Island country, lying east of Madagascar in the western Indian
One of the Mascarene Islands, it extends 38 mi (61 km) north-south
and 29 mi (47 km) east-west. Its outlying territories are Rodrigues
Island to the east, the Cargados Carajos Shoals to the northeast, and
the Agalega Islands to the north. Area: 788 sq mi (2,040 sq km).
Population (2008 est.): 1,269,000. Capital: Port Louis. About two-thirds
of the population are of South Asian descent, and most of the rest are
of mixed European, South Asian, and African ancestry. Languages: English
(official), Creole (lingua franca), various ethnic languages. Religions:
Hinduism, Christianity, Islam. Currency: Mauritian rupee. Volcanic in
origin and almost surrounded by coastal reefs, Mauritius rises to 2,717
ft (828 m) at Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire. The chief water source
is Lake Vacoas. About half of the land is arable; sugarcane is the major
crop, though the government has sponsored agricultural diversification.
The country depends heavily on food imports, mainly rice. The population
density is one of the highest in the world. The island was visited, but
not settled, by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. The Dutch took
possession (1598–1710), called it Mauritius for the governor Maurice of
Nassau, and attempted to settle it (1638–58, 1664–1710) before
abandoning it to pirates. The French East India Company occupied it in
1721, renamed it Île de France, and governed it until the French crown
took over its administration in 1767. Sugar planting was the main
economic activity, and the colony prospered. The British captured the
island in 1810 and were granted formal control of it under the Treaty of
Paris in 1814; the name Mauritius was reinstated and slavery was later
abolished. In the late 19th century, competition from beet sugar caused
an economic decline, compounded by the opening of the Suez Canal in
1869. After World War II Mauritius adopted political and economic
reforms, and in 1968 it became an independent state within the
Commonwealth. In 1992 it became a republic. It has successfully
diversified its economy, notably into clothing manufacturing,
information technology, and business and financial services.
Official name Republic of Mauritius
Form of government republic with one legislative house (National
Chief of state President
Head of government Prime Minister
Capital Port Louis
Official language English1
Official religion none
Monetary unit Mauritian rupee (Mau Re; plural Mau Rs)
Population estimate (2008) 1,269,000
Total area (sq mi) 788
Total area (sq km) 2,040
1French is not official but may be used to address the speaker of the
island country in the Indian Ocean, located off the eastern coast of
Africa. Physiographically, it is part of the Mascarene Islands. The
capital is Port Louis.
Mauritius lies about 500 miles (800 km) east of Madagascar in the
Indian Ocean. Its outlying territories are Rodrigues Island, situated
about 340 miles (550 km) eastward, the Cargados Carajos Shoals, 250
miles (400 km) northeastward, and the Agalega Islands, 580 miles (930
km) northward from the main island. Mauritius also claims sovereignty
over the Chagos Archipelago (including Diego Garcia), some 1,250 miles
(2,000 km) to the northeast, although this claim is disputed by Britain.
Relief and drainage
The island of Mauritius is volcanic in origin and is almost entirely
surrounded by coral reefs. The northern part is a plain that rises to a
central plateau, varying in elevation from about 900 to 2,400 feet (270
to 730 metres) above sea level. The plateau is bordered by small
mountains that may have formed the rim of an ancient volcano; the
highest point (2,717 feet [828 metres]) is Piton de la Petite Rivière
Noire in the southwest. The two major rivers, the Grand River South East
and the Black River, are the primary sources of hydroelectric power.
Lake Vacoas, one of the main reservoirs, is the chief source of water.
Soils and climate
More than half of the country’s area is arable, and it is almost
entirely planted in sugarcane, the major export crop. Vegetables and tea
for local consumption are also grown.
The climate is maritime subtropical, with fairly uniform temperature
throughout the year. Mean temperatures vary from the mid-70s F (low to
mid-20s C) at sea level to the upper 60s F (upper 10s C) on the high
plateau. Two seasons are recognized: hot (December to April) and cool
(June to September). Annual rainfall varies from around 35 inches (900
mm) on the west coast to 60 inches (1,525 mm) on the southeast coast and
about 200 inches (5,080 mm) on the central plateau.
Plant and animal life
The vegetation includes some 600 indigenous species, even though
little original forest is left. The fauna includes the samber (a
long-tailed, dark brown deer), tenrec (a spiny insectivore), and
mongoose, as well as a variety of birds and insects. The island was once
home to the dodo, a flightless bird that was extinct by 1681. Efforts
began in the late 20th century to save several other species of endemic
birds that were close to extinction.
Ethnic groups, languages, and religion
Approximately two-thirds of the population is of Indo-Pakistani
origin, most of whom are descendants of indentured labourers brought to
work in the sugar industry during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
About one-fourth of the population is Creole (of mixed French and
African descent), and there are small numbers of people of Chinese and
Although English is the official language, it is spoken by a very
small percentage of the population. Creole, a French-based patois, is
spoken by about four-fifths of the population and is the lingua franca
of the country. Bhojpuri, an Indo-Aryan language, is spoken by one-tenth
of the population, and French is spoken by a small percentage. Other
languages spoken on the island include Hindi, Chinese, Marathi, Tamil,
Telugu, and Urdu. Mauritians commonly speak two, three, or even more
languages, and the educational system supports a wide range of language
Religious affiliation varies: about half of the population is Hindu,
about one-third Christian (the majority of which are Roman Catholic),
and—with the exception of a small group of Buddhists—the rest are
The population density in Mauritius is the highest of African
countries and is among the highest in the world. Overpopulation became a
serious problem after the eradication of falciparum malaria by the early
1950s led to a sharp increase in population. Driven by government
policy, supported by all the Mauritian religious communities, and
assisted by the rapid pace of economic growth, the rate of natural
increase dropped rapidly in the last decades of the 20th century, and it
is now below the world average. Emigration, primarily to Britain and
France, also helped slow the annual growth rate.
The birth rate remains well below the world average, while the death
rate is similar to the world average. Life expectancy—about 70 years for
men and more than 75 years for women—is higher than the world average
and is well above the average for African countries. About half of the
country’s population is younger than age 30.
Mauritius has a mixed developing economy based on manufactured
exports, agriculture, tourism, and financial services. Government
efforts to diversify the economy after 1980 have been successful, and
the island is no longer as completely dependent on sugar production as
it was throughout most of its history. The gross domestic product, among
the highest of African countries, grew more rapidly than the population
in the 1990s and 2000s.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Although the significance of the agricultural sector has diminished
with efforts to diversify the economy, it is still important. Sugar
production, generating about one-sixth of export earnings, occupies
about four-fifths of the total arable land. Tea and tobacco are also
cash crops. Subsistence crops include potatoes, tomatoes, and bananas.
The livestock population primarily consists of poultry, sheep, goats,
pigs, and cattle.
Forests make up about one-fifth of the total land area of Mauritius.
Rapid deforestation occurred during the colonial era, and non-native
species were introduced to repopulate the forestland, including the
slash pine (Pinus elliottii), which is predominant, Japanese cedar
(Cryptomeria japonica), and Moreton Bay pine (Araucaria cunninghamii).
Eucalyptus trees and trees that belong to the beefwood (Casuarina)
family are also present. Roundwood is the primary forest product, of
which some two-fifths is used for fuel; sawn wood is also produced.
Mauritius is unique among countries in the region in that it consumes
more wood products than it produces and must import the difference.
Technical assistance from Japan and India is regenerating the fishing
industry, which has grown in importance. Mauritius’s waters contain many
species of fish with commercial value, including tuna, snapper, and
grouper. Aquaculture is practiced with such species as channel bass and
Resources, power, and manufacturing
Mauritius has few viable mineral resources. Basalt and lime are
mined. Electricity is largely generated from imported petroleum, with a
small percentage derived from hydropower. Sugar plantations often use
bagasse—the fibre that remains from sugarcane after sugar-bearing juice
is extracted—as fuel to produce electricity.
There has been a steady increase in manufacturing since the 1970s.
The Mauritius Export Processing Zone, which concentrates on
labour-intensive processing of imported raw materials or semifinished
goods for the export market, has successfully attracted foreign
investment. Economically important manufactures include textiles, food
processing, metal and metal products, and chemical products.
Finance and trade
Mauritius is home to many financial institutions, including a
development bank, offshore banking facilities, and several commercial
banks. The Bank of Mauritius is the central bank and issues the
country’s currency, the Mauritian rupee. The country’s stock exchange is
located in Port Louis.
Imports, largely of machinery and transport equipment, petroleum, and
foodstuffs, outweigh exports of clothing and textiles, sugar, and fish
and fish products. Much of Mauritius’s exports go to the European Union
market; important trading partners include the United Kingdom, France,
the United States, and China.
Services, labour, and taxation
Significant growth in tourism since the 1970s has made it a major
earner of foreign exchange. Information and communication technology is
becoming increasing important. In 2001 the government created the
Information and Communication Technologies Authority to promote and
oversee the burgeoning sector.
More than two-fifths of the labour force is employed in the areas of
finance and services. Construction and manufacturing employ about
one-third of the labour force, and about one-tenth is employed in the
Taxation is an important source of funding in Mauritius, accounting
for about nine-tenths of the government’s revenue. About half of the
total tax revenue is derived from taxes on goods and services. Trade
taxes account for about one-fifth; corporate income tax, about
Transportation and telecommunications
Mauritius has a strong transportation infrastructure. The road
system is well developed and in good repair, and almost all roadways are
paved. Most of the country’s shipping activity is conducted through port
facilities at Port Louis, which has been cultivated as a free port to
encourage its development as an international shipping hub. An
international airport is located at Plaisance, and there are other
airports located throughout the country. Air Mauritius, the national
carrier, flies many international routes. The island does not have any
The country’s telecommunications sector is well developed and among
the best in the region. There has been rapid progress in this area owing
to the country’s growing information and communication technology
industry. About three-fourths of the population has mobile phone
service, and one-fourth has internet service.
Government and society
Mauritius became independent on March 12, 1968. Under the
constitution adopted that year, the country was a constitutional
monarchy with the British monarch as head of state. In 1991 a
constitutional amendment was passed providing for a republican form of
government, with a president as head of state; the amendment went into
effect in 1992. Legislative power is vested in a National Assembly,
elected every five years and consisting of 62 elected members and up to
an additional 8 members drawn from the pool of candidates who were not
elected but who may be appointed to broaden representation among
minorities or underrepresented parties. Executive power is exercised by
a Council of Ministers headed by a prime minister (appointed by the
president), who assembles a government from members of the National
Assembly. The president and vice president are elected by the National
Assembly for a term of five years.
Local government and justice
For administrative purposes, the island of Mauritius is divided into
districts. The outlying territories of Agalega, Cargados Carajos Shoals,
and Rodrigues Island each have dependency status.
The Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority and includes
courts of civil appeal and criminal appeal. There are also district
Political process and security
The constitution provides for universal suffrage for citizens 18
years and older. The political process in Mauritius is open to
participation by minorities and women. Minority representation is
enhanced by the policy of appointing additional members to the National
Assembly to achieve ethnic balance. Although women have held legislative
seats and cabinet positions, their numbers have been few.
There are many political parties, but three large parties dominate
Mauritian politics: the Mauritius Labour Party (MLP), the Mauritian
Militant Movement (MMM), and the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM). The
MLP and the MSM generally compete for the dominant Hindu vote, although
they both have supporters in all communities. The MMM has its base in
the minorities—the Creoles, Muslims, and non-Hindi-speaking Indian
communities (especially the Tamils and Telegus)—although it too has
prominent Hindu supporters. Coalitions among parties are frequent.
Mauritius does not maintain an active military force, although it
does have a small paramilitary force that includes a coast guard unit.
Despite some unrest, the country has, on the whole, seen political
success: Since independence, Mauritius, unlike most African former
colonies, has sustained an open, free, democratic, and highly
competitive political system. Elections have been held on a regular
basis with the losing parties giving way to the winners. Its limited
military structure has meant that it has been spared the difficulty of
Health, welfare, and housing
Since independence Mauritius has developed a substantial social
welfare system that provides free basic health services to the entire
population. Care is provided through a network of hospitals,
dispensaries, family-planning facilities, and social welfare centres.
Old age pensions, family allowances, and other measures for social
protection are also provided. Overcrowding is prevalent in urban areas,
and the government provides loans to local authorities for urban housing
Education is compulsory between ages 5 and 16. Six years of primary
education begins at age 5, which is followed by up to seven years of
secondary education. Primary and secondary education are free. The
University of Mauritius (1965) has faculties of agriculture,
engineering, law and management, science, and social studies and
humanities. Other institutions of higher education include the
University of Technology, Mauritius (2000). Some students attend
universities in India, France, and the United Kingdom. More than
four-fifths of the population is literate.
Mauritius offers a rich mixture of the many cultures and traditions
of its different peoples. The ethnic and religious diversity of
Mauritius also means that there are many holidays and festivals
scheduled throughout the year, including the Hindu festivals of Maha
Shivaratree (see Mahā-śivarātrī) in February and March and Divali in
late October and November; the Muslim festival of ʿĪd al-Fiṭr, marking
the end of Ramadan; the Catholic observances in honour of Père Laval in
September, All Saints’ Day in November, and Christmas in December; the
lively Chinese Spring Festival celebration; and the Tamil holiday of
Thaipoosam Cavadee, usually held in January or February, which includes
fire-walking ceremonies. The entire country observes Abolition of
Slavery Day on February 1, Republic Day on March 12, Labour Day on May
1, and Arrival of Indentured Laborers Day on November 2.
The arts and cultural institutions
Interest in arts and letters and the sciences is promoted by
voluntary associations, and the island has produced talented poets and
novelists. Perhaps the best-known local writer is Dev Virahsawmy, a poet
and playwright. Though he writes easily in both French and English,
Virahsawmy is most renowned for his efforts to popularize the use of
Creole. In addition to his own plays and poetry, he has also translated
several of Shakespeare’s plays into Creole, which have been performed in
Mauritius is known for the séga, a popular folk dance consisting of
suggestive movements of the hips and arms to a rhythmic beat. The dance
can be traced back to the 18th century, when it was performed by slaves.
Representational and abstract painting flourish, and there are art
galleries in the major towns. The major national cultural institutions
are the Palace Theatre in Rose Hill, the Port Louis Theatre, the
Mauritius Institute, which includes a natural history museum and a
historical museum, and the Mauritius Archives. There are both public and
Also of cultural interest is Aapravasi Ghat, in Port Louis, and Le
Morne Cultural Landscape, located on a peninsula on the southwest side
of the island; both have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Aapravasi Ghat was used as an immigration depot from 1849–1923 for
indentured labourers arriving from India. Le Morne Cultural Landscape,
comprising Le Morne Mountain and most of its foothills, was a place of
refuge during the 18th and early 19th centuries for many escaped slaves,
known as maroons. Another area of cultural significance is Grand Bassin
Lake, where Hindus bring offerings during the Maha Shivaratree festival.
Sports and recreation
There is a very active sporting culture in Mauritius. Football
(soccer), introduced by the British, claims the greatest number of
participants and fans. At the highest level there is a national team
that competes in the African Cup of Nations tournament. Locally, fans
follow the teams in a football league that has been around for decades.
The small Franco-Mauritian community avidly supports a highly organized
and rather ritualized season of deer hunting. Mauritians from all
communities make winter horse racing one of the most popular and highly
attended sporting activities of the year. Individual Mauritians have
competed at the highest international levels in both bridge and
Since its independence, Mauritius has actively participated in both
regional and international sporting events. The Indian Ocean Island
Games have been hosted in Mauritius, as have international tournaments
for boxing, judo, and women’s volleyball. Mauritius made its Olympic
debut at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Areas of recreational interest include Black River Gorges National
Park, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens, Trou aux Cerfs (an
extinct volcano that is now heavily forested), and the island’s numerous
beaches and casinos.
Media and publishing
The Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation transmits foreign radio and
television broadcasts and also locally produced radio and television
programs. Daily news service is provided in French, English, and Creole;
additional programming takes place in a variety of other languages.
School broadcasting constitutes an important part of the service. Most
Mauritian households also receive French television programs from the
French-governed island of Réunion. The press operates freely, and there
are numerous daily and weekly publications in English, French, Chinese,
and other languages.
Early history and colonial administration
Mauritius was long uninhabited, though it was probably known to Arab
seafarers from the 10th century or earlier. It was visited by the
Portuguese in the early 16th century, but they did not settle the
island. The Dutch took possession of it from 1598 to 1710, called it
Mauritius for the stadhouder (governor) Maurice of Nassau, and attempted
to settle the island in 1638–58 and again in 1664–1710; abandoning their
attempts, they left it to pirates. In 1721 the French East India Company
occupied Mauritius, which was renamed Île de France. Settlement
proceeded slowly over the next 40 years. In 1767 the French crown took
over the island’s administration from the French East India Company. The
French authorities brought African slaves to the island and established
sugar planting as the main industry, and the colony prospered. At the
beginning of the 19th century, when England and France were at war,
privateers based on Île de France were a continual threat to British and
Indian merchant vessels. In 1810 the British captured the island, and,
upon restoration of peace in 1814, British sovereignty was confirmed by
the Treaty of Paris. The name Mauritius was reinstated, but, in
circumstances quite unique for a British colony, the customs, laws, and
language remained French.
Pressure generated by the British abolitionist movement ended slavery
there in 1835, and slaves were replaced by indentured labourers from
India. The country’s modern-day Indo-Pakistani population stems from
this program of replacing slavery with indentured servitude (deemed
Britain’s “Great Experiment”); by the time it ended in the 1920s, almost
a half million indentured labourers had come from India to work on the
sugar plantations. Mauritius prospered in the 1850s, but competition
from beet sugar caused a decline. The malaria epidemic of 1866–68 drove
shipping away from Port Louis, which further declined after the opening
of the Suez Canal in 1869. During World War I, when sugar prices rose,
the economy prospered, but the Great Depression of the 1930s changed the
situation drastically, culminating in labour unrest in 1937. World War
II did not improve the Mauritian economy, and after 1945 economic
reforms were introduced. Political and administrative reforms were also
initiated, which led to independence.
Mauritius became an independent state within the Commonwealth on
March 12, 1968, with a governor-general on the island representing the
British monarch as the head of state. In the first years of
independence, Mauritius attempted to diversify its economy beyond the
production of sugar but made limited progress. The combined effects,
however, of Cyclone Claudette in late 1979, falling world sugar prices
in the early 1980s, and political protest and social unrest generated by
those who saw no economic future on the island led the government to
initiate a vigorous and highly successful program of economic
diversification. In 1991 the legislature voted to transition to a
republican form of government, and on March 12, 1992, Mauritius became a
republic, with a president as head of state.
As Mauritius approached the new millennium, the problems facing the
country remained, for the most part, economic in nature. The poorer
people in Mauritius—largely Creoles—did not share in the fruits of
economic development in the late 20th century. This led to two large and
unexpected outbursts of rioting and social unrest in 1999, the first
real domestic disturbances since independence. Unemployment rose at the
beginning of the 21st century, in part because of the detrimental
effects of international trade on textile and sugar manufacturing. The
government responded by focusing the country’s economic strategies on
the development of more lucrative sectors—information technology and
business and financial services.
Larry Wells Bowman