Mauritius was probably visited by Arabs and Malays in the Middle Ages. Portuguese sailors visited it in the 16th cent. The island was occupied by the Dutch from 1598 to 1710 and named after Prince Maurice of Nassau. The French settled the island in 1722 and called it Île de France. It became an important way station on the route to India. The French introduced the cultivation of sugarcane and imported large numbers of African slaves to work the plantations. The British captured the island in 1810 and restored the Dutch name. After the abolition of slavery in 1835, indentured laborers were brought from India; their descendants constitute a majority of the population today.
Politics on Mauritius was long the preserve of the French and the creoles, but the extension of the franchise under the 1947 constitution gave the Indians political power. Indian leaders in the 1950s and 60s favored independence, while the French and creoles wanted continuing association with Britain, fearing domination by the Hindu Indian majority. In 1965, Britain separated the strategic Chagos Archipelago (see British Indian Ocean Territory) from Mauritius, but Mauritius continues to claim the islands and has sought their return. The 1967 election gave a majority in the assembly to Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam's proindependence Labor party. Independence was granted in 1968, and Ramgoolam became the first prime minister. Mauritius joined the Commonwealth of Nations and the United Nations.
The 1960s saw the rise of left-wing militancy, while in the 1970s and 80s political coalitions formed along ethnic and class lines. The economic crisis of the late 1970s and early 80s, after Cyclone Claudette and a drop in world sugar prices, intensified internal disputes.
In 1982 the left-wing Mauritius Militant Movement (MMM) came to power, and Anerood Jugnauth became prime minister. The following year a split in the MMM led Jugnauth to form the Mauritius Socialist Movement (MSM). Jugnauth headed a series of coalition governments. In 1992, Mauritius became a republic, with Cassam Uteem as its first president. In 1995, Navinchandra Ramgoolam, son of the former prime minister, and a Labor-led coalition came to power after defeating Jugnauth in a landslide, but in Sept., 2000, Jugnauth and an MSM-MMM coalition returned to power in a similar landslide.
President Uteem resigned in 2002; Karl Offmann was elected by the national assembly to succeed him. In Sept., 2003, Jugnauth resigned and his MMM coalition partner, Paul Bérenger, became prime minister. Bérenger became the first person not of Indian descent to hold the post. The following month Offman was succeeded as president by Jugnauth. In the July, 2005, national assembly elections, Ramgoolam's Labor-led Social Alliance won a majority of the seats, and he became prime minister; he and his coalition were returned to power in the May, 2010, elections. Jugnauth resigned in Mar., 2012, to return to active party politics; Rajkeswar Purryag was elected to succeed him in July.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.