Given his ferociously radical inclinations, the writer Mark Twain has probably turned a few times in his grave to see himself widely quoted in travel brochures as saying: 'You gather that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.' In fact he simply mentioned this - in his book Following the Equator - as the view of a local. But the enduring international image of this Indian Ocean nation remains that of a white-sanded, palm-fringed holiday paradise.
The Portuguese claimed that the island was uninhabited when they reached it in the 16th century but it was the Dutch who first took possession of it and its abundant ebony and who named it after Prince Maurice of Nassau - and it was they who were responsible for hunting the dodo bird to extinction. The French then held it for a century but after Napoleon's defeat it became a British colony and it was the British who introduced the sugar cane which still covers 90 per cent of the cultivable land. As in Britain's Caribbean colonies, the emancipation in 1835 of the African slaves who originally cut the cane presented landowners with a problem. They resolved it by importing indentured labourers from India - around 450,000 over the next century. The descendants of these indentured labourers now account for 67 per cent of the Mauritian population.
One of Britain's last acts as a colonial power before independence in 1968 was to separate the Chagos Islands from Mauritius - and to cede one of them, Diego Garcia, to the US for use as a military base for 50 years in return for discounts on its nuclear-weapons purchases. The 2,000 Ilois people who lived there were deported to Mauritius, where they have lived (and died) in stateless penury ever since. Mauritius has taken its claims to the Chagos Islands to the UN and the International Court of Justice; the remaining 500 Ilois simply want to go home.
Since independence Mauritius has aimed to reduce its reliance on sugar cane and tea, diversifying into tourism, textiles, banking and information technology. The Government is particularly keen to promote the country as a new hub of cyber-development, thanks to a fibre-optic link with Portugal and Malaysia. The economy is generally strong and has attracted the foreign investment of more than 9,000 offshore entities, many of them aimed at commerce in India and South Africa. Free zones for industry reminiscent of those in East Asia employ 90,000 people, around 10 per cent of the population and per-capita income far exceeds the general levels on the African mainland. Mauritius is well placed to take advantage of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act adopted by the US Congress in 2000 - though China is also exploiting this back door to the US market with a new Mauritius-based textile factory.
The relative economic stability - and an average annual growth rate of over five per cent - has not precluded Mauritius from frequent changes of government, usually due to shifting coalition alliances. It became a republic in 1992, finally removing the British Queen as head of state. Current Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth is a veteran campaigner whose first taste of power came back in 1982. Recent controversy has been less about the country's economic direction than about anti-terrorist legislation. Two presidents resigned rather than sign into law an act which denies terrorism suspects the right to legal representation and allows their lengthy detention without firm charges.
Leader: Political power rests with Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth; President Karl Offmann is head of state.
Economy: GNI (gross national income) per capita $3,800 (Madagascar $260, Britain $24,500).
Monetary unit: Mauritian rupee.
Main exports: textiles, sugar, tea.
Mauritius has modelled itself in economic terms on Singapore and sees itself as a potentially lucrative bridge between Africa and Asia.
People: 1,180,000. People per square kilometre: 581 (Britain 238).
Health: Infant mortality 17 per 1,000 live births (Madagascar 86, Britain 6). Universal access to safe water and adequate sanitation. The hiv-prevalence rate (0.08%) is lower than in most Western countries.
Environment: Soil degradation due to sugar-cane monoculture and pesticides are the most serious problems. The US base at Diego Garcia has seriously damaged coral reefs there.
Culture: Indo-Pakistani 68%; Creole (mixed white, Indo-Pakistani and African) 27%; Chinese 3%.
Religion: Hindu 51%; Christian (mostly Catholic) 27%; Muslim 16%.
Language: French and English (official languages); Creole 22%; Hindi 19%. Many other languages, including Urdu, Hakka, Chinese, Tamil and Telegu.
Sources: World Guide 2003/2004; State of the World’s Children 2002; www.cia.gov
Previously profiled June 1985