The picturesque island coastline

Mauritius: where history, nature and tragedy converge at Le Morne Brabant mountain

In the heart of the Indian Ocean lies an island that has witnessed the ebb and flow of time. Mauritius, a name that evokes images of pristine beaches and crystal waters, is more than just a tropical getaway. It has a captivating history that began with Arab traders, followed by the colonial eras of the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British.

I was lucky to spend almost a month on the island, working on flights to India. It was an amazing opportunity to experience both Mauritius’ charm and play a role in making travel between these two destinations possible.

The Portuguese were among the earliest to navigate the waters of the Indian Ocean during the Age of Discovery. While they didn’t establish a lasting presence on the island, their explorations and trade activities brought them into contact with Mauritius.

It is believed that Arab sailors might have passed down knowledge of the island’s location to the Portuguese. However, the Portuguese didn’t find substantial use for the island and focused their efforts on more strategically positioned ports.

In the 17th century, the Dutch claimed the island by establishing a settlement. Recognising its strategic location as a pit stop on the journey to the Dutch East Indies, they christened it “Mauritius” after Prince Maurice of Nassau.

International Slave Route Monument
International Slave Route Monument

The Dutch made some use of the island as a replenishment point for ships, but their settlement was short-lived. Harsh conditions and resource limitations led to their abandonment of Mauritius in the early 18th century.

The French then took over control in 1715 and brought with them an enduring influence. They recognised the island’s potential for agricultural development, particularly sugar cane cultivation.

Under French rule, Mauritius saw the establishment of sugar cane plantations which were worked upon mostly by slaves and which shaped the island’s economy and cultural landscape for centuries to come.

With the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the British took control of Mauritius in 1810. The island became the British Empire’s main sugar-producing colony, emerging as an important naval base that secured their dominance over the Indian Ocean trade routes.

Following the abolition of slavery a few decades later, the British introduced almost half a million labourers from India whose descendants form the largest community in Mauritius today.

Although I was technically in Mauritius during the “winter”, the island has a tropical climate, which means its winters are mild compared to what we are used to in Europe. Since the weather remains relatively warm, it was a favourable time to explore the island, engage in outdoor activities, and enjoy the beaches without the intense heat of the peak summer months. Mauritius is around half the size of the Algarve, so driving along the roads, I got to explore the whole island.

View from the top of Le Morne Brabant Mountain
View from the top of Le Morne Brabant Mountain

The beaches in Mauritius are a bit different from the expansive stretches of sand you might find in the Algarve. The coasts are small and tucked between lush greenery and the Indian Ocean. While the beaches might not cover large areas, their charm lies in their tranquillity.

Among the various beaches I explored, one of my favourites was Le Morne Beach. On most days, I simply enjoyed unwinding on the beach from morning till evening. There was a convenient food truck nearby offering affordable fried noodles, and the early sunsets painted the sky with incredible hues. Yet, the beach’s fame also stems from its stunning view of the Morne Brabant mountain, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. So, one day, me and my friends decided to climb it.

The beginning of the hike takes you up a track through the forest, home to numerous unique plants and animals. Notably, the Dodo bird, now extinct, was also native to Mauritius. Interestingly, a company focused on “de-extinction” hopes to revive the Dodo, but that is a story for another time.

Arriving at the midway point, a captivating view stretched out in front of us. The picturesque coastline lay below and, in the distance, other mountains adorned the landscape. It was here that I really got to appreciate the ocean’s varying shades of turquoise and blue for the first time. It also marked the point where the true climb begun.

The track transformed into a narrow path that looked like it had been made by goats trailing up the mountainside. By the end, we were scaling the mountain with our hands, as the path got steeper and steeper until it eventually disappeared.

Le Morne Brabant Mountain top
Le Morne Brabant Mountain top

As we scrambled over the final rocks, we came face to face with a massive metal cross overlooking the ocean. The cross marked the mountain’s highest reachable point, and the final view made all the sweat and effort worthwhile.

The cross is a memorial to those who lost their lives on the mountain, which served as a refuge to a large number of slaves who had escaped their captors. These slaves were called “Maroons” and lived on the mountain, in small caves and settlements, surviving off the land.

It is said that, following the abolition of slavery, a group of soldiers were sent to the mountain to convey the news. Tragically, fearing the authorities were about to recapture them, many former slaves plummeted to their deaths, choosing to jump to avoid being punished or enslaved again. Today, the mountain still stands as a symbol of resistance.

Climbing the mountain provided the perfect culmination to my Mauritius trip. The mountain’s history made the experience more than just a physical accomplishment and allowed me to learn more about Mauritius beyond its natural beauty, making it the ideal conclusion to my unforgettable time on this remarkable island.

By Jay Costa Owen

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Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures