Identification. Mauritius has no indigenous population, and the island first appears on Arab maps from the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, it was briefly settled and abandoned by Portuguese and Dutch. The Dutch named it after their prince Maurits van Nassau; it was renamed Île-de-France by the French, the name Mauritius being restored subsequently by the British. Mauritius was a French colony from 1715 to 1814 and British from 1814 to 1968, and it has been independent since 1968. All Mauritians are descendants of immigrants who have arrived since 1715. Contemporary Mauritius is a nation-state comprising the island of Mauritius, the smaller island of Rodrigues, and a number of lesser dependencies. The ethnonyms above refer to the ethnic groups that make up national society, listed in the three main languages—English, French, and Kreol. The culture is multi-ethnic, but all groups are integrated into the labor market and the educational and political systems at a national level.
Location. The island of Mauritius, one of the three Mascareignes (the other two are La Réunion, a French department, and Rodrigues), covers 1,865 square kilometers at 19°55′ to 20°30′ S and 57°20′ to 57°55′ E, 805 kilometers east of Madagascar in the southern Indian Ocean. The land rises gently from the coast to the central plateau around Curepipe (about 500 meters above sea level). The climate is tropical with a dry season from April to October and a wet season from November to March, but there are local climatic variations. Mean annual temperature in coastal Port-Louis is 23° C; at Curepipe, it is 19° C. Precipitation is high; in some areas the annual rainfall is 500 centimeters. Mauritius is a volcanic island well suited for agriculture, and it is almost entirely surrounded by coral reefs. Its much smaller dependency Rodrigues is rockier.
Demography. Formerly high (3.5 percent in the 1960s), the population growth of Mauritius is now moderate at 1.4 percent per year. The latest population estimate (1989) is 1,081,669 (census figures from 1983 total 997,000); approximately 38,000 live in Rodrigues and the rest in insular Mauritius. Twenty-seven percent are Creoles of African descent; 42 percent are Hindus from northern India; 16 percent are Muslims of Indian descent; 9 percent are Tamils and Telugus (also Hindus) of southern Indian descent; 3 percent are of Chinese descent; less than 2 percent are of French and British descent; and about 2 percent are Mulattoes. The population density is roughly 500 persons per square kilometer, with 42 percent of the population urban.
Linguistic Affiliation. Officially, fourteen languages are spoken in Mauritius: French, English, Kreol, Bhojpuri, Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, and Bengali. The official language is English (no one's mother tongue), and the main literary language is French (the mother tongue of less than 3 percent of the population). A growing majority of the Mauritian population, almost regardless of ethnic affiliation, are truly fluent only in Kreol. Kreol, a French-lexicon creole language, is usually classified as a Romance language. Kreol tends to be regarded as inferior to English and French, even by its own speakers. English is associated with business and administration, and French is associated with journalism, literature, and the arts. The Indian languages, the most widely spoken being the Hindi dialect Bhojpuri, have declined steadily since World War II. Arabic, standard Hindi, Tamil, and Latin are used in various religious contexts. Most urban Mauritians are bi- or trilingual in Kreol, French, and (sometimes) English; most Sino-Mauritians can speak Hakka and read Mandarin. French is widely understood even in rural areas, where Kreol or Bhojpuri is the vernacular.