A great strength of our hobby, of which we can be
proud, is the historical and geographic knowledge that we absorb in the
pursuit of our collections. In the outside world it is among us numismatists,
and even more so among our cousins the philatelists, that Mauritius is
best known. Go out and ask any of your general friends and acquaintances
what they know about this far flung island. 80-90% will draw a blank,
and the rest will talk about the dodo. But ask a world coin collector
and they'll be able to say something, and the dedicated philatelist's eyes
will light at the mention of this far flung island, for its first stamps
are among the pantheon of postals, renowned rarities whose movements are
tracked in the hobby press like that of the Brasher doubloon.
About half the size of New York's Long Island, Mauritius lies about 500 miles east of Madagascar, on the old shipping lanes to India and points east. It seems to have been abandoned by India as that land mass split off from Africa and crawled to Asia in the days before the dinosaurs. Volcanoes later threw up tall cones around the central land mass, giving us today a predominantly steep, rocky coastline surrounding a central plateau. The approaches are guarded by treacherous coral reefs. The climate is tropical, with lots of rain, some coming wholesale in the form of summer cyclones.
The island had no aboriginal human inhabitants. It is mentioned in Arab records of the 10th century. I find myself forced to suppose that it was known to the Madagascans, who were good sailors, and to the other participants in the Indian Ocean trade. People would have been impressed with the large, slow, tasty birds that lived there, the ones with the call that sounded like "dodo, dodo." But for some reason there were no settlements. I find myself forced to suppose that the approaches were too perilous for small wooden vessels.
Portuguese ships stopped by in the 16th century, but they had found a wider range of possibilities in Mozambique. Dutch, English, and French competitors would have liked to set up across the way from them in Madagascar, but the Madagascans at that time were more than a match. With its unhelpful coastline, Mauritius seemed a poor second choice for a base from which to interfere with the Indian Ocean trade, but at least it was there. The Dutch came in 1598 and a settlement was established in 1638, named after Maurice of Nassau, hero of the independence struggle against Spain. The settlers found themselves unable to make a go of it and went on with their lives somewhere else, but they left some of their dogs behind. The dogs were delighted with those tasty dodo birds, and they frolicked and flourished in the jungle.
The Dutch decided to concentrate on their ventures in Indonesia, and the British were really getting going in India, but the French were out in the cold as far as the Indian Ocean was concerned. They decided they really needed a base there, and they determined to go into uninhabited Mauritius in a big way. Renaming the island "Isle de France," the French bought slaves from the Portuguese and the Madagascans, and started growing sugar, coffee, and spices for the home market. Some time during the 18th century the last dodos were eaten by either the humans or the dogs.
Heavy fortifications were constructed at Port Louis, and that town became a regular port of call for merchantmen and a station for the French navy. It was the age of privateers, officially licensed pirates if you will, and French privates stationed at Port Louis became pests to the Dutch and English.
The French also established a settlement on the nearby island of Reunion, which they called Isle de Bourbon, and governed the two islands as a single colony. The economy of the whole world was being conducted with Spanish dollars, but the French didn't have that many of them, as well as ongoing heavy expenses from their wars with the British. As a result, there was a perennial currency shortage in the colonies. In the 1770s, in the wake of their losses to the British, the French started issuing some billon small change for their outposts, and a few were made for the joint administration of the Isles de France et du Bourbon. You don't see too many of these coins. They are far less available than their sister coins from the Caribbean, such as the well known "black dogs," but there are a few around.
The French agricultural ventures yielded a return, and the colonial enterprise thrived. Surviving the tumult of the revolutionary period, the naval station became a real menace to British shipping during the Napoleonic period. The Captain-General of Port Louis was Count Charles M.I. Decaen, a bold patriot who actively harassed his enemies in his theater of operations, obliging the British to tie up their vessels in patrolling the Indian Ocean and depriving them of their use closer to home.
Meanwhile, the British blockade of France was successfully squeezing the French overseas operations all over the world, so that resupply of the colonies was substantially eliminated by 1810. At that point, a stroke of luck befell the French in the Indian Ocean. A French captain off Manila in the Philippines came upon and seized an enemy Portuguese brig. Within the hold were found kegs of silver totaling some 230,000 Spanish dollars. The arrival of this treasure in Port Louis allowed preparations for defense to be paid for. With an eye on history, Count Decaen decided to issue a distinctive local dollar, and thus was produced the famous 10 livres of "Iles de France et de Bonaparte," the so-called "piastre Decaen," a star of the French colonial
Struck at Port Louis by a local artist named Aveline, the quality of the coin is close to those of contemporary Europe, rather a surprise for the primitive conditions of a blockaded colony. They were struck in rather large numbers, so that they are mentioned in early British days as the main currency of the island, but within a few years of the turnover they had all been melted except for those saved by collectors. Today, examples show up from time to time in auctions.
The British took the Isle de Bourbon in the summer of 1810. Considering a direct attack on Port Louis ill advised, they made a foray against the smaller Grand Port on the other side of the island. This was repulsed by French frigates which had been refitted courtesy of the newly minted piastres Decaens. Undaunted as usual, the British gathered their forces and took the island in November of 1810.
The thoughts of the conquerors were to just keep the region quiet so they could continue fighting Napoleon elsewhere, and they decided to let the inhabitants get on with their life. But they did play economic games, as was their habit. The Piastre Decaen was valued at par with the French 5 francs, somewhat lower than the Spanish dollar, the standard of the age. The new British governor decreed an exchange of two Indian Sicca rupees to the Spanish dollar, a rather gross undervaluing of the latter. The effect was a flood of rupees into the island, and the flight of Spanish dollars. The piastres Decaens, even more undervalued, disappeared.
Though Isle de Bourbon was returned to France by the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the British were determined to hold fortified Isle de France as a stepping stone to India. The British usage gave the island back its old Dutch name, but that was all the comfort the Dutch ever got from the deal. The French plantation owners went on with their business, and though the produce tended to flow to Britain rather than France, the slaves were kept toiling in the fields as before.
The British got out of the slave business during the first half of the 19th century, and after the emancipation reached Mauritius in 1832 the labor shortage was filled by indentured workers from India, whose descendants came to make up over half of the population. The poorly paid Hindus put their meager savings into land. Unfortunately they followed their traditional patterns of inheritance, subdividing land among the children and producing diminishing capital for later generations.
In the early 19th century the British were beginning to give some thought to replacing the Spanish dollar with their own world coinage. Some experiments were undertaken, among which the silver anchor coinage is best known. Equivalent to the Spanish colonial minor coinage, they were first put into use in Mauritius. They did not go well with the rupees that were circulating on the island, and were shipped off to the West Indies in 1826, replaced by infusions of British specie.
There was an emergency token issue in 1822; billon items with French legends. They are pretty scarce coins. I think I had one once a long time ago.
The British Empire was formed by a cooperation between the government and private money, but in the 19th century the colonial business got too big.. Private operations like the East India Company started to get into trouble, and the government had to take over. With the assumption of India in the wake of the Sepoy Rebellion the British government found itself with an immense administrative burden. Circumstances forced standardized usage as much as possible, and part of this effort involved the introduction of modern economic methods wherever this could be done. The way to do it back then was with a nice looking, well made coinage, something that would complement the flow of British gold throughout the world. Thus the handsome Victorian coinage of Hong Kong, Straits Settlements, British Honduras, India, and yes, Mauritius.
The Victorian coins of Mauritius form a short series of five denominations. The silver coins slightly underbid the Indian 2 anna and quarter rupee coins, making them, in the age of specie, into tokens that would stay on the island. Though there are some low mintages, there are no outstanding rarities in the series. In my experience the most common coin, silver or bronze, is the 1877 20 cent, and actually the other silver coins don't show up that much. Coppers typically are in low grades. I've never seen Victorian proofs.
These coins complemented, but did not replace the Indian and British coinage that also passed freely on the island. No need was seen to augment the Mauritian circulation during the Edwardian era, but coppers began to be made immediately upon the succession of George V. Silver was only reintroduced at the end of his reign, when a number of island possessions had coins made for them. Only a few thousandths of an ounce lighter than the Indian rupee, the Georgian silver was the first fully honest coinage that Mauritius had seen.
Practically speaking, George V coppers are scarcer than Victorians, despite their lower catalog prices. The 1934 rupees are the most common of the silver coins, the quarters are the least. High grades are available, true uncirculateds are scarce.
Prewar coinage of George VI was limited to silver rupees and quarters, both scarcer than those of his father. Wartime coinage was bronze only, struck on an emergency basis at the Pretoria mint along with coins for several other colonies. The Mauritian issues are scarcer than most. Scarce last silver coins, the 1946 rupee and quarter, are difficult in uncirculated.
The postwar period also saw the introduction of wiggly-edged 10 cent coins and the abandonment of silver for copper-nickel. None of these later coins are scarce in circulated, but they are tough if you want them pristine. There are some no-see-um proofs and a few of those no-security edge errors that apparently were made for every security edge series, and you never see those either.
Most of Elizabeth's coins are available in "perfect," and that is how the later dates usually come. Of the various Elizabethan proofs, only the 1978 coins are common, and the quote for the 1971 no-security edge rupee is, how can I put this? An error.
Formal independence came in 1968. The event was not marked in the coinage, and as the terms retained the British crownholder as the head of state, the Mauritian coins retained the queen's portrait. Mauritius participated modestly in the Royal Mint's commemorative program during the 1970s and early 80s. As was usual during the period, most coins were made available in different alloys depending on whether they are regular or proof. The common ones are the copper-nickel versions of the Independence 10 rupees of 1971, the one with the extinct dodo bird, and the Charles & Di Wedding crown issued ten years later. The silver 25 and 50 rupees coins can all be found, but no one bothered to stock the gold coins. The interest was not there, and even though you hardly ever see them, when you do they are going at substantial discounts off catalog values.
The coinage took on a nationalist flavor in 1987 with new designs featuring the portrait of independence hero Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. The new coins are available on the market. Also issued in 1987 were a series of gold bullion coins which nobody has. The latest addition to the circulation is a heptagonal 10 rupee with the same reverse type as the coin issued for World Food Day back in 1981.