France formally claimed Mauritius as a colony in 1715, naming it Île de France. The island was then uninhabited, as the Dutch had abandoned their attempt to settle Mauritius in 1710, while the island had no indigenous peoples. France had since 1665 settled Mauritius’s sister island of Île de Bourbon (Réunion), which would serve as a staging point for the colonizing programme. Mauritius was developed under the auspices of the French East India Company, with the first settlers arriving in 1726. The Company aimed to turn the island into a plantation-slave economy, so initially granting each colonist 20 slaves in return for share of their annual agrarian production. Mauritius proved to be brilliantly suited to growing tropical cash crops, such as sugar, cloves and indigo.
The arrival of Île de France’s first governor, Bertrand-François Mahé, comte de La Bourdonnais, in 1735, ushering in a golden period of development. Port Louis was founded as the capital, becoming a major naval base, shipbuilding centre and trading hub, while hundreds of slaves were brought to Mauritius to provide labour to the burgeoning plantation system. The period from 1735 to 1767 was one of great prosperity for the island, and its population grew from 17,000 to 49,000 (with most being slaves).
However, France’s hold on Mauritius was continually threatened by Britain’s Royal Navy, as France and Britain were frequently at war throughout the 18th Century. Measures needed to be taken to ensure that the island’s government did not fall under Britain’s control in the event of a maritime invasion.
Le Chateau de Réduit: The Command Centre of Mauritius
In 1746, the second governor of Île de France, Pierre Félix Barthélemy David, decided to construct a presumably impregnable new command centre for his colonial government. He carefully selected a site on the Wilheme Plain, upon a flat-topped headland formed by two deep ravines, located inland, about 7 km south of Port Louis. As a point of reference, the estate is today measured to be about 97 hectares (240 acres).
The headland would be fortified, such that any prospective invader would have had an unenviable choice of either testing the protected lines at the neck of the headland or climbing the steep jungle-covered cliffs of the ravines. Within the compound would be the governor’s mansion, along with a series of support buildings surrounded by a complete working plantation that could produce enough food to allow the governor and his entourage to withstand a sustained siege.
In 1747, Governor David explained his reasons for building Le Réduit in a report to his superiors in France:
“.. furthermore, I explained to the gentlemen officers, the idea I had of fortifying a place of retreat on the interior of the island where in case of attack, we can send over our women, children and most precious belongings, and from the very end of the haven, we would post troops to outwit the onslaught of our enemies, forcing them off the shores and to withdraw back from lack of food and water without invading any settlements.”
Le Réduit was completed in 1748, and for the next 273 years has functioned as the home of the Mauritius’s chief executive officer.
The Present Manuscript Masterplan in Focus
This very beautiful, finished manuscript, drafted in pen and ink and rich, vibrant watercolours and wash, depicts the entire estate of Le Réduit, and details its attributes. The map is a masterplan of the estate, likely made at the governor’s behest, and was clearly executed by a hand with formal training in map draftsmanship, likely a military engineer attached to the governor’s staff; further research may uncover the identity of the cartographer. The map, while undated, can, by the nature of its style and content, be placed to a very early stage in the Le Réduit’s development, perhaps shortly after it was completed in 1748.
The site of the estate is shown to occupy the flat, triangular headland between the ravines of the “Riviere de la Cascade” and the “Riviere de Moka” (the site of the meeting of the rivers is known as Le Bout de Monde, or ‘End of the World’). The estate’s main buildings are located near the point of the headland, amidst gardens in the formal French style, while beyond are fields of indigo and food crops.
The key, below the title identifies the different buildings on the estate by letter key. The grand edifice, B. Gouvernment [Governor’s Mansion], occupies pride of place in between the formal gardens, while the support building on the either side are: C. Autres logements [Other Residential Buildings]; D. Cuisine [Kitchen House]; E. Ecurie [Stables]; F. Buandrie [Laundry House]; G. Poulallier [Chicken Coop]. Beyond the main buildings, in the fields, are the H. Cuves de l’Indigot [Indigo Vats], for distilling the valuable cash crop grown on site.
From the main buildings lead three roads, of which two are named, the “Chemain des plaines Wilheme” and the “Chemain du Port”, that lead to the A. Redouts [small forts] that guard the neck of the headland.
The present masterplan is of great historical importance, as it is perhaps the finest and even the earliest surviving graphic record of Le Réduit, which has been the most important single property in Mauritius for over two and a half centuries. It is also a stellar record of a fully functioning slave plantation from the early period of the French colonization of the Mascarene Islands.
Le Réduit was extensively reconstructed in 1778 by Governor Antoine de Guiran. The cost of the project was so great that the colonial government briefly considered selling the property in 1783 and 1796, but these sales were averted.
In 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain conquered Mauritius (although Le Réduit was surrendered peacefully; its supposed impregnability was never tested), and it remained the residence of the island’s British governors. In the 1840s, Governor Sir William Gomm went to great efforts to restore the gardens to their old splendor, and during World War I the grounds were extensively improved.
When Mauritius gained its independence from Britain, in 1968, Le Réduit became the official residence of the Governor-General, who acted as the representative of the head of state, Her Majesty the Queen. When Mauritius became a republic in 1992, Le Réduit became the residence of the President, a status that it retains to the present day.
Le Réduit has over the generations hosted innumerable celebrities, foreign heads of state and members of royalty, and is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful chief executive residences in the world.
References: N / A – Present Manuscript seemingly Unrecorded. Cf. L.R. QUENETTE, The State House “Le Réduit” 1748 – 1998 (1998).