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ETHNONYMS: Mauritians/Mauriciens/Morisien, Creoles/Créoles/Kreol, Indo-Mauritians/Indo-Mauriciens/Lendien, Sino-Mauritians/Sino-Mauriciens/Sinwa, Franco-Mauritians/Franco-Mauriciens/Blan, Hindus/Hindous/Lendu, Muslims/Musulmans/Mizilman, Gens de couleur/milat


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 languagesEnglish, 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.

History and Cultural Relations

The ethnic groups that make up Mauritian culture arrived in the following order (dates are approximate) : French and Creoles (1715-1830); British (1814-1900); Indian (1840-1910); Chinese (1900-1950). Economic and cultural links with France were strong until the British takeover in 1814. Culturally, the French influence remains strong, and the descendants of Britons are now Franco-Mauritians. Contacts with India are of increasing importance. Since the 1950s, emigration rates have been high, particularly in the direction of Australia, Canada, France, and Britain. At the time of Mauritian independence in 1968, many Franco-Mauritians settled in South Africa.


There are three main kinds of settlements: towns, plantation villages, and autonomous villages. The main towns are located in an urbanized belt stretching from Port-Louis (Population 160,000) through Beau-Bassin/Rose Hill (92,000), Quatre-Bornes (60,000), and Vacoas-Phoenix (57,000) to Curepipe (60,000). The only town outside this belt is Mahébourg (30,000) on the southeastern coast, but several villages are now the size of small towns. Plantation villages, formerly camps, are located close to the cane fields and sugar factories. Usually owned by the sugar estates, they are largely inhabited by Indians. Many of the coastal autonomous villages are fishing villages inhabited largely by Creoles. The new industrial, often "rurban," settlements, which are found in the north, are ethnically very mixed. Since Mauritius is a cyclone-ridden island (major cyclones struck in 1960 and 1976), most of its dwellings are one- or two-story concrete structures. A few villages, particularly on the coast, consist of houses constructed of mud and brick. Wood is used rarely. Most houses have electricity and piped water.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Historically strongly dependent on its sugar exports, Mauritius diversified its economy in the 1980s, through expanding its industrial base. The economy is thoroughly monetized. The majority of the adult population is engaged in wagework, the principal sources of employment being the manufacturing industry, the sugar industry, tourism, and the civil service. Subsistence activities include horticulture and fishing. Mauritius is a net importer of food, the staple being rice. Mauritius has developed the rudiments of a welfare state, which include old-age pensions and unemployment benefits.

Industrial Arts. Sugar, molasses, tea, knitwear, and other miscellaneous clothing are the main industrial products. Horticultural products (especially orchids and other flowers), handicrafts (made of wood, sharks' teeth, and seashells), and various industrial products are marketed domestically and internationally. Instruments of production that are produced locally include fishing nets, fish traps, and some machinery for the sugar and textile industries.

Trade. Petroleum products are imported from Persian Gulf countries; rice is imported from Madagascar and India, raw materials for the textile industry are imported from India and Europe; and advanced machinery is imported from Australia, South Africa, Japan, and Europe. The main export markets are Europe (particularly the United Kingdom and France) for sugar products, tea, knitwear, and other textiles. Other export markets, particularly for textiles, include the United States and South Africa. Tourism attracts Europeans. Exports in 1989 were U.S. $550 million; imports were U.S. $540 million (figures are estimates). The external debt in 1986 was U.S. $644 million.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, the Mauritian division of labor has been strongly ethnic in character, and this is still so to some extent. Most field laborers are Hindus and Muslims; most fishermen, dockers, and artisans are Creoles; most petty merchants are Sino-Mauritian; and the estate owners are Franco-Mauritian. Because of changes in the economic infrastructure, the current pattern is more ambiguous. The workforce in the manufacturing industry is multiethnic and largely female. The Hindus are overrepresented in the civil service, while the Creoles are overrepresented in the police force. Many of the lawyers, teachers, and journalists are Mulattoes. Two conflicting principles for recruitment to the labour market are applied. On the one hand, Mauritius is formally a meritocracy where educational attainment and relevant experience are criteria for employment. On the other hand, ethnicity, kinship and informal social relations are also frequently used as criteria for employment.

Land Tenure. More than 50 percent of the total surface of Mauritius is cultivated. Over most of this area sugarcane is grown; on the central plateau, tea is grown. Fifty-five percent of the cane lands are run by twenty sugar estates. One is state-owned, while the remaining nineteen are owned by Franco-Mauritian families. The remaining 45 percent of the cane land is shared by 33,000 small planters, most of them Hindus and Muslims. Much of the land (but not that owned by the estates) is Crown land, and the cultivator must pay rent to the state. In many villages, Creole and Hindu families grow vegetables and fruit for sale on private or rented plots.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is an important principle of social organization in Mauritius, but its form and content vary between the ethnic groups. The Sino-Mauritians are organized in patricians, which are relevant as units of economic organization. Hindus and Muslims are also patrilineal; the clan feature is, however, less important there, except in very affluent or high-caste families. Among Hindus and Muslims, capital for investment is frequently pooled among relatives. Franco-Mauritians, Mulattoes, and Creoles have cognatic or undifferentiated kinship systems. Sino-Mauritian genealogies go back to one or two generations before arrival in Mauritius. Hindu and Muslim genealogies encompass three or four generations (sometimes more in the case of Brahmans and of Memons, and Surtees, Muslim "high castes"). Franco-Mauritian genealogies are usually detailed and profound; many can trace their ancestry back to several generations before 1789. Creole genealogies are inaccurate and shallow.

Kinship Terminology. The Kreol kin terms maman, papa, ser, frer, tonton, tantinn, gran-mer, gran-per, kuzen, bo-frer, and bel-ser (mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, grandmother, grandfather, cousin, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law) are universally used. Their significance can vary interethnically; particularly, the meanings of kuzen and tonton (or onk ) are highly variable, and they can sometimes include relatives who would in other contexts be regarded as very remote (or not as relatives at all).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. All groups except Creoles and Mulattoes have ethnically endogamous ideologies of marriage. Sino-Mauritians forge economic alliances between clans through marriage, and their pattern of postmarital residence is patrilocal or neolocal. Hindus are endogamous at the level of caste and are generally patrilocal (but increasingly neolocal in urban settings). Muslims are endogamous at the level of religion; they accept marriages with non-Muslims provided the outsiders convert to Islam. They are also patrilocal, at least at the level of ideology. Memons and Surtees are endogamous in principle, but they are too few to practice this consistently. Franco-Mauritians are endogamous at the level of race; aristocrats further tend to reject marriages with commoners. Postmarital residence is usually neolocal. Mulattoes and Creoles have no strong endogamous ideologies, but marriages with people with lighter skins are favored. The last two groups favor "love matches," whereas the other ethnic groups tend to favor marriages organized by the kin group. The divorce rate is low among all ethnic groups. Muslims and Hindus sometimes acquire wives from India.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the norm among Franco-Mauritians, Creoles, and Mulattoes and is an increasingly common form among all urbanites. The average couple countrywide has two children; the number is slightly higher in rural areas and among Muslims. The largest extended families are rural Hindu and Creole families, where the nuclear family forms the core. The former may include the head of household's mother, unmarried siblings, and cousins. The latter may include relatives on both the husband's and the wife's side. Joint families are rarer but they do occur, particularly among Hindus. Nearly all heads of households are men.

Inheritance. Land is as a rule inherited by the oldest son in all ethnic groups. Creoles and Sino-Mauritians have practically no vested interests in land. Other means of production (shops, factories, etc.) are also usually inherited by the oldest son. All other property is partible and can be inherited by daughters as well as by sons. The strongest bilateral tendency in this respect is found among the Creoles. Caste is still important among Hindus, particularly in the three highest varnas (Brahmans, Rajputs, and Vaisyas).

Socialization. Patterns of socialization vary interethnically. Although fathers are expected to be harsh and mothers are expected to be loving in all ethnic groups, the authority of the father is strongest among Hindus, Muslims, and Franco-Mauritians. Among Creoles, the mother alone is responsible for primary socialization. Schools are ethnically mixed, and school attendance is nearly universal from 6 to 13 years. An important rite of passage in contemporary Mauritius is the passing of the certificate of primary education (CPE), since education is universally granted great importance. The literacy rate is about 85 percent. Mauritius has a small university, but many go abroad (to France, Britain, and India) for higher studies.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Internal social differentiation operates according to three different principles: achievement-based class organization; ascription-based ethnic organization; and "feudal" patron-client relationships. The most powerful group are the landowning Franco-Mauritians, who have dominated the island's economy for more than two centuries. Others with great economic power include Muslim merchants and Sino-Mauritian industrialists and merchants. Most white-collar jobs in the public service are held by Hindus, although there are still many Mulattoes in this field. The most visible lumpen proletariat in Mauritius consists of immigrants from Rodrigues and Diego Garcia, who are usually underemployed or unemployed, sometimes illiterate, and usually poor. The interrelationship between ethnicity and class membership is strong but changing since social mobility is high. Mobility can be achieved through formal qualifications or through exploiting an informal ethnic network. As a rule, Creoles are the most stagnant group as regards economic and political power. Patron-client relationships, which entail commitments beyond the labor contract, can obtain between relatives, between employers and employees, and, most characteristically, between a prosperous family and their servants. Many middle-class families, particularly Franco-Mauritians, have servants; most servants are Creoles.

Political Organization. Mauritius is a parliamentary multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth IL General elections for the seventy members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) are held every four years, and all citizens over the age of 20 are eligible to vote. Most political parties in independent Mauritius have been formed along ethnic lines. The Hindu-dominated Mauritius Labour party ruled the island from its independence to 1982, and its leader, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (1900-1985), was an important symbol of national unity. The most important political parties today are the Hindu-dominated "Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien" (MSM) and the ostensibly nonethnic, but in practice Creole-Muslim alliance, "Mouvement Militant Mauricien" (MMM). The so-called best-loser system, which supplements the Westminster electoral system, ensures the representation of ethnic minorities in the parliament. A main task for independent Mauritian society has been to create political consensus and some degree of cultural integration. This has been achieved in politics. Although parties remain ethnic in character, there is wide consensus regarding the rules of parliamentary democracy.

Social Control. Mauritius has no military force, and a specially trained segment of the police force is responsible for controlling violent conflict. Mauritian law is an amalgam of Napoleonic and British judicial principles. Although often accused of corruption, the court system functions effectively. At the village level, conflicts over property, adultery, or other minor crimes are often solved informally, sometimes involving respected elders as mediators. Ethnic conflicts are avoided or resolved through informal policies of avoidance and through a widespread ideology of tolerance, as well as formal policies of compromise.

Conflict. There have been two general strikes (1970 and 1979) since Mauritian independence. Strikes and other forms of protest are widespread among workers in the manufacturing industry, who feel they are underpaid and overworked. Ethnic conflicts, which turned violent through riots in 1965-1968, are usually mediated by, and expressed through, the formal judicial and political systems. In recent years, drug crimes have become common. Violent crimes are rare. The rapid rate of economic growth may help explain the comparative lack of manifest social conflict, especially ethnic conflict, in contemporary Mauritius.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The religions of Mauritius are Hinduism (52 percent), Roman Catholicism (31 percent), Islam (16 percent) and Buddhism (1 percent). Within Hinduism there are many variants, which correspond to variants found in India itself. Low-caste practices of animal sacrifice are common in rural areas. Maratha and Tamil variants of Hinduism are also distinctive in relation to the dominant Bihari variety. Every year, the Maha Shivaratri is celebrated by Hindus, who march to a lake in southern Mauritius (since the Ganges is too distant). Most Muslims are Sunnis; a few are Shias and Ahmadis. A local Catholic custom is an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Jacques-Désiré Laval, a now-beatified nineteenth-century priest. Syncretist beliefs are common, and traces of heterodox European and Indian beliefs and traditional African beliefs can be identified among Hindus and Creoles alike, particularly in rural areas. Belief in witchcraft is common, but it is rarely important socially.

Religious Practitioners. The Catholic church is led by the Archbishop of the Mascareignes and the Seychelles, the most powerful religious person in Mauritius. Catholic priests are highly respected and powerful in their local communities. Many are involved in social work. Hindu pundits and Muslim imams are also powerful, although their religions do not require formal leadership. Pundits and imams wield power in ritual and in the context of Hindu and Muslim youth clubs (baitkas and madrassahs, respectively). Buddhism is of negligible importance in Mauritius; most of the Buddhists are also Catholics. The longanis (French longaniste ) is a sorcerer with considerable power in many locations. His or her magical power consists of the ability to heal the sick, divine the future, and influence people's character. The longanis is used by people of all ethnic groups; most longanis are Creoles or Hindus.

Ceremonies. There are three spectacular annual religious ceremonies. The Tamil festival Cavadi is a rite of passage involving fire walking; it is participated in by many non-Tamils. The Catholic Père Laval pilgrimage is exclusively Christian, and the Maha Shivaratri is exclusively Hindu. All major rituals and festivals of the largest religious traditions, including the Chinese New Year, are celebrated by their followers.

Arts. The only indigenous art form of Mauritius is the séga, a form of music similar to the Trinidad calypso, having been shaped in the encounter between French planters and African slaves. Now evolved into pop and dance music, the séga is very popular. Indian traditional and popular music are also widespread and are performed locally, but European classical music has only a limited appeal. The literature of Mauritius is comparatively rich; authors write mostly in French and Hindi, although radical nationalists have in recent years taken to writing in Kreol. Whereas Mauritian literature tends to deal with ethnicity and the search for cultural identity, the visual arts tend to be romantic and nature-worshiping in character.

Medicine. As many as seven distinctive traditional medical systems have been identified in Mauritius, in addition to scientific medicine. Mauritians tend to believe in, and use the services of, several different practitioners of medicine. Healing techniques may range from Indian Ayurvedic medicine to Chinese herbal medicine and the incantations of the longanis. Although the main killers are heart disease and diabetes, a common complaint is move 1er ("bad air"), which is perceived as psychosomatic. The general symptoms are giddiness and tiredness. Health services are free, and all major villages have a dispensary.

Death and Afterlife. The belief in an afterlife is universally common, and death is generally accepted as an inevitable fate. Hindus and Christians arrange wakes for their deceased. Muslim and Christian graveyards are visited around the time of important religious ceremonies, and flowers are planted on the graves. The Hindus cremate their deceased.


Arno, Toni, and Claude Orian (1986). L'Île Maurice, une Société Multiraciale. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Benedict, Burton (1961). Indians in a Plural Society. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Bowman, Larry W. (1990). Mauritius: Democracy and Development in the Indian Ocean. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (1988). Communicating Cultural Difference and Identity: Ethnicity and Nationalism in Mauritius. Occasional Papers in Social Anthropology, no. 16. Oslo: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.

Simmons, Adele Smith (1982). Modern Mauritius: The Politics of Decolonization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Toussaint, Adolphe (1977). History of Mauritius. London: Macmillan.


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