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Department of Archaeology


Environmental Imperialism: Colonial Activity in Mauritius



This project, funded by the British Academy, British Council and McDonald Institute, integrates a range of archaeological methods to address issues surrounding both the socio-cultural and environmental impacts of colonialism. The geographic focus on Mauritius is an important one. Modern Mauritius had its naissance in 1721 when a group of French colonists named it Île-de-France. Its strategic position made it the focus of successive waves of colonising powers all of whom left their material markers. Despite this, there has been limited examination based on systematic methods-driven archaeology addressing the islands role as a colonial enclave. It was an important trading post between the Spice Islands and Europe and became a long-term colony with European, African and Indo-Chinese influence. As a volcanic island lacking any indigenous population it also presents an exceptional opportunity to establish baseline data detailing specific environmental conditions. To explore the archaeological potential of the island a pilot project was undertaken on a site in Mont Choisy. To date, the project has managed to establish the initial condition of the virgin soils for one region of the island, and also provide evidence for the timeframe of agricultural implementation, and wide-scale trade / exchange.


Project Director

Dr Krish Seetah, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.



The project aims to understand how European colonial activity influenced environmental and cultural transformations in this region of the Indian Ocean and focuses on the following objectives:

  • To reconstruct environments associated with activities of the colonising groups and to measure how land use and biogeography changed from the post-medieval to early modern period;
  • Study the diet of slaves and indentured workers to establish the influence of different colonial powers, religious indoctrinations and available resources;
  • Trace trade and resource routes, both from the east and west, for the material cultures left on the island;
  • Establish signatures, both dietary and material, of the different colonial groups that used the island either as a short-term base / trading post or longer-term colony.


Ongoing Research

First season

The first season of excavation focused on a site (overall size of 800m2) to the north of the island in Mont Choisy. A near-pristine location was identified within a region that is undergoing extensive development. The site was formerly plantation and as such the stratigraphic signature offered a valuable opportunity to record the transition from virgin soil to agriculture. The team excavated three trenches over the site. It was already clear from initial ‘field walking’ that artefactual evidence would be limited, particularly considering the sites former uses. Despite this, small finds were recovered, although the main focus was aimed at the recovery of environmental data. Coring was a crucial component and important results were forthcoming from cores taken on-site.

Post-excavation results and interpretation

Following excavation, it was clear that one of the trenches (Trench 2) evidenced a clear stratigraphic transition from virgin to agricultural soils. Core samples were taken and these were subsequently analysed by Chris Rolfe of the Physical Geography Laboratory, Dept. of Geography, Cambridge. The results showed a clear distinction between the lower (virgin) and upper soils. The upper layer (interpreted as agricultural soils by Andrea Balbo) demonstrated soil enrichment, potentially as a result of ploughing, or even translocation of soil. Of the small finds, three ceramic artefacts demonstrated the breadth of trade that this island has evidenced. A piece of refined, white, earthenware with a blue transfer decoration probably originated in England; a piece of Chinese export hard-paste porcelain was also recovered, along with a fragment of salt-glazed stone wear originating from Germany or Holland (expertise provided by Andrew Hall). Though the ubiquity of these pieces makes dating problematic. However, their presence on an island in the Indian Ocean is tantalising and bodes well for future research regarding trade in the region. Charcoal samples (analysed by Tomasz Goslar, Poznań Radiocarbon Laboratory, Poland) for C14 dating provided an AMS date for the transition from virgin to agricultural soils of 130yrs BP, corroborating historical records for the advent of agricultural management on the island. Pollen grains (studied by Malika Virah-Swamy, Oxford University Centre for the Environment, an expert on Mauritian and Madagascan flora) where not recovered from the virgin soils, but those found in the upper layer where indicative of imported species.


Future work

Longer term aims

  • Excavate a series of ‘pristine’ locations to establish faunal and floral baseline data that can then be used comparatively with other sites excavated on the island and as an environmental marker;
  • Excavate sites within the heart of Port Louis and other regions for which historic records indicate established settlement that will provide data on colonial activity;
  • Establish a protocol for sampling maritime archaeological materials in order to reinforce the material cultures evidenced from land-based investigations. This will provide an important data set to study trade and trading routes and the movement of material cultures;
  • Visit archives in the former colonial states: Britain (British Library), France (Le Centre de Archive d’Outre Mer), Holland (Catalogue Koninklijke Bibliotheek) and Portugal (Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal), in order to gain a clear historical context for the archaeological investigations.

The archaeo-historic results from the proposed project will be integrated with current research on ethnicity and nation building, the longer-term socio-political and economic implications of imperialism and colonial activity and the environmental consequences of colonialism. No comparable study has ever been carried out and once completed this project will provide, amongst other things, fresh insights into the cosmological, ecological and economic aspects of the fundamental cultural transformations that shaped this unique jewel in the Indian Ocean.

Forthcoming publications

  1. In prep. An environment of change: ecology and agriculture in post-medieval Mauritius. For submission to Historical Archaeology.
  2. In prep. (with Dawson. H, Pluskowski. A, &. Grima. R.). Island archaeologies: themes and challenges. Edited for a special edition of SHIMA, The International Journal for Island Cultures. Vol 4. No 1.


Collaborating Institutions and Personnel

  • Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, Port Louis, Mauritius
    Raju Mohit, Officer in Charge
    Satyendra Peerthum
    Vikram Mugon
  • National Heritage Fund, Port Louis, Mauritius
    Diane Bablee, Chairperson
    Anwar Janoo
  • Mauritius Oceanography Institute, Quatre Borne, Mauritius
    Mitrasen Bhikajee, Director
  • Department of Archaeology & Natural History, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia 
    Atoll Anderson
  • Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland 
    Keith Dobney
  • Ca'Foscari University, Venice, Italy 
    Sauro Gelichi
    Diego Calaon
  • Peterhouse, Cambridge 
    Joanne Bennett, Site Photographer and Illustrator
  • Institute of Spatial and Anthropological Studies, Ljubjlana, Slovenia
    Krištof Ostir
    Saša Čaval
  • Dept. of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK 
    Andrea Balbo, Environmental Archaeologist
    Andrew Hall, Ceramics Experts
    Chris Evans
  • Edinburgh College of Arts, Edinburgh, UK 
    Rose Ferraby, Geophysical and Magnetometry Surveyor
  • Dept. of Archaeology, University of Reading, Reading, UK
    Aleksander Pluskowski
  • Department of Archaeology, Durham University, Durham, UK 
    Greger Larson


Further Reading

  1. Alfred. T, &, Corntassel. J 2005. Being indigenous: resurgences against contemporary colonialism. Government and Opposition, 40 (4) 597-614.
  2. Baram. U 1999. Clay tobacco pipes and coffee cup sherds in the archaeology of the middle east: artefacts of social tensions from the Ottoman past. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 3 (3) 137-151.
  3. Barrington. T, &, Flynn. T (eds) 1998. Colonialism and the object. Empire, material culture and the museum. Routledge, London.
  4. Brands. S 1997. Sugar, colonialism, and death: on the origins of Mexico's Day of the Dead. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 39(2), 270-299.
  5. Gosden. C, &, Knowles. C 2001. Collecting colonialism: material culture and colonial change. Berg, Oxford.
  6. Kirkby. D, &, Coleborne. C (eds) 2001. Law, history, colonialism: the reach of Empire. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
  7. Leone. M, Harmon. J. M, &, Neuwirth. J. L 2005. Perspectives and surveillance in Eighteen-century Maryland Gardens, including William Paca’s gardeb on Wye Island. Historical Archaeology, 39 (4) 131-150.
  8. Middleton. K 1999. Who killed 'Malagasy cactus'? Science,environment and colonialism in southern Madagascar (1924-1930).Journal of Southern African Studies, 25 ( 2) 215-248.
  9. Mrozowski. S. A 1999. Colonization and the commodification of nature. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 3 (3) 153-166.
  10. Orser. C. E 2005. Symbolic violence, resistance and the vectors of improvement in early nineteenth-century Ireland. World Archaeology, 37 (3) 392–407.
  11. Pels. P 1997. The anthropology of colonialism: culture, history, and the emergence of western governmentality. Annual Review of Anthropology, 26, 163-183.
  12. Ramgoolam. A &, Mulloo. A 1982. “Our Struggle. 20th Century Mauritius”. Vision Books, New Delhi.


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