The Philatelist’s Pick: Modes of transport in Mauritius: Ships (Part I)

This blog is about role of maritime transport in Mauritius and their representations on postal stamps. It is in two parts: Part 1 takes a historical perspective, while Part 2, to be published at the end of this week, will look at the importance of maritime transport in modern Mauritius. 

Historical Background

The history of Mauritius is intimately linked to maritime adventures and expansionist activities of the world’s rich nations. It is now well established that the Arabs were the first to visit Mauritius, probably around the 14th Century, although it is difficult to say with certainty when they first landed on the island. In 1502 Alberto Cantino created the first European, using an Arab map. Mauritius was mentioned under the Arab nameDina Arobi (also mentioned: Dina Mozare, for Rodrigues, Dina Margabim for Reunion).

2002: Mauritius on world maps – a testimony of Mauritius being known to early navigators

2002 12 Sep - Maps of South West Indian Ocean
This set of postage stamps released on 18 September 2002, depicts 4 maps of the South West Indian Ocean are those of (i) Re. 1 – Alberto Cantino, from 1502, a Portuguese cartographer. On this map, Mauritius is identified as Dina Arobi; (ii) Rs. 3 – map by Jorge Reinel from 1520, another Portuguese cartographer. It is considered as the earliest and most accurate map of Mauritius of that period; (iii) Rs. 4, a map by Diogo Ribiero, a Portuguese cartographer and royal cosmographer. This map provided the most accurate delineation of the explored world; (iv) Rs. 10 – a map by Gerard Mercator, a flemish geographer best known for the map projection that bears his name, and still used today by navigators. His most influential works, the 1569 map of the world (pictured on the stamp) and the Atlas, a collection of maps he designed and engraved. 

Discovery, colonization and maritime battles

The Portuguese: Historical evidence shows that the island was visited in 15th Century by the Portuguese, when Vasco da Gama made its entry in the Indian Ocean in 1498. The first Portuguese to visit the island around 1511 is thought to be Domingo Fernandez Pereira. The island was later named Cirne on Portuguese maps. They however, did not established a settlement and therefore left no physical trace on the island. 

The first settlements by the Dutch: Landing: 1598; First settlement: 1638 – 1658; Second settlement: 1664 – 1710.

The Dutch, under the commandership of Captain Van Warwick, landed in the South East coast on Mauritius on 20 September 1598. The bay where the Dutch landed was called Warwick Bay (now Grand Port), after the commander, but the island was named Mauritius, after Prince Mauritius Van Nassau, the then stadtholder of Holland. A series of four postage stamps and a miniature sheet were released in 1998 to mark the 400th anniversary of Dutch landing in Mauritius. The miniature sheet pictures a scene of the arrival of Dutch fleet in Mauritius.

MS 400 anniv dutch landing1998 18 Sep - 400th anniversary Dutch Landing

For the first 40 years, however, the Dutch did not establish a colony but rather used Mauritius as a stop-over, for ship repairs and food provision. In 1606, two expeditions, led by Admiral Corneille, and consisting of eleven ships and 1,357 men, landed for the first time in the northwest part of the island. The bay was called “Rade des Tortues (today Port-Louis) due to the great number of terrestrial tortoises. The first permanent settlement was established in 1638 by Cornelius Gooyer, it ended in 1658. He landed on board the vessel Maen. In 1664, a second attempt was made, but the settlements never developed enough to produce dividends and the Dutch abandoned Mauritius for good in 1710. They are remembered for the introduction of sugar-cane, domestic animals and deer. It was from Mauritius that the Dutch navigator Tasman set out to discover the western part of Australia.

 The French Period: 1715 – 1810

 In September 1715, Captain Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel took possession of Mauritius in the name of King Louis XV of France on board the ship “Le Chasseur”. The island was renamed “Isle de France”. The first settlers however started occupation in 1721. The development of the island took off with the arrival in 1735 of Governor Mahé de Labourdonnais.  

To commemorate the 300th anniversary of French landing in Mauritius, a joint issue was released by France and Mauritius in 2015. The stamps, the presentation pack and the booklet all feature a French sailing ship entering the “Baie des Molusques”.

The Port-Louis harbour, developed by governor Mahé de Labourdonnais, pictured in several stamp issues and in a 2006 miniature sheet (see below), became a supply harbour for the French Navy and played an important role in the development of the island. 

2006 4 Feb - Bicentenary of Mahebourg postcard_11999 11 Feb - 300e naissance de Labourdonnais

During the French period, another ship made history and inspired a world-famous novel. The Saint Géran was a sailing ship that belonged to the naval fleet of the French East India Company. Built in the port of Lorient in France, it set for Isle de France on 24 March 1744, as portrayed in the miniature sheet below.

Wreck of St Geran

On the night of 17 August 1744, it wrecked on the north-east fringing reef of Mauritius and broke up along the stretch of coral located near Île Ambre. Falling masts stove in the boats before they could be launched, a makeshift raft capsized and only 9 survivors who made it to shore survived.  In total, 149 sailors, 13 passengers and 30 slaves died.

1994 18 Aug - 250th anniversary wreck of St Geran

This shipwreck provided the basis for 1750’s best selling novel in Europe, Paul et Virginie by Bernadin de St. Pierre. A series of stamps was released in 1968 featuring some scenes from the book storyline.

1968 Paul et virginie FDC
1968: bicentenary of the visit of Bernardin de St. Pierre

 Pirates and privateers

During the seven years war (1756-1763) Napoleonic wars between France and England, “Isle de France” became a base from which French corsairs, enlisted by the  French East India company, organised successful raids on British commercial ships. The raids continued until 1810 when a strong British expedition was sent to capture the island.

In 1972, a series of 4 postage stamps was released to illustrate some of the most famous pirates and privateers that operated in the Indian Ocean and notably in Isle de France. The 15cs stamp features a pirate dhow entering the river Tamarin; the 60 cs stamp shows an image of a hypothetical treasure excavated in Mauritius; The R. 1 stamp features Francois Thomas Le Même and his ship Hirondelle, which he armed for privateering during the Napoleonic war and from which he successfully attacked and captured 2 British vessels, which he brought back to Isle de France; and the Rs. 2.50 features Robert Surcouf. 

1972 17 Nov - Pirates and privateers

Robert Surcouf was a particularly famous privateer (or corsaire). He operated in the Indian Ocean between 1789 and 1801, and again from 1807 to 1808 and captured over 40 prizes. He became very rich as a ship-owner. In January 1814, he became a colonel in the National Guard of Saint-Malo. A stamp was issued in 1973 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Surcouf. The stamp shows the capture of a 40-gun British vessel Kent by Surcouf onboard his 18-gun brig Confiance, which made him famous.

1974 21 March - 200th birth of Surcouf


Landing of the British and the conquest of the Island: 1810 – 1968

A first attack from the British on the French was launched at Grand Port in August 1810, but the main attack was launched in December of the same year from Rodrigues, successfully captured already by the British. On 14 August 1810, the British took possession of Ile de la Passe, a fortified islet controlling the entrance of the harbour of Grand Port. The battle lasted 5 days. 

The fierce battle saw the defeat of the British fleet, but the British landed in large numbers in the north of the island and rapidly overpowered the French, who capitulated. By the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Isle de France, renamed Mauritius, was ceded to Great Britain, together with Rodrigues and the Seychelles.

The battle of Vieux Grand Port is pictured in a number of stamp series. In 1978, a 90cs stamp in a new definitive series was released showing a scene of the battle, with the four British warships La Magicienne, Le Sirius, La Nereide and Iphigenie under the orders of Commodore Samuel Pym and French warships Le Victor, Le Ceylan, La Bellone and La Minerve under the command of Captain Duperré in the background. 

battle of view GP

In 2010 , a new set of stamps was released to commemorate the bicentenary of the Battle of Vieux Grand Port. The two stamps are (i) Rs. 14, picturing a scene of the Battle at sea; and (ii) Rs. 21, showing a view of Ile de la Passe. The cover depicts the monument of Pointe des Régates, erected in the memory of the battle. The portraits of Captains Duperré and Willoughby appear in the background.   

2010 28 Aug - Bicentenary of battle of Grand Port


Slaves and Indian immigrants were also brought to Mauritius on board ships from Africa and India, as pictured in a Rs. 10 stamps from a 1984 series marking the 150th Anniversary of the abolition of slavery and beginning of Indian immigration. 


indian immigrants ship

Our Coats of Arms

The Coats of Arms design was first issued in 1895, representing a 3-mast ship, three sugarcane plants, a key and wedge and a star, called in heraldry, the pile and the mullet. Stamps were reprinted over many years with various types of inks and on different types of papers to avoid fraud. In 1906, under the administration of Sir Cavendish Boyle, the Arms were corrected because some elements of the designed appeared to be against the rules of the heraldry. A re-designed version was issued in 1910: the galleon was replaced by a lymphad (a galley – the caravelle), palm trees replaced the sugar cane; the key was flipped and the star became five pointed. The overall designed remained however the same. The inscription ‘postage and revenue’ was included on each side of the stamps.

Maritime routes and mailing ships

A set of 5 postage stamps was issued on 2 July 1976 picturing 5 vessels which play an important role in Mauritius. (i) A 10cs stamps shows the Pierre Loti, a mailing vessel part of Messageries Maritimes (together with 3 other vessels: Ferdinand de Lesseps; Labourdonnais and Jean Laborde). The ships were routed from Marseille, to Port-Said, Djibouti, Mombassa, Dar es Salaam, Majunga, Nosy Be, Diego Suarez, Tamatave, Reunion and Mauritius; (ii) A 15cs stamp featuring the Secunder, 1907, the former iron 3-masted screw steamship Ardengorm, built by Ramage and Ferguson, at Leith, in 1881.   (iii) A  50cs stamp, featuring the Hindoustan, a steamship, which entered into service between India and Suez in 1842. It’s route was extended to Singapore 2 years later (v) A 60cs stamp features the St Géran sailing in 1740; (vi) Rs. 2.50 shows the Maen, which was the vessel of which the first Dutch Governor, Gooyer, reached the shores of Mauritius on 7 May 1638.

1976 2 July - Port Louis Harbour OFC

In 1980, another set of postage stamps was issued featuring 4 ships. These were issued for the International Stamp Exhibition “London 1980” held between 6 – 14 May 1980, under the patronage of H.M the Queen. The 4 stamps feature (i) A 25cs, the Emirne, the first steamer of the Messageries Imperiales to operate on the line Mauritius – Reunion – Suez. It performed 10 trips on this line between 1864 – 1866; (ii) A R. 1 stamp features the Boissevain, a 14,000 tons liner, built in Hamburg, which came into service between the Far East and South Africa in 1938. It also provided accommodation to some 400 passengers in 2 classes. It was used as a troop transport during World War II. It’s first visit to Port-Louis was in 1948 and the last one was on the 2nd May 1968; (iii) Rs. 2, featuring the Frigate La Boudeuse, built in Nantes. The French navigator Bougainville undertook his historical voyage around the world in 1767 on board this ship. One of his main objective was to introduce spice plants to Mauritius and Reunion. The famous naturalist Commerson joined the expedition. La Boudeuse reached Mauritius on 8 Nov. 1768; (iv) Rs. 5 depicts the vessel Sea Breeze, a sailing boat of the 19th century, mainly concerned with the transportation of sugar cane to England. 

1980 6 May London 1980 ships

Lloyd’s List is the oldest international newspaper in the world. Since its launch in 1734, the British government allowed mail to be delivered free of charge, provided it carried shipping intelligence and information. Mauritius, together with other Commonwealth countries, issued a series of 4 postage stamps in 1984 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the newspaper, which is still read today. (i) The 25cs stamp features the wreck of the cargo vessel SS Tayeb  on the 12th of February 1972 after the passage of Cyclone Dolly in Mauritius near the shores of Les Salines in Port Louis, against the sand bank of Barkly Island; (ii) the R. 1 stamp features the wreck of S. S Taher in March 1901 off the coast of Port-Louis; (iii) The Rs. 5 stamp shows the 26-gun British ship East Indian Man Triton, which was captured by the privateer Robert Surcouf on 29 January 1796; (iv) The Rs. 10 stamp shows M.S Astor, a german cruise ship, ordered by the Mauritian-based Marlan Corporation. 

1984 23 May - 250th anniversary Lloyd's list

Mauritius: on the route of great explorers

In 1997, a set of 5 postage stamps was issued to mark a series of anniversaries and events. The R. 1 stamp represents Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse. He lived for some years in Mauritius (and married a Mauritian, that he met in 1774) but was later commissioned by the King to carry out scientific and exploration trip around the world.

1997 9 June - Anniversaries and events

Charles Darwin, the world famous English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for its contribution to the science of evolution, undertook a survey voyage around the world on board HMS Beagle, pictured on the Rs. 10 stamps of the 1982 stamp issue, commemorating the voyage of Darwin. The ship anchored at Port-Louis, Mauritius on 29 April 1836.

1982 19 April - Darwin

On 13 June 2001, a set of 4 postage stamps was issued to commemorate the bicentenary of  Baudin Expedition. In 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte, commissioned Post-Captain Nicolas Baudin, to explore the South West, West and Northern coastline of New Holland (today Australia). As the observations were to be conducted in the fields of geography and natural history, the leading ship was names Géographe, and its consort vessel, Naturaliste. A third vessel was called Casuarina. The expedition sailed on 19 October 1800 from the French port of Le Havre and reached Isle de France on 16th March 1801. When the expedition sailed again on 25th April, a number of scientists stayed on the island. On its way back to France in 1803, the expedition called again at Isle de France. (i) The Re. 1 portrays the two ships Géographe and Naturaliste; (ii) Rs. 4 depicts the route taken by the ships on their inward and outward journeys, and portrays Baudin (who died in Port-Louis in Sep 1803). 

2001 13 June - bicentenaire expedition Baudin

Mauritius and World War II

In 1995, a  set of 3 postage stamps to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was released. In 1941, hundreds of Mauritians left Port-Louis on board the Talamba for Egypt, where they served in the war. This set of stamps with a unique denomination of three Rs. 5 stamps, pays tribute to those soldiers dead or alive, who contributed with their blood, sweat and toil in bringing peace in the world. This Rs. 5 portrays HMS Mauritius, a cruiser equipped with 12 six-inch guns and 8 four-inch guns. It participated in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and in D-Day landing in Normandy on 6 June 1944.




The second part of this blog will talk about maritime transport in modern Mauritius

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