Mauritius is an independent island nation located in the middle of the Indian Ocean off the coast of east Africa. Mauritian culture, language and history have been significantly shaped by interactions between and non- on the islands. Today, Mauritius is one of the wealthiest and most densely populated countries in Africa. Sometimes known as the “Rainbow Island”, Mauritius is one of the most diverse island nations. Indeed, there is an ongoing discussion as to whether the many distinctive cultures on the island have blended or continue to remain in their separate forms whilst interacting intermittently. Nevertheless, the diversity of beliefs, cuisines, festivals and languages is a source of pride.
Ethnicity and Social Stratification
Discerning the composition of Mauritius is complex, partly because the country has not gathered data on in its national census since 1972. There is no recorded indigenous population on the islands. Rather, Mauritius’ composition is a product of over two centuries of European and continued international labour migration, which is largely related to the sugarcane industry. Dutch colonialists established sugarcane plantations and then imported Madagascan slave workers. Following the Dutch, French colonialists settled on the land, who were succeeded by the British. The British replaced African slaves with Indian indentured labourers from other colonies.
Throughout Mauritian history, one’s was considered to infer their socioeconomic status. The islands’ once well-established have blurred over time to be less associated with one’s . Nonetheless, historical legacies are still recognisable in the of Mauritius.
Any seemingly insignificant object can become an signifier. For example, the company one works for, the car one drives and the food one buys are often governed by communal factors. There are various newspapers, books and films that cater to each group, such as newspapers in Mandarin and television programs in Hindi. However, such signifiers are becoming less effective at determining one’s background.
There are five broad categories: Franco-Mauritian, Sino-Mauritian, Indo-Mauritian, Afro-Mauritian and Creole-Mauritian. The longstanding practice of has contributed to the persistence of and social class distinctions over time (see ‘’ in Family for more information).
Franco-Mauritians are descendants of European (mostly French) settlers from the period. They were typically in the higher socioeconomic class due to their ownership of sugar estates. Today, Franco-Mauritians tend to work in business and professions.
Sino-Mauritians are usually descendants of Chinese traders. The first Chinese migrants to Mauritius arrived in the late 1700s as mainly skilled labourers. Many of these migrants later established their own businesses. Those of Chinese heritage tend to be in the middle class. Many Sino-Mauritians continue to have a near monopoly on self-owned and -operated retail stores and larger import-export trade companies. Sino-Mauritians are often seen as clever and hardworking. There are now a large number of doctors, lawyers and other professionals among them.
Indo-Mauritians trace their heritage back to indentured labourers from the Indian sub-continent. Their ancestors replaced slaves in the sugar fields as indentured labourers. Today, Indo-Mauritians continue to work in the agriculture industry and tend to be middle class. Many Mauritians view Hindu Mauritians (who are typically descendants of Indo-Mauritians) as hard workers.
Afro-Mauritians are those who associate their heritage with African slaves – mainly from Madagascar and Mozambique – transported to the islands during the period. Their language, culture and origin reflects the interactions between the European settlers and African slaves. While in contemporary times they typically work as teachers, civil servants or manual labourers outside of agriculture, they continue to be in the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. At times, Afro-Mauritians may be referred to as ‘Creole’.
The term ‘Creole’ is often used to describe Mauritians who have mixed . Typically, their heritage is part African and part European. Most Mauritians who have migrated to Australia since the 1960s have been Creole.
There is no generally accepted official language in Mauritius; however, the vast majority of Mauritians speak Kreol (86.5%). The Kreol language is a mix of African and Asian languages, with influences from French. The majority of the population understands Kreol, making the language the of the country. However, there is no agreed-upon written form of Kreol, thus making it difficult to adopt Kreol as the official national language.
Various languages are used in day-to-day practice depending on the task at hand. As such, people tend to associate each language with different aspects of society. For example, English is related to education, law and administration while French is often connected to the media. Indeed, most newspapers are published in French. The French language has also had a significant impact on manners. It is common for people to exchange a ‘Bonjour’ (‘Hello’) in a shop or ‘Bonne journee’ (‘Have a good day’) when leaving. Many also speak the language of their ancestry (for example, some Indo-Mauritians can speak Bhojpuri). The popularity of Bollywood films also means that many – both within and outside the Indian community – understand some Hindi. Due to the multilingual nature of Mauritius, people may switch frequently between languages.
Conversations about languages occur often in contemporary political and social debate. This is in part because language is thought to be an essential part of group identity for different . Discussions vary depending on the group and language. However, on the whole, Kreol is thought to be one of the unifying characteristics of Mauritius. This is mainly because most Mauritians speak the language irrespective of their , religion and socioeconomic class. The increased use of Kreol by non-Creole Mauritians reflects a broader trend of people moving away from ethnically based language use. Indeed, younger Mauritians typically speak Kreol rather than the language of their older relatives.
Communalism and Identity
, religion and language shape the way Mauritians relate to each other in the country’s society. Indeed, there tends to be a sense of that informs social interactions. This can be understood through the distinction between ‘noubann’ and ‘zotbann’. Noubann is a Kreol word that combines ‘nou’, which means ‘us’ and ‘bann’, which means ‘group’. Conversely, zotbann stands for ‘zot’ (‘them’) and ‘bann’ (‘group'). For many Mauritians, their noubann is their group while zotbann are those from a different community.
The noubann-zotbann distinction is reflected in the Kreol saying, “sak zako bizin protez so montan” (‘each monkey must protect his own mountain'). This reflects the in-group/out-group mentality of putting members of one's group before others. Some may also create and perpetuate communal stereotypes of their compatriots. This can result in strengthening noubann-zotbann distinctions between each community. Generational differences also contribute to perceptions of each community. However, while disruptions occur occasionally, Mauritians live in relative . Most people accept and tolerate one another as well as embrace cultural differences.
Many Mauritians feel the need to maintain their identity and distinctiveness from other communities through preserving their traditions and memories of their ancestors. However, Mauritians who travel abroad to their ancestor's country of origin tend to find that the expression of the culture they have inherited is quite unlike its original one. With the interactions of the various groups over Mauritius’ long history, the various cultures have come to shape each other.
Indeed, many recognise a need for national unity. During sporting events and political rallies, Mauritians will often chant the slogan "only one people, only one nation" in Kreol. With modernisation and globalisation, many younger Mauritians are beginning to develop a common culture and outlook on life. Greater access to education and Western media has altered previous perceptions. People are also becoming more technologically connected, and the sense of being Mauritian is beginning to outweigh ancestral ties and divisive . For example, inter- marriage is becoming more common among the younger generations. Thus, through a common language (Kreol) and societal changes, there is a growing unity among the Mauritian people.
Modesty and Warmth
Mauritians tend to be conservative, modest and reserved. The term ‘suavaze’ (‘savage’) refers to a person who is acting inappropriately – for example, being too bold, dressing immodestly, smoking in public or speaking too loudly. At times, this adherence to social expectations of modesty may come across as being aloof. However, Mauritians are quick to warm up. Indeed, among friends, family and acquaintances, Mauritians are friendly, welcoming and accepting.
One manifestation of the warmth and playfulness of Mauritians is their artistic expression. Perhaps the most common form of expression is the séga, a popular folk dance consisting of movements of the hips and arms to a rhythmic beat. The origins of the dance can be traced back to the African slaves who came to the country during the era. While originally the dance was an expression of heartache, today the dance is one of joy and celebration.
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