Overview of the National History Museum of Mauritius
Idyllically located in the small town of the South-East Coast of Mauritius, the National History Museum (Naval Museum) will take you into a historical journey of the island dating back to the 18th century. The historical town – Mahebourg was founded by the last French Governor General Charles Decaen in 1805. Its name was given after the renowned French Governor Mahe De Labourdonnais in October 1806. Today Mahebourg is considered as the main village of the Grand Port district with a population of about 15,457 (est. 2015).
Mahebourg is considered as an important historical region of Mauritius. The colonial Dutch chose to colonise the site due to its proximity to abundant water supplies such as the nearby streams and rivers. Initially, Mahebourg served as an excellent port city for trade where later it witnessed the great historical Vieux Grand Port Naval Battle in 1810. The battle was fought between the French Navy and British Royal Navy for the possession of the harbor of Grand Port which represented a strategic stop for trade and army convoys on the routes between Asia and Britain. This was the only French Naval victory during the Napoleonic wars and it is believed that many lost their lives during this battle.
Today you can still revisit details of the battle through the National History Museum which recounts the past maritime events.
Background of the National History Museum
Built around 1772, the Chateau de Roubillard or Gheude Castle is beautifully nestled on the bank of La Chaux River where you can find a luxuriant park of gorgeous tall pine trees. This French colonial mansion was home to the Roubillard family notably the Commandant Jean de Roubillard of the district of Grand Port. The mansion eventually was bought in 1950 and was turned into a museum under the Mauritius Museum Council.
It is in the very mansion where Commander Nesbit Josiah Willoughby and Guy Victor Duperre (two adversaries of the Naval Battle of Grand Port) who were seriously wounded and were nursed side by side by their respective doctors.
Museum Structure and Artifacts
The Museum consists of three floors and two of which are accessible to the public. There are various sections where you can learn about different colonization periods of Mauritius, including the remnants of the great Naval Battle of Vieux Grand Port. In addition, you will also get to see exquisite artifacts of many other ships wrecks such as of Pieter Both (the first Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies).
Ground Floor- Battle of Vieux Grand Port
This section is mostly about the battle of Vieux Grand Port which was fought in 1818 between the French and British squadrons.
In another wing of the museum, the Naval Battle of Grand Port fought in 1810 between French and British squadrons is well documented through paintings hanging on the wall and various tabloids narrating the different phases of the battle. The squadron was led by British commander Captain Samuel Pym and on the French side it was Captain Guy-Victor Duperré.
The Isle de France (Mauritius) was one of the last French overseas possessions to be captured by Britain. During that time, the Indian Ocean was used as a base for raids on British trade and its then harbor, Grand Port, was the scene of a rare, heavy naval defeat for Britain, with four frigates lost.
In this section you will have the chance to learn about the history of the colonial empire and see historical relics from the great naval Battle. Objects from shipwrecks such as original cannons, cannonballs, paintings, swords and weaponry of Robert Surcouf, the 18th century corsair, popularly known as the king of the Corsairs, are displayed.
The bell recovered from the wreckage of the St Geran, which sunk off the east coast in 1744, is also on display. There is an interesting newspaper cutting of Charles Seabourne, who with survivors from the ship Trevessa, landed at Bel Ombre in the south of the island, in 1923 after spending 25 days at sea. On display are the ship’s biscuits, a razor and the lid of a cigarette tin which they used to measure water rations. Wreckage from the naval battle of Vieux Grand Port in 1810 can also be seen.
In a separate showcase is a ‘Roll of Honour’ dedicated to Mauritians who died in World War II. Further on, you can see a preserved Mauritian village settlement, where you can gain a glimpse of the typical lifestyle of the rural island inhabitants.
First Floor- Colonial Mauritius
In the British section, you will get the chance to see shackles, chains, portraits and relics about indentureship and slavery.
It is good to know that when the British administration abolished slavery on 1 February 1835 many indentured labourers were brought in from India – mainly from Bengal, Madras and Bombay, in order to work in the sugarcane plantations. Due to the fact that the Indian labourers were more familiar with Indian currencies, from 1877 till 1935 the standard coinage of British India became legal tender in Mauritius. You can find these coins in this section of the museum.
Furthermore, you will find artifacts, including coins found on the Speaker vessel, which was under the command of pirate John Bowen when it wrecked at Grand River South East on 7 January 1702. The artifacts include: Gold coins of the Ottoman Empire minted in Cairo under Mustafa I (1617-1618) and Mehmed IV (1648-1687); A silver rupee from India minted under the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707); Silver thaler struck in Kremnitz in 1695 during the reign of Leopold of Austria, and a Nuremberg brass sundial, the ancestor of watches.
Other interesting historical remnants are displayed, such as artifacts found in the wrecked ship of Admiral Pieter Both. It is recalled that in January 1610, a fleet of eight vessels, under the command of Pieter Both, left the Netherlands for Bantam and docked at Mauritius in September. He stayed here for almost one month. On 6 March 1615, Governor-General Pieter Both’s ship, Banda anchored near Tamarin Bay but was caught in a cyclone. The ship was smashed to pieces and forty-five men including Pieter Both perished.
The wrecked vessel left a collection of fine porcelains which probably dates back to the time of Emperor Wan Li of the Ming dynasty; between 1465 and 1614. These Chinese masterpieces, retrieved from the wreck of the sunken ship, give us an idea about the commercial links existing between the Far East and Europe during that period. Also, archeologists made a special find from the sunken ship, namely an ‘astrolabe’ dated 1568 which was used in navigation and very few examples of such instrument still exist.
Portraits of British personalities pivotal to the history of Mauritius, as well as impressive aquarelle depicting urban and rural characters of different ethnicity during the late 19th century, complement the collections.
Also, a reduced model of the first carriage used by the Mauritius Railways in 1864 is exhibited. In the backyard of the museum you can see an actual size carriage. For various reasons trains were gradually withdrawn from circulation as from 1926.
On the first floor you will also find Labourdonnais’ four-poster bed, two palanquins or wooden sedan-type chairs, which were borne by slaves to convey their masters through the country, a collection of coins, curios, model sailing ships and early maps. There are various portraits and artifacts which show the development of Ile de France.
The Dutch section of the museum was inaugurated by His Highness Prince Maurits of Orange-Nassau on 20 September 1998. It was a ceremony to mark the 400th anniversary of the first Dutch landing in Mauritius.
The Dutch abandoned Mauritius after two unsuccessful attempts to colonise the island. By the time they left, two endemic species to Mauritius, the Dodo bird, (which they called Walgvogel), and the giant tortoises, (cylindraspis inepta and cylindraspis trisserata), were already extinct due to extensive hunting.The giant tortoises could easily carry two persons sitting on their shell.
Some bones of the tortoises and of the Dodo, which were found at Mare aux Songes are displayed at the museum. These bones bear testimony to their existence until some few hundred years back.
Museum’s visiting hours:
Monday – Saturday: 09:00hrs to 16:00hrs
Sunday & Public Holidays: 09:00hrs to 12:00hrs