While Arab and Malay sailors knew of Mauritius as early as the 10th century AD and Portuguese sailors first visited in the 16th century, the island was not colonized until 1638 by the Dutch. Mauritius was populated over the next few centuries by waves of traders, planters and their slaves, indentured laborers, merchants, and artisans. The island was named in honor of Prince Maurice of Nassau by the Dutch, who abandoned the colony in 1710.
The French claimed Mauritius in 1715 and renamed it Ile de France. It became a prosperous colony under the French East India Company. The French Government took control in 1767, and the island served as a naval and privateer base during the Napoleonic wars. In 1810, Mauritius was captured by the British, whose possession of the island was confirmed 4 years later by the Treaty of Paris. French institutions, including the Napoleonic code of law, were maintained. The French language is still used more widely than English.
Mauritian Creoles trace their origins to the plantation owners and slaves who were brought to work the sugar fields. Indo-Mauritians are descended from Indian immigrants who arrived in the 19th century to work as indentured laborers after slavery was abolished in 1835. Included in the Indo-Mauritian community are Muslims (about 15% of the population) from the Indian subcontinent.
The Franco-Mauritian elite controls nearly all of the large sugar estates and is active in business and banking. As the Indian population became numerically dominant and the voting franchise was extended, political power shifted from the Franco-Mauritians and their Creole allies to the Hindus.
Elections in 1947 for the newly created Legislative Assembly marked Mauritius' first steps toward self-rule. An independence campaign gained momentum after 1961, when the British agreed to permit additional self-government and eventual independence. A coalition composed of the Mauritian Labor Party (MLP), the Muslim Committee of Action (CAM), and the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB)--a traditionalist Hindu party--won a majority in the 1967 Legislative Assembly election, despite opposition from Franco-Mauritian and Creole supporters of Gaetan Duval's Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD). The contest was interpreted locally as a referendum on independence. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, MLP leader and chief minister in the colonial government, became the first prime minister at independence, on March 12, 1968. This event was preceded by a period of communal strife, brought under control with assistance from British troops.
Alone or in coalition, the Mauritian Labor Party (MLP) ruled from 1947 through 1982 and returned to power in 1995. The Mauritian Militant Movement/Mauritian Socialist Party (MMM/PSM) alliance won the 1982 election. In 1983, defectors from the MMM joined with the PSM to form the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) and won a working majority. In July 1990, the MSM realigned with the MMM, and in September 1991, national elections won 59 of the 62 directly elected seats in parliament. In December 1995, the MLP returned to power, this time in coalition with the MMM. Labor's Navinchandra Ramgoolam, son of the country's first prime minister, became prime minister himself. Ramgoolam dismissed his MMM coalition partners in mid-1997, leaving Labor in power except for several small parties allied with it. Elections in September 2000 saw the re-emergence of the MSM-MMM as a winning alliance, as the coalition garnered 51.7% of the vote, and Sir Anerood Jugnauth once again became the prime minister with the caveat that mid-term, the leader of the MMM party would take over as prime minister. In September 2003, in keeping with the campaign promise which forged the coalition, Jugnauth stepped down from office and deputy prime minister Paul Raymond Berenger became prime minister. One month later, Sir Anerood Jugnauth was sworn in as President of the Republic. Berenger became the first Catholic, Franco-Mauritian to head the government. The move created an historic precedent of having a non-Hindu, non-majority member head the national government.
Mauritius became a republic on March 12, 1992. The most immediate result was that a Mauritian-born president became head of state, replacing Queen Elizabeth II. Under the amended constitution, political power remained with parliament. The Council of Ministers (cabinet), responsible for the direction and control of the government, consists of the prime minister (head of government), the leader
of the majority party in the legislature, and about 20 ministries.
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