he history of agriculture in Mauritius can be said to have had four distinct periods of development:
the Portuguese and the Dutch period
the French occupation period
the British occupation period
the post-independence period.
AGRICULTURE DURING THE PORTUGUESE AND DUTCH PERIOD
Mauritian agriculture started when the Portuguese first visited the island around the year 1507. After the Portuguese, who stayed for about 73 years, the Dutch took possession
of the island and named it Mauritius. They brought chicken, sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, tobacco, foodcrops and many kinds of fruit trees. In 1639, they introduced sugarcane from Djakarta. Slaves
were brought from Madagascar to work on the plantations. This first Dutch settlement ended in 1658, owing to problems related to rats, cyclones, droughts and run-away slaves.
A second Dutch settlement started in 1662. This batch of settlers built new roads and set up the first sawmill. In this mill, ebony trees, felled in the forest, were sawn
unto timber for export. The farmers were persuaded to grow rice, maize, sweet potato, banana, pineapple and vegetables. They were also encouraged to rear sheep, cattle, pigs, hens and ducks. Deer
were introduced from Java during the same period. This second settlement, too, did not last long, owing to the same problems of climate and agriculture. On the other hand, they had practically cut down
all the ebony trees and exterminated the defenseless dodo.
AGRICULTURE DURING THE FRENCH OCCUPATION
The French took possession of the island in 1715 but it was only in 1735, when Bertrand Mahé de Labourdonnais was appointed governor that some important agricultural
Labourdonnais brought slaves from Madagascar and Africa, and Indian labourers from Pondicherry and Surat. He established sugarcane as the main crop. He encouraged the
production of indigo, coffee, cotton, spices and foodcrops, and the rearing of livestock. After a few years the island was not only self-sufficient in food but also even exported some surplus to Reunion
Island. He set up the first sugar mill at Ville-Bague and a second one at Ferney.
René de Magon brought bulls and donkeys to work the sugarmills. Pierre Poivre, who acted as intendant to Governor Daniel Dumas, consolidated the production of sugarcane and
rice. He brought large numbers of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs from South Africa, Madagascar and India and created pastures for the livestock. He introduced tea, many fruit trees, spices and medical
herbs. He also set up the botanical gardens at Pamplemousses. Governor Vicomte François de Souillac introduced the traveler’s tree (Ravenalla) and the filao (Casuarina) from Madagascar and India
The French occupation ended in 1810 when the British took possession of the island.
AGRICULTURE DURING THE BRITISH OCCUPATION
The first British Governor, Sir Robert Farquhar, took important steps to develop agriculture in the island.
He advised planters to grow more sugarcane because it was resistant to cyclones. He did not, however, neglect the production of foodcrops. He also brought indentured labourers from India.
In 1826, Sir Lawry Cole persuaded the British Government to reduce the tax on Mauritius sugar entering
Great Britain. As a result, more people grew sugarcane and sugar production increased rapidly.
In 1902, when the “surra” disease killed most of the mules, horses and oxen, the transport of sugarcane
was seriously affected. As a result, in 1903 railways were introduced for the transport of sugarcane.
During the World War 1 (1914-1918) the production of food had to be increased because it was not
possible to import food from other countries. At the same time, the price of sugar went up, thus bringing more cash for further developments in the sugar industry.
The Development of the Sugar Industry by the British
The sugar industry developed very rapidly as from the year 1825 during the British occupation.
The main events that brought about this development were:
(i) the successful efforts made by Governor Farquhar and Cole to increase sugarcane production
(ii) the reduction of the entry-tax on Mauritian sugar entering Great Britain in 1826, which
encouraged planters to increase their production
(iii) the rise in the price of sugar which helped the sugar industry to develop further
(iv) the payment of compensation to planters for the liberation of their slaves in 1835. This money
was invested in their plantations
(v) the arrival of indentured Indian labourers in 1835 to work in the fields
(vi) the replacement of coffee, cloves and indigo by sugarcane after cyclones had damaged them
(vii) the introduction of efficient mills for the extraction of sugar.
All these events brought about an increase in:
(i) the area under sugarcane cultivation
(ii) the amount of sugar produced
(iii) the number of sugar mills.
The Chamber of Agriculture
In 1835, the sugarcane planters set up the Mauritius Chamber of Agriculture. The aims of the Chamber were to:
(i) bring about an expansion in sugarcane cultivation
(ii) bring about an increase in he yield of sugarcane per arpent
(iii) improve sugar extraction during milling
(iv) obtain better prices for Mauritian sugar.
Several steps were taken by the planters to achieve these aims. Reservoirs were built to store water for
irrigation. Canals were built to irrigate the fields. Guano was imported from Peru and Seychelles to fertilize
the soil. More efficient machines were imported and better methods used in the mills to extract sugar.
Roads were built to facilitate the transport of sugar to the harbour. In 1860, railways were built to connect several sugar estates to Port Louis.
The “Station Agronomique”
In 1893, the “Station Agronomique” were set up to carry out research, mainly to improve sugarcane
cultivation. The “Station Agronomique” changed its name several times. Today, it is the very important Ministry or Agriculture, Fisheries and Natural Resources.
The College of Agriculture
In 1925, the College of Agriculture started to run courses in agriculture. This college helped to improve
the efficiency of the sugar industry by providing training to young people in sugarcane cultivation and sugar manufacture.
The Sugarcane Research Station
The Sugarcane Research Station was set up in 1930 to carry out research in all aspects of sugar
production. This institution was renamed Mauritius Sugar Industry Research Institute (MSIRI) in 1953.
The Cyclone and Drought Insurance Board
In 1946, the Cyclone and Drought Insurance Board was established to compensate the sugar planters when their crops were damaged by cyclones and/or droughts.
The Board is now known as the Sugar Insurance Fund Board (SIFB).
In 1968, only 21 major factories were operating and were producing about 700,000 tons of sugar annually.
Sugarcane cultivation and sugar extractions became more efficient. This has been made possible by:
(i) the use of machines to prepare the land
(ii) the application of artificial fertilizers to sugarcane plantation
(iii) the use of chemicals to control weeds, pests and diseases
(iv) the growing of improved varieties of sugarcane
(v) the adoption of irrigation methods
(vi) the increase in the area of irrigated lands
(vii) the introduction of efficient machines and equipment in the factories.
Apart from sugarcane, the British also helped to develop the tea industry and the production of tobacco
for local consumption. Sugar and tea were the only exports of Mauritius although the share of tea was
quite insignificant. It can be said that when the British left Mauritius after independence in 1968, the country had a monocrop economy.