-duced the culture of the sugar-cane, and thus laid a firm foundation for the future prosperity of the island. Under his direction roads were made, forts built, and considerable portions of the forest were cleared, and the present capital, Port Louis, was founded. Labour-dounaisalso promoted the planting of cotton and indigo, and is justly remembered as the most enlightened and best of all the French governors. The colony continued to rise in value during the. time it was held by the French crown, and to one of the later governors, De Poivre, was due the introduction of" the clove, nutmeg, and other spices. Another governor was D'Entrecasteaux, whose name is kept in remembrance by a group of islands east of New Guinea.





During the long war between France and England, at the com-mencement of this century, Mauritius was a continual source of much mischief to English Indiamen and other merchant vessels; and at length the British Government determined upon an expedi-tion for its capture. This was effected in 1810 ; and upon the restoration of peace in 1814 the possession of the island was con-firmed to England by one of the provisions of the treaty of Paris. By the eighth article of capitulation it was agreed tt.at the inhabit-ants should retain their own laws, customs, and religion ; and so it happens that, although a British colony, the island is still largely French in language, habits, and predilections ; but its name has again been changed to that given by the Dutch. Perhaps the most distinguished of the English governors of the island was Sir llobert Earquhar (1810-23), who did so much to abolish the Malagasy slave trade and to establish friendly relations with the rising power of the Hova sovereign of Madagascar.

Mauritius is one of the crown colonies of Great Britain, and at the head of its administration is a governor, who is assisted by an executive council of seven members, holding the most important Government posts. There is also a legislative council, which con-sists of the same members as the foregoing, with three others, together with eight of the chief landed proprietors of the island, who are nominated by the crown. The average annual revenue of the colony for the ten years from 1871 to 1880 was £723,876, the average annual expenditure during the same period being ¿'710,261. Up to 1854 there was a surplus in hand, but since that time ex-penditure has exceeded income, and the public debt is now about £700,000.

The island has largely retained the old French laws, the Codes Civile, de Procedure, du Commerce, and dTnstruction Criminelle being still in force, except so far as altered by the later laws for the administration of justice of April 13, 1831. By these the court of appeal was reconstituted, and a supreme court of civil and criminal justice was established, under a chief judge and three puisne judges. The police force in 1880 included 689 men.

During t.he last few years great improvements have been effected in the educational system of the colony. The department of public instruction has two branches, the Royal College, for higher educa-tion, and the school department, for primary instruction. In 1880 the number of Government schools was 88, with 5077 scholars, and of schools aided by grants 54, with 4316 scholars, the total teaching staff numbering 178. The annual education vote is about £1 '1,000 ; and of the scholars 73 per cent, are Roman Catholic, 14 per cent. Hindu, 8 per cent. Protestant, and 5 per cent. Moham-medan. It will be seen from the above figures that the lioman Catholic religion is that professed by the large majority of the white population of Mauritius. The clergy supported by the state include the Protestant bishop of Mauritius, with an archdeacon and seven clergymen of the Church of England, and three clergymen of the Church of Scotland ; and the Roman Catholic bishop of Port Louis, with a vicar-general and thirty-four priests.

The population of the island is a very varied one, and consists of two great divisions:—those of European blood, chiefly French and English, as well as numerous half-caste people ; and a large coloured population, chiefly Hindu coolies, but with representatives from various African and Asiatic regions, Negroes, Malagasy, Parsees, Singhalese, Chinamen, Malays, &c. The Hindu immigrants now i form more than two-thirds of the inhabitants of Mauritius, as will j be seen from the following figures for the year 1881 :—

== TABLE ==

The increase of population during the last thirty years is shown by the following figures : —

== TABLE ==

The system of coolie immigration has been of great value to the colony ; and the arrangements for shipping these Hindu people are under Government control. But many of the laws have been so unjust to the coloured people, and so much to the advantage of the planters, that gross evils and abuses have arisen. And, unjust as the laws are, tneir administration has often been still more unfair. The evil grew at length so glaring that in 1871 a royal commission was appointed, which sat for a long time investigating the subject. Various reforms were recommended, and since then some improvements have been effected. But many of the Creole planters are not remarkable for their respect for the rights of coloured people, and the system is liable to gross abuse unless under vigilant control by higher authority. Much yet remains to he done for the moral and religious instruction of the labourers ; and the presence of a large heathen population, and the prevalence of crime, has been at times a very serious consideration for the colony. The number of coolies arriving in and leaving the island varies very largely, from a few hundreds annually to several thousands.

The dependencies of Mauritius are the Seychelles group, the islands of Rodriguez and Diego Garcia, the Chagos group, and seventy other smaller islands scattered over a large extent of the Indian Ocean, and having a total population of about 16,000 souls. Bodriguez is situated 300 miles east of Mauritius and is cultivated chiefly by colonists from that island.

Literature.— The following works supply fuller details than can be given in this article:—Oh. Grant, History of Mauritius, or the Isle of France and Neighbouring Islands, 1801; J. Milbert, Voyage pittoresque à Vlle-de-France, &c., 4 vols., 1S12 ; Aug. Billiard, Voyage aux Colonics orientales, 1822 ; D'Unienville, Statistique de Vile Maurice, <fcc., 1S3S ; J. Backhouse, Narrative of a Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa, 1844; P. Beaton, Creoles and Coolies, or Five Years in Mauritius, 1859 ; Paul Chasteau. Histoire et Description de l'ile Maurice, 1860; F. P. Flemyng, Mauritius, or the Isle of France, 1862; Janres Morris, "Mauritius, its Commercial and Social Bearings," Soc. Arts Jour., 1S62 ; A. Erny, " Séjour à l'île Maurice," in vol. vii. of Tour du Monde, 186:1 ; Ch. J. Boyle, Far Away, or Sketches of Scenery and Society in Mauritius, 1867 ; L. Simonin, Les Fays lointains, Notes de Voyage (Maurice. &c), 1867 ; N. Pike, Sub-Tropical Ramb'esin the Land of the Aphanapteryx, 1S78 ; A. II. Wallace, " The Mascarene Islands," in chap. xi. vol. i. of The Geographical Distribution of Animals, 1876 ; K. Mdbius, I'. Richter, and E. von Martens, Beitrdge zur Meeresfauna der Inset Mauritius und der Seychellen, Berlin, 1S80 ; G. Clark, A Brief Notice of the Fauna of Mauritius, 1881. (J. S., jr.)


The above article was written by: Rev. J. Sibree, Jnr.



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