The Frederik Hendrik Museum – Mauritius

Overview of the Frederik Hendrik Museum

The serene and isolated Vieux Grand Port in the Southeast Coast of Mauritius is considered as the cradle of Mauritian History. The Frederik Henrik Museum is a historical site which today bears the remnants of the first human settlement in Mauritius.

In 1598 the Dutch sailors discovered Mauritius, but it was only in 1638 when they decided to use the island as a refreshment station. Thus, the Fort Frederik Hendrik was constructed. Today the fort has been transformed into a museum to commemorate the Dutch and French colonial settlements in Mauritius. The museum opened its doors in May 1999 and is named after the Stadholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands who was in office from 1625 to 1647.

The existing ruins are remains of compounds erected by the French who came to Mauritius after the Hollanders’ departure. They consist of relics of the governor’s main residence, a bakery and a building which sheltered a store, a forge and a prison cell.

This National Heritage site is surrounded by a luxuriant tropical garden and includes a visitors’ centre with an exhibition of artifacts found during archaeological excavations in the area since 1997 & the remains of some ruins. Reproduction of historical paintings and maps of the 17th century are also displayed in the complex.

Historical Background of Frederik Hendrik Fort

The ruins of the Frederik Hendrik site at Vieux Grand Port caused much speculations in the past which prompted L.H. de Froberville in 1895 to conduct a site survey of the site. In his report to the ‘Comité des Souvenirs Historiques’, he stated that the remains of the historical site were of an 18th century structure which led to the thought of the Dutch settlement.

From the late 16th century Dutch East India Company ships were using the island as a refreshment station. In 1637, the Company’s directors decided to establish a permanent settlement at the Old Grand Port which they named it ‘Port Zuydoosterhaven.’ Commander Cornelis Simonsz Gooyer with a crew of 25 men set up a small four-pointed star fort made up of wooden palisades and earthen ramparts; there were also bastions and cannons. They named the fort Frederik Hendrik to honour the brother of the Prince of Orange – Maurice of Nassau – after whom Mauritius was named in 1598.

However the fort was destroyed by cyclones several times which made the Dutch abandon the island in 1658.

  • Freedom and Resistance of the Slaves during Dutch Settlement

The second period of Dutch occupation which lasted from 1664 to 1710, was marked by the arrival of freemen who settled as farmers. On the morning of 18th June, 1695, Aaron of Amboina, Antoni alias Bamboes, Anna of Bengal, Paul of Batavia and Esperance conspired to set fire to Fort Frederik Hendrik, after months of careful preparation.

These slaves, who came from different parts of the Indian Ocean, worked together and planned to weaken Dutch rule in Mauritius by burning down Fort Frederik Hendrik. They burnt the fort to the ground. After their capture they confessed that they had decided to destroy the fort months before the actual act was carried out. Their chief objective according to their confessions was to burn the commander and all the employees of the Dutch East India Company.

These slaves were the first freedom fighters and first major slave revolt in Mauritius. Fort Frederik Hendrik was also a site where many slaves probably lived during the period of Dutch occupation of Mauritius.

  • French Settlement

In 1710, the Dutch abandoned Mauritius for good just after their two unsuccessful attempts of settlement. At that time, rivalries among European powers to establish their supremacy in the Indian Ocean were intense. In 1709 the French came to know that the Dutch were to definitely abandon the island when some of their ships called for supplies.

The well known French governor Mahe de La Bourdonnais already established his official residence in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. He and subsequent governors encouraged the island’s inhabitants to relocate to the capital.

The Fort Frederik Hendrik, which was previously destroyed by Dutch, was converted into a French military post. Just some meters away from the Frederik Hendrik Museum lies the Tour Des Hollandais (Hollanders’ Tower), an old watch tower. This was a vestige of the French colonial period and was used as a vantage point to observe the bay of Grand Port for any incoming ships. The security of the colony was particularly of great concern to the French as attacks from the British to invade the island were more frequent and intimidating.

In August 1810 a squadron of frigates from the British Royal Navy launched a battle, which in Mauritian history is known as the Naval Battle of Grand Port, to take possession of the port. The British, however, suffered heavy losses and were defeated.

Gradually the settlement disintegrated into ruins, and stones from the abandoned buildings were used to build the nearby Mahébourg town. The site remained barren and unoccupied, and was later converted into a museum. In 1998 the historical site was opened by His Highness Prince Maurits of Orange-Nassau. The Museum has been renovated with the help of Trope museum based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and the Mauritius Museums Council.

Structure of the Frederik Hendrik Site

The site was previously thought to be of French origin due to its walls which were made of basalt rocks, chippings, lime, mortar and fossil corals cut into blocks. Excavation works, however, led archaeologists to discover that the French ruins are standing on a buried Dutch fort.

The Frederik Hendrik site consisted of a lodge, a prison, a bakery, and a blacksmith’s workshop. On the walls of the lodge there is graffiti depicting 18th -19th century ships. In the year 2000, the remains of the Dutch Fort Frederik Hendrik were excavated. It lies some 50cm deep into the ground.

The historic site extends beyond the Notre Dame de Grand Pouvoir Church which is located adjacent to the main ruins. It also contains the ruins of the first Catholic Church, established by Mahé de Labourdonnais in 1737 and a powder house built during the French period (1722- 1810).

Exhibition Gallery of Frederik Hendrik Museum

The permanent exhibition is located in the Main Hall. The exhibits have been arranged under different themes to enlighten the visitor on the 400 years of the occupation and use of the site. They consist of building materials: stones, bricks, nails; military objects like musket balls, cannon balls, flint stones; everyday life artefacts and implements including sickles, hoes, beads, coins, clay pipes, ceramics, potteries, cooking utensils; and food remains such as bones of fish, cattle, deer, pigs, dugong, tortoises, shells etc. The panels depict the activities of the Dutch in Mauritius and Indian Ocean, 17th century maps, and pictures of Maurits Van Nassau and Frederik Hendrik, stathoulders of the Netherlands.

Since 1997, the museum received many objects in its collection as a result of the ongoing archaeological excavation work on the site, undertaken by a group of Dutch researchers. Over the years, new exhibits retracing the history of the site, have been added in the museum. The Frederik Hendrik Museum serves as an interpretation centre for the Vieux Grand Port Historic Site.

Frederik Hendrik Museum Visiting Hours and Entry

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 09h00 to 16h00

Wednesdays: 11h00 to 16h00

Sundays: 09h00 to 12h00

Public holidays: Closed

Admission: Free

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