Unknown and uninhabited until the Middle Ages, Mauritius was subject to waves of European settlement - Portuguese, Dutch and French - until the British takeover in 1810. Colonialism triggered rapid economic development and slaves were soon brought to the island from Africa, Asia and Madagascar, followed by indentured labourers from India. Built on sugar production, the capital Port Louis grew into a sophisticated and prosperous trading port and, with an increasingly identifiable ethnic character, Mauritius eased its way to independence from Britain in 1968.
Sugar production is still an important part of Mauritius' economy though less so than the 1970s when it made up a quarter of the island's wealth. Textiles and financial services are part of the modern mix but it is tourism, accounting for nearly a third of total GDP and 30% of direct and indirect employment, that has perhaps most helped transform Mauritius into one of the most stable and successful economies in Africa.
Despite being part of the British Empire, there was no real British colonisation of Mauritius and the French character of the island remains to this day. English however remains the language of law, business and government. The Mauritian population, numbering less than 1.3 million, is multilingual and most are equally fluent in English and French. Mauritian Creole, a French-based language, is spoken by the majority and considered the country's native language.
It's also a multi-ethnic population: most Mauritians are descendants of people from Africa, France, China and India, the latter accounting for around 70% of the population. Religious belief is diverse - some 50% of Mauritians are Hindu and many Hindu and Tamil celebrations have become part of Mauritian cultural life. Of the remaining Mauritians, a third are Christian, 15% Muslim and there are small Buddhist and Sikh communities.
There are also a number of cultural practices and superstitions originating in beliefs brought from Africa and Asia. Mauritius' famous sega music has deep African roots while local sorcerers, known as longanistes or traiteurs, are sometimes used by Mauritians to settle arguments, exact revenge or administer love potions.
Rising from coastal plains to a central plateau encircled by mountains, Mauritius is ringed by 150km of sandy beaches and the world's third largest coral reef. Some of its beaches rank among the best in the world and the scenery in Mauritius tends to be that of a classic tropical island - lush, green and filled with flowers.
Mauritius' geographical isolation resulted in high biodiversity but - as best illustrated by the fate of the dodo - the island's wildlife has been under threat since the arrival of humans. Mauritius' reefs are now well protected and offer excellent diving and snorkelling while away from the beaches, there are several parks and reserves that protect the island's remaining forests and make for wonderful hiking.