Preparing an article for A Stamp A Day about Mauritius recently reminded me that I have yet to blog about the sole postcard I’ve received from the Indian Ocean island nation. The fact that card was sent by the author of a book about stamps makes this oversight even more surprising! The stamp article dealt with the pre-colonial history of Mauritius on through its periods of Dutch, French, and British rule. This article about the postcard will allow me to bring the story up-to-date in discussing the present-day Republic of Mauritius (République de Maurice in French and Repiblik Moris in Mauritian creole).
Mauritius is an island nation in the Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles (2,000 kilometers) off the southeast coast of the African continent. The total land area of the country is 790 square miles (2,040 km²) which is about 80% the size of Luxembourg. The Republic of Mauritius is constituted of the main island of Mauritius and several outlying islands including Rodrigues 350 miles (560 km) to the east of Mauritius and the twin islands of Agalega 620 miles (1,000 km) north of Mauritius. Saint Brandon, also known as the Cargados Carajos shoals, is an archipelago comprising a number of sand-banks, shoals and islets situated some 267 miles (430 km) north-east of Mauritius and is mostly used as a fishing base. The islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues form part of the Mascarene Islands, along with nearby Réunion, a French overseas department. The nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covers about 888,035 square miles (2.3 million km²) of the Indian Ocean, including approximately 154,440 square miles (400,000 km²) jointly managed with the Seychelles.
The sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago is disputed between Mauritius and the United Kingdom. Chagos was administratively part of Mauritius from the eighteenth century when the French first settled the islands. All of the islands forming part of the French colonial territory of Isle de France (as Mauritius was then known) were ceded to the British in 1810 under the Act of Capitulation signed between the two powers. In 1965, three years before the independence of Mauritius, the United Kingdom split the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius and the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches from the Seychelles to form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The islands were formally established as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom on November 8, 1965.
On June 23, 1976, Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches were returned to Seychelles as a result of its attaining independence. The BIOT now comprises the Chagos Archipelago only. The UK gradually depopulated the archipelago’s indigenous population and leased its biggest island, Diego Garcia, to the United States under a 50-year lease to establish a military base. Access to the archipelago is prohibited to casual tourists, the media, and its former inhabitants.
Mauritius has repeatedly asserted that the separation of its territories is a violation of United Nations resolutions banning the dismemberment of colonial territories before independence and claims that the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, forms an integral part of the territory of Mauritius under both Mauritian law and international law. After initially denying that the islands were inhabited, British officials forcibly expelled to mainland Mauritius, approximately 2,000 Chagossians who had lived on those islands for a century. Since 1971, only the atoll of Diego Garcia is inhabited, home to some 3,000 UK and US military and civilian contracted personnel. Chagossians have since engaged in activism to return to the archipelago, claiming that their forced expulsion and dispossession were illegal.
Mauritius also claims sovereignty over Tromelin Island from France.
The island of Mauritius is located between latitudes 19°58.8′ and 20°31.7′ south and longitudes 57°18.0′ and 57°46.5′ east. It is 40 miles (65 km) long and 29 miles (45 km) wide with a land area of 720 square miles (1,864.8 km²). The island is surrounded by more than 93 miles (150 km) of white sandy beaches, and the lagoons are protected from the open sea by the world’s third largest coral reef, which surrounds the island. Just off the Mauritian coast lie some 49 uninhabited islands and islets, several used as natural reserves for endangered species.
The island is relatively young geologically, having been created by volcanic activity some 8 million years ago. Together with Saint Brandon, Réunion, and Rodrigues, the island is part of the Mascarene Islands. These islands have emerged as a result of gigantic underwater volcanic eruptions that happened thousands of miles to the east of the continental block made up of Africa and Madagascar. They are no longer volcanicaly active and the hotspot now rests under Réunion Island. Mauritius is encircled by a broken ring of mountain ranges, varying in height from 984-2,625 feet (300–800 meters) above sea level. The land rises from coastal plains to a central plateau where it reaches a height of 2,198 feet (670 m); the highest peak is in the southwest, Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire at 2,717 feet (828 m). Streams and rivers speckle the island, many formed in the cracks created by lava flows.
The capital and largest city is Port Louis. Mauritius was a British colonial possession from 1810 to 1968, the year of its independence. The government uses English as the main language.
The people of Mauritius are multiethnic, multi-religious, multicultural and multilingual. The island’s government is closely modeled on the Westminster parliamentary system, and Mauritius is highly ranked for democracy and for economic and political freedom. Along with the other Mascarene Islands, Mauritius is known for its varied flora and fauna, with many species endemic to the island. The island is widely known as the only known home of the dodo, which, along with several other avian species, was made extinct by human activities relatively shortly after the island’s settlement. Mauritius is the only country in Africa where Hinduism is the largest religion.
At the Lancaster Conference of 1965, it became clear that Britain wanted to relieve itself of the colony of Mauritius. In 1959, Harold Macmillan had made his famous Winds of Change Speech where he acknowledged that the best option for Britain was to give complete independence to its colonies. Thus, since the late Fifties, the way was paved for independence.
Later in 1965, after the Lancaster Conference, the Chagos Archipelago was excised from the territory of Mauritius to form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). A general election took place on August 7 1967, and the Labour Party and its two allies obtained the majority of seats. Mauritius adopted a new constitution and independence was proclaimed on March 12, 1968. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam became the first prime minister of an independent Mauritius with Queen Elizabeth II remaining head of state as Queen of Mauritius.
In 1969, the opposition party Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) led by Paul Bérenger was founded. Later in 1971, the MMM, backed by unions, called a series of strikes in the port which caused a state of emergency in the country. The coalition government of the Labour Party and the PMSD (Parti Mauricien Social Democrate) reacted by curtailing civil liberties and curbing freedom of the press. Two unsuccessful assassination attempts were made against Paul Bérenger. The second one led to the death of Azor Adélaïde, a dock worker and activist, on November 25, 1971. General elections were postponed and public meetings were prohibited. Members of the MMM including Paul Bérenger were imprisoned on December 23, 1971. The MMM leader was released a year later.
In May 1975, a student revolt that started at the University of Mauritius swept across the country. The students were unsatisfied with an education system that did not meet their aspirations and gave limited prospects for future employment. On May 20, thousands of students tried to enter Port-Louis over the Grand River North West bridge and clashed with police. An act of Parliament was passed on December 16, 1975 to extend the right to vote to 18-year-olds. This was seen as an attempt to appease the frustration of the younger generation.
The next general election took place on December 20, 1976. The Labour Party won 28 seats out of 62 but Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam managed to remain in office, with a two-seat majority, after striking an alliance with the PMSD of Gaetan Duval.
In 1982, an MMM government led by Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth and Paul Bérenger as Minister of Finance was elected. However, ideological and personality differences emerged within the MMM leadership. The power struggle between Bérenger and Jugnauth peaked in March 1983. Jugnauth travelled to New Delhi to attend a Non-Aligned Movement summit; on his return, Bérenger proposed constitutional changes that would strip power from the Prime Minister. At Jugnauth’s request, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India planned an armed intervention involving the Indian Navy and Indian Army to prevent a coup under the code name Operation Lal Dora.
The MMM government split up nine months after the June 1982 election. According to an Information Ministry official the nine months was a “socialist experiment”. The new MSM party, led by Aneerood Jugnauth, was elected in 1983. Gaëtan Duval became the vice-prime minister. Throughout the decade, Aneerood Jugnauth ruled the country with the help of the PMSD and the Labour Party.
That period saw a growth in the EPZ (Export Processing Zone) sector. Industrialization began to spread to villages as well, and attracted young workers from all ethnic communities. As a result, the sugar industry began to lose its hold on the economy. Large retail chains began opening stores opened in 1985 and offered credit facilities to low income earners, thus allowing them to afford basic household appliances. There was also a boom in the tourism industry, and new hotels sprang up throughout the island. In 1989 the stock exchange opened its doors and in 1992 the freeport began operation. In 1990, the Prime Minister lost the vote on changing the Constitution to make the country a republic with Bérenger as President.
On March 12, 1992, twenty-four years after independence, Mauritius was proclaimed a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations. The last Governor General, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo became the first President. This was under a transitional arrangement, in which he was replaced by Cassam Uteem later that year. Political power remained with the Prime Minister.
Despite an improvement in the economy, which coincided with a fall in the price of petrol and a favorable dollar exchange rate, the government did not enjoy full popularity. As early as 1984, there was discontent. Through the Newspapers and Periodicals Amendment Act, the government tried to make every newspaper provide a bank guarantee of half a million rupees. Forty-three journalists protested by participating in a public demonstration in Port Louis, in front of Parliament. They were arrested and freed on bail. This caused a public outcry and the government had to review its policy.
There was also dissatisfaction in the education sector. There were not enough high-quality secondary colleges to answer the growing demand of primary school leavers who had got through their CPE (Certificate of Primary Education). In 1991, a master plan for education failed to get national support and contributed to the government’s downfall.
Dr Navin Chandra Ramgoolam was elected as Prime Minister in the 1995 election. The landslide victory of 60–0 was a repeat of the 1982 score, but this time it was on the side of the Labour–MMM alliance.
In February 1999, the country experienced a brief period of civil unrest. Riots flared after the popular singer Kaya, arrested for smoking marijuana at a public concert, was found dead in his prison cell. President Cassam Uteem and Cardinal Jean Margéot toured the country and, after four days of turmoil, calm was restored. A commission of inquiry was set up to investigate the root causes of the social disturbance. The resulting report delved into the cause of poverty and qualified many tenacious beliefs as perceptions.
Aneerood Jugnauth of the MSM returned to power in 2000 after making an alliance with the MMM. In 2002, the island of Rodrigues became an autonomous entity within the republic and was thus able to elect its own representatives to administer the island. In 2003, the prime ministership was transferred to Paul Bérenger of the MMM, and Aneerood Jugnauth went to Le Réduit to serve as president.
In the 2005 election, Navin Ramgoolam, leader of the Labour Party, was brought to power after making an alliance with the Parti Mauricien Xavier-Luc Duval (PMXD) and other minor parties. Navin Ramgoolam was again elected in May 2010. This time the Labour Party joined forces with the PMSD and the MSM. Under the new government, the country continued with its MID (Maurice Ile Durable) project, started in 2008, to make the economy less dependent on fossil fuels. The political landscape stayed rather confused. The Labour Party did away with the MSM, and then with the PMSD, whose leader had acted as Finance minister. The MMM made an alliance (known as Remake) with the MSM but broke off with the latter to become the ally of Labour Party.
Parliament remained closed for most of 2014. A second republic was proposed (by the leaders of Labour and MMM) whereby a president, elected by the population, would hold more power and rule the country in joint collaboration with the prime minister. Nomination day took place on November 24, 2014, and, for the first time, electoral candidates had the option of not proclaiming their ethnic group. Only a few chose to do so. General elections were held on December 10, 2014, and the Lepep alliance made up of the MSM, PMSD, and Mouvement Liberater (led by an MMM dissident) was elected to power by reaping 47 seats out of 60. The Westminster system was thus maintained and Aneerood Jugnauth became the prime minister for the sixth time.
Shortly after the new government took office, the ex-prime minister was lengthily interrogated by the police on charges related to money laundering. The license of the Bramer Bank was revoked due to alleged lack of liquidity, and the BAI (British-American Insurance) was suspended from trading and placed in receivership. A United Nations tribunal ruled that Britain had acted illegally when it created a marine protected area around the Chagos without the consent of Mauritius, thereby depriving this country of its fishing rights. Fresh negotiations began with Jin Fei in view of reviving the project started in 2006. Mauritius will henceforth detain 80% of the shares while the rest would go to the Chinese promoters.
Tourism continued to be the main source for foreign exchange, and the number of visitors to the island reached 1.1 million in 2015. Despite this boom in the tourism industry, Tourism Minister Xavier-Luc Duval placed a two-year moratorium on the construction of new hotels.
On January 21, 2017, Anerood Jugnauth announced that in two days time he would resign in favor of his son, Finance Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who would assume the office of prime minister. The transition took place as planned on January 23.