Recently, the British government cited 1814 as the year the Crown legitimately secured Chagos Islands, one of the archipelagos that used to be part of Mauritius.
Mauritian governments, for decades, have asked the United Kingdom to hand over Chagos but the former colonial power won’t budge. Not even the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the UN’s demands this year, have moved Britain.
While Britain believes its ownership of Chagos dates back centuries, the ICJ and UN agree with Mauritius that the islands were cut off in redrawn maps in 1965.
Prior to granting independence to Mauritius, official maps by the British government severed the Chagos Islands from the main archipelago.
This instance has been one of the favourite examples of critics of British imperialism who cite the swashbuckling callousness with Britain has historically arrogated rights to itself.
But what is it about 1814 that makes Britain so confident about its ownership of Chagos? To answer, we would have to go a few hundred years prior to 1814.
What we know from recorded history is that the Arabs are probably the first to have known the islands we today call Mauritius. But the Arabs were not excited by this place which they described as dina arobi or “land of desolation”, in the 10th century.
The islands were uninhabited. This makes Mauritius one of the few countries in the world that was actually populated from scratch by “foreigners”.
In 1598 however, a group of Dutch sailors landed on the coast that is now Vieux Grand Port. They then claimed the islands in the name of The Netherlands, naming it after Prince Maurice of Nassau.
But not much use was made of the Vieux Grand Port except to make it into a base for supplies to Dutch ships sailing to the Far East.
In 1710, the Dutch got tired of the islands and left. But they would have shaped the culture of the islands sending to the territories, slaves, tobacco and sugar cane.
In 1715, the French took over, continuing the tradition of importing slaves to work on their plantations on the islands. This would continue for about 100 years until the Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815.
In a bid to take over the Indian Ocean for purposes of weakening France’s positions, the British moved on Mauritius and captured the islands in spite of initial defeats.
By the time the wars ended in Europe, Britain “owned” Mauritius.
Another significant development of 1814 was the Anglo-Dutch Treaty which guaranteed territorial trade-offs between the two nations thereby legitimising, in some sense, Britain’s ownership of Mauritius.
Indeed, it was the British who renamed the islands Mauritius in sympathy with Dutch legacy. France had called the place Île De France from 1715.
African slaves on the islands were freed by the British in 1835. Although there are disputes about how many of them there were, many sources put the number around 70,000.
With nowhere to go, the ex-slaves had to work on sugar cane and tobacco plantations owned by the Europeans. But the British had other plans to boost production.
From the mid to the late 19th century, British merchants and the government in London, advertised employment opportunities in Mauritius to men and women in India and China.
This early instance of capitalists boosting production by seeking cheap labour yielded amazing results. Over 500,000 people, mostly poor Indians, settled and worked for a pittance in Mauritius.
The demographics of Mauritius has stayed true to this historical incident. Indian-Mauritians are in the majority, followed by African-Mauritians and then Europeans.
This composition has created a unique culture, from language to religion.
The majority of the population speak Mauritian Creole, a French-based language with words from English, continental African and southeastern Asian languages.
It is also quite common to find Mauritians who can identify with ancestries of all the “original” peoples who made up the country. But Hinduism and Christianity are the biggest religions with the former boasting about half of the population.
Today, Mauritius is one of Africa’s most sought-after destinations for tourism and financial services. The country does not have much in terms of what we may call an agricultural sector.
When one understands the history of Mauritius, it puts present debates into proper perspectives.
A nation that was started as a commercial venture on lands without an autochthonous population brought together people with very diverse ways of life.
That is what makes Mauritius special.