History - The French Period
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The French Period (1715 - 1810)

In 1710 the Dutch abandoned for good the island after two unsuccessful attempts at colonisation.

In September 1715, Guillaume Dufresne d'Arsel took possession of Mauritius in the name of King Louis XV of France. He named it the Isle de France, placed the French flag near what is now Port Louis, drew a document witnessed by his officers declaring the island French and sailed away after three days.

The first colonists landed at Warwick Bay (Mahebourg) in 1722. The area was exposed to winds and dangerous reefs, so they moved to the safety of the North West harbour. Warwick bay was renamed Port Bourbon and the North West Harbour became known as Port Louis. For the first 14 years, the French colony followed the dismal experience of the Dutch. Only the most desperate and toughest of the settlers survived. Their appallingly treated slaves also escaped and lived in the forests and sabotaged the plantations.

The transformation of Port Louis from a primitive harbour to a thriving seaport was largely due to the efforts of Bertrand Mahé de Labourdonnais, an aristocratic sea captain, 38 years of age, from St Malo. The wretched conditions of the settlers dismayed Labourdonnais. There were 190 whites in the island and 648 blacks, most of them from Africa and Madagascar and a few Indians from the Coromandel and Malabar coasts. Labourdonnais transformed the island from a colony of malcontents into "the star and key of the Indian Ocean". The thatched hovels were demolished and in their place rose forts, barracks, warehouses, hospitals and houses. Government house was built of coral blocks, roads were opened throughout the island and a ship building industry commenced.


Although he had to import slaves, Labourdonnais made their lot easier by also importing ox-carts so that slaves could be utilised for more skilled tasks. He turned many of them into artisans. He also started an agriculture programme that concentrated on feeding the islanders and on marketable products. On his own estates, he grew sugarcane and encouraged new settlers to start plantations of cotton, indigo, coffee and manioc. The first sugar factory was opened at villebague in 1744.

In 1746, with England and France at war, Labourdonnais led an expedition of nine ships from the Ile de France to India. There they defeated a British squadron and captured Madras, the most important British outpost. Labourdonnais' actions resulted in a conflict with Dupleix, his superior in India. Dupleix wanted Madras razed to the ground but Labourdonnais refused because he knew the British would pay a ransom to get Madras back. He was accused of accepting a bribe to preserve Madras and was replaced as Governor of Ile de France. On his return to France, he was thrown in the Bastille and even though in 1751, he was found innocent, he died a broken man two years later, aged 54. His statue stands in Port Louis facing out across the harbour. The town of Mahebourg (started in 1805) is also named after him.

During the seven years war (1756-1763) France and England continued to battle over control of the Indian Ocean and the French East India company enlisted privateers. When the French lost the wars in India, they blamed the company and accused its officials of corruption. This resulted in the official handling over of Mauritius to the French King.In 1767, the Royal Government was established on the island. At that time, there was a population of 18,773 which included 3,163 Europeans and 587 free blacks, mostly Hindus. The rest were slaves.


Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper) was picked as administrator. He introduced varieties of plants from South America, including pepper, and even offered tax incentives to planters to grow them. Under his influence, the colony developed as an agricultural and trading centre. He improved the harbour facilities and the accommodation for both colonists and slaves.

When the French East India Company was wound up, and their monopoly broken, private enterprise became the fashion. Everyone was trying to make profits. In 1785 the Ile de France was declared the seat of government of all French possessions east of the Cape. A French nobleman, Vicomte de Souillac was made governor (1779-1787) bringing an era of extravagance to the colony. Port Louis became renowned for its bright social life with dancing parties for the young and the old, duelling, gambling, drinking and hunting. At the same time, public affairs were neglected; fraud, corruption and dishonesty were common-place and land speculation and scandals were rife.

On the last Sunday in January 1790, a packet-boat arrived in the Port Louis harbour from France, flying a new flag, the Tricolour. It brought news of the revolution in France. The colonists' enthusiasm for the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity faltered when in 1796, two agents of the Directoire, wearing splendid orange cloaks, arrived from France and informed the colonists that slavery was abolished. The news was received with anger and the agents had to flee for their lives.


The last French governor of Ile de France was appointed by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803 to bring the colony back to order after 13 years of autonomy. With such a task, it was inevitable that the governor, General Charles Decaen, would be unpopular.

Charles Decaen curried favour with the elite by allowing slavery and privateering, which were both hugely profitable, to continue.

Decaen founded primary schools and the Lycee Colonial which became Royal College. He extended Government House, created Mahebourg near Grand Port and encouraged intellectual societies and agriculture development. He also codified the Napoleonic laws which are still in force.

Under his governorship, Port Louis became Port Napoleon and Mahebourg became Port Imperial..

Decaen found himself increasingly isolated from France. The British were expanding their influence in the Indian Ocean.On the 3 December 1810, the British, under General Abercrombie, marched into Port Napoleon where the French surrendered. Ile de France, Port Napoleon and Port Imperial was reverted to their former names, Mauritius, Port Louis and Mahebourg. Soldiers were to be treated as civilians, not as prisoners of war and were allowed to leave the island. Settlers who did not want to stay under a British administrator were permitted to return to France with all their possessions.


The Institute For Environmental and Legal Studies
L'île de la Passe se refait une beauté (2 septembre 2001)
Looking back, looking forward: (25th Nov 2001)

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