Capture of Bourbon and Mauritius 1809 -1811
Bourbon, Mauritius & Rodriguez

Mauritius & Bourbon

For many years the French had attempted to replace the British as the European masters of India. French settlements in India had been supplied by ships that had used the Ile de France (Mauritius) and Ile de Bourbon (now called Réunion) as a pit-stop on the voyage across the Indian Ocean. Mauritius had been a Dutch colony since c1650; they named it after Maurice, Prince of Orange, the Stadtholder, but had vacated the island in 1712, allowing the French to occupy it and re-name it. Under the Revolutionary forces it was used as a base for harassing and capturing British trading vessels. French privateers were enjoying great success in the lucrative business of piracy. It was also an important link in the chain of communication between the Mysore government and Napoleon.

Rodriguez 1809

The Bombay government was instructed to send a force to Rodriguez, an island about 350 miles to the north-east of Mauritius. This was to be used as a military and naval base. The expedition left Bombay on 28 June 1809, consisting of 2 companies of the 56th (Essex) Regiment and 2 companies of the 2/2nd Bombay NI, and some artillery, all commanded by Colonel Keating of the 56th. The Bombay companies, commanded by Captain Imlach, were made up of four British lieutenants, four Indian officers, 10 Havildars, 4 drummers, 200 rank-and-file, and 39 followers. They took a huge herd of cattle, and sacks of seeds to establish a farming settlement providing fresh produce for the Naval base. But it was a rough voyage and most of the cattle died. They reached Rodriguez island on 5 Aug 1809 and found it very fertile, but sparsely populated, having only three French families and their slaves. They spent a month unloading the stores and building defences. The livestock situation was dire so Lieutenant Robert Seward of the Bombay battalion was sent to Madagascar to buy more cattle. While they awaited his return the seed sacks were opened to find that the crooked suppliers had filled them with pieces of canvas, and the seed potatoes had been eaten to counter the scurvy amongst the troops on the voyage. But the time was used to build houses, barracks and a hospital. Also Colonel Keating reconnoitred Bourbon in preparation for a surprise attack. He saw that the harbour of St Paul contained two richly laden British ships captured by the French privateers.

The Battle of St Paul, 21 Sep 1809

104th Wellesley's Rifles
Battle of St Paul, Bourbon
It was imperative that a surprise attack had to be made soon to retrieve the two British ships, so three frigates were sent back to Rodriguez to bring troops. A force of 386 men, half from the 56th and the other half from the 2/2nd NI, reinforced 200 Marines and sailors on HMS Mereide. The enemy forces consisted of French soldiers, Creoles and local militia. At St Paul 110 French troops were still on board the ship that had captured the British merchant vessels. There were 300 Creoles also, however, the local militia were not considered to be a threat. The British force were put ashore on the evening of 20 Sep, at Pointe Dauphine (Pointe de Galets) 7 miles north of St Paul. Under cover of darkness they made their way towards their objective. They captured two of the French batteries, and the guns were used to fire at the enemy ships.

There was a third battery that seemed to be deserted by the French, so the troops from the Bombay battalion, under Captain Imlach were sent off to secure it. But on the way there they found themselves facing the entire French force of the island in a strong defensive position. Imlach ordered his men to charge, but without success, so reinforcements were sent in from the 56th Regiment. The fighting was very hard going so more men from the reserve were sent to their aid. This meant abandoning the other two batteries, but the extra manpower proved decisive and the enemy gave way. By 8.30am the town was captured and the rest of the day was spent destroying the French guns before re-embarking on the ships. More French and Creole troops were on their way from St Denis, so the British transferred men to landing crafts ready to return to the shore. But at daylight on 23 Sep it was found that the French had retreated back to St Denis.

A General Order published in Bombay on 2 Nov 1809 included these commendations, ‘The Governor in Council..feels the most lively pleasure in expressing his particular approbation of the conduct of Captains Forbes and Hannah of the 56th Regiment and Captain Imlach of the 2nd/2nd Regiment NI who commanded the columns on that occasion…The resolute conduct and spirited attack made by the Native Infantry of the 2nd/2nd on the French force, which they unexpectedly encountered on their march to one of the batteries, does them great credit.’ One Indian officer, Subadar Shaik Soloman, was severely wounded and had a special medal designed for him. And Havaldar Shaik Mohidee was recommended by Colonel Keating for promotion to Jemadar. The casualties were 2 men killed and 12 wounded. The booty from the captured town was great and the victory released the two British merchant ships and most of their cargo.

The Misfortunes of Rodriguez 1809 - 10

The base, called Fort Duncan, at Rodriguez was destroyed by a hurricane on Christmas Day 1809. All the building work was torn down, the stores ruined and small boats sunk. On the day after, the transport Eugenia returned from Madagascar. Lieutenant Seward had purchased 183 head of cattle and 216 chickens. But the voyage was disastrous; most of the cattle had died of starvation and heat, so that only 29 animals and 106 chickens survived. Everyone on board suffered from scurvy and the captain of the vessel had died, along with one sepoy and 28 cattlemen. Seward himself was very ill and had lost the use of his limbs. Colonel Keating wrote to Bombay suggesting that he ‘be appointed Bazaar Master and acting Chaplain as he will never recover from the effects of his voyage to Madagascar.’

The Invasion of Bourbon, July 1810

The force under Keating’s command was increased after the decision had been made to occupy the other islands. The Ile de Bourbon (aka Ile Bonaparte) was the next objective and the force was increased so that Keating now had 4 Brigades; 1,850 Indian troops and 1,800 British, made up from the 86th Leinsters, the 69th South Lincolnshires and Royal Marines, and some from the 56th West Essex. The Indian troops were from the 6th and 12th Madras NI and some detachments including men of the 2/2nd Bombay NI. The latter were in the 3rd Brigade with the 69th. The plan was to capture the main town of St Denis in a surprise attack so that the enemy did not disperse into the interior of the island which was mountainous and thickly forested.

The force left Rodriguez on 3 July 1810, and reached Bourbon on 7 July. The 1st Brigade landed at Grand Chaloup, 7 miles west of St Denis, and the other 3 brigades started to land at St Marie, 6 miles east of St Denis. But bad weather interrupted the disembarkation so that only 150 men had been landed before it became impossible to offload the rest. Meanwhile, the 1st Brigade, consisting of the 86th Regiment and detachments of the 6th Madras NI and Pioneers, had fought the main part of the French garrison, capturing two redoubts. The bulk of the force, meanwhile, had sailed round to Grand Chaloup to attempt a landing there, this time with more success, so that St Denis was now threatened by most of Keating’s brigades. The French commander capitulated and the whole island was now in British hands. The French troops were shipped off as prisoners to South Africa. The 2/2nd NI had suffered no casualties in this invasion, but the 86th Regiment and Indian soldiers in the 1st Brigade had lost one officer and 17 men killed, and 8 officers and 71 men wounded. The battle honour BOURBON was retrospectively awarded to the 4th Bombay NI on 20 Feb 1855. The island was returned to France in 1815 when hostilities ceased, and retained the name Bourbon until 1848 when it was changed to La Réunion.

The Invasion of Mauritius, Nov 1810

The decision to invade Mauritius was brought forward when it was reported that the French were sending reinforcements. A naval battle took place at Grand Port, on the south east of the island, which was hard fought but ended with a French victory. The new Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay army, General John Abercromby, was the son of the more famous Sir Ralph who was killed at Alexandria in 1801. He had been a prisoner of the French from 1803 to 1808 and was captured again when the frigate in which he travelled was apprehended, but he was rescued by Commodore Rowley’s flagship Boadicea. He assembled the invasion force at Rodriguez and they set sail in late November 1810. They arrived on 29 Nov and disembarked at Grand Baie, 12 miles from St Louis the capital. The 5-mile march through thick jungle was such hard going that a halt was made at the end of the first day. An officer of the 84th Regiment wrote about the conditions:
104th Wellesley's Rifles
Invasion of Mauritius 1810

‘The day was extremely sultry and close, and not a drop of water was to be had. Captain Yates of the ‘City of London’ Indiaman, who came with the army for his amusement, was knocked up almost before we entered the jungle, and died on the spot, as did Lieutenant Dove of the 14th Regiment…. Notwithstanding that the march was only 5 miles… even our little Regiment were knocked up, although hardy dogs in general, and the Bengalese never suffered so much in their own country from fatigue and sun as they did in this.’

Abercromby was obliged to halt his men 5 miles short of their objective, such was their state of exhaustion. They took up a position at Moulin à Poudre, and the 3rd Brigade, containing the 69th and the 2/2nd NI were sent off on 1 Dec to capture two batteries and make contact with the Fleet. This was accomplished with little trouble, while the rest of the force advanced on St Louis. The French had formed two defensive lines, the first of which was charged and captured. There was a pause in the action as the two sides faced each other out of range of cannon shot. An uneasy night was spent, with false alarms causing casualties from indiscriminate firing. The next day, 2 Dec 1810, the French commander, General de Caen, surrendered. The French troops and their families were allowed to go back to France, but all their property was now in the hands of the British. A large number of ships were captured or reclaimed; 36 French, 5 British and 3 American vessels. The casualties were:

British Troops: Killed; 2 officers and 23 men. Wounded; 5 officers and 79 men. Missing; 14 men

Indian Troops: Killed; 2 men. Wounded; 8 men. Missing; One officer and 33 men.

The casualties of the 2/2nd NI were One Havildar killed and 2 sepoys wounded. The battalion returned to Bombay in April 1811 but left a detachment under one officer at Rodriguez where they remained until 24 May. Rodriguez was handed over to a French Governor after destroying the British base, Fort Duncan, and shipping the stores to Mauritius. The battalion were highly praised for their service over a period of two years against the French, “…their character as soldiers has been conspicuous for good order and gallantry.” Captain William Imlach was promoted to major and appointed CB. Oddly enough there was no battle honour for Mauritius.

Nineteenth Century
As Mauritius had been a slave owning French colony it was seriously challenged by the British abolition of slavery in 1833. However, rather than go into terminal decline as many of the Caribbean islands did, it actually managed to produce some impressive revenues - surpassing those from the days of slavery. This was largely done by hiring indentured workers from India rather than the 70,000 former slaves. The African population of the islands started to go into decline as the Indian population grew.
Wreck of the Warren Hastings 14th Jan 1897
RIMS Warren Hastings
The 1st Battalion The King's Royal Rifle Corps sailed from Bombay on 10th Dec 1896 bound for Mauritius via Cape Town on the troopship RIMS Warren Hastings. It stopped at the Seychelles for coaling and arrived in Cape Town on 28th Dec where half the battalion disembarked for service in South Africa; B D E and F Companies, for garrison duty in Wynburg. The remaining 4 companies, A C G and H and HQ were to sail on to Mauritius. The CO of the battalion, Lieut-Col MCB Forestier-Walker went with this half battalion along with 9 other officers, 2 WOs and 514 men.

The Warren Hastings left Cape Town on 6th Jan 1897. As well as the 526 men of the KRRC the other troops on board were a half battalion of the 2nd York and Lancasters (410 men), a detachment of 2nd Middlesex Regiment (25 men) and two other officers. There were also 7 officers' wives, 13 other ranks' wives, and 10 children. The crew numbered 253 making a total of 1,244 people.

Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean, about 400 miles east of Madagascar. For the first week of the trip the weather was fine but on the 13th the wind shifted south and it rained. That night it was pitch black and the rain fell heavily. The ship was 8 miles off course when, at 2.20am on the 14th it hit a rock off the coast of Reunion. All aboard were awakened by the sound of heavy bumping and grating. The water flooded in and the ship was in danger of sinking. The ships captain, Commander Holland ordered that the men should fall in below decks. They were not fully dressed and could not see outside, but good discipline was maintained.

Two RIM officers went down over the bow to see if men could be landed on the rocks. Fortunately they found that it was possible and the troops were ordered to find boots and rifles. The King's Rifles formed up on the port side and the York and Lancasters and the Middlesex on the starboard, to use both forward companionways. The men slung rifles and moved forward to climb down the rope ladders. When the ship suddenly listed to starboard the waiting men were brought up on deck.

At first it was thought best to keep the women and children on board until daylight when it would be safer to get them off, but as the listing of the ship worsened they were brought to the bow and lowered onto the rocks. The men on the starboard side were up to their knees in water so they were told to discard their rifles and boots and move to the port side. Up until 4.35am the lights were still working but the electricity failed at that point and everything had to be done in complete darkness.

At around 5am, because it was taking so long to get men down the rope ladders those who could swim were allowed to make their own way to the rocks. The first to go was Rifleman McNamara who secured ropes for others to haul themselves ashore thus avoiding the sharp larva rocks. By 5.30am the evacuation of the ship was complete without loss of life apart from a ship's cook and an officer's servant. The last soldier to leave the ship was Lieut-Col Forestier-Walker. There were many acts of bravery that night and strenuous efforts were made to save the lives of two men who died when they jumped overboard. Some salvage work was carried out but only a little could be retrieved.

Commander Gerald Edward Holland of the Royal India Marine who was in charge of the evacuation was praised by the Viceroy of India for his work but had to attend a court martial where he was given a reprimand for the loss of his ship. The KRRC offered him honorary life membership of their officers mess. Everyone was subsequently conveyed 120 miles northeast to Mauritius on the British India SS Lalpoora and help was given to cloth the men and provide shoes for the 350 soldiers who had no boots. The Governor, Sir Charles King Harman gave a dinner for the officers who attended in various modes of dress 'which presented a most curious sight'.

The KRRC were garrisoned at Curepipe, Port Louis, Mauritius while the York and Lancasters and Middlesex carried on to India. The Rifles remained in Mauritius until 5th March 1899 when they sailed to Natal on the RIMS Clive.

Account of Life on Maurituis in the early 20th Century
George Hawes was captain and adjutant in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers when they were given a two year posting to Mauritius after serving in South Africa for three years. He and Edmund Malone, and officer in the 2nd Battalion, exchanged letters between 1900 and 1923 which were published in a book called 'EElegant Extracts - A Duobiography' (1935). This extract is based on two letters that he wrote in 1908 and 1910:

Mauritius 1908

We have now moved on to this comic little island. We were all sorry to leave Maritzburg, and it was sad to have to sell all our [polo] ponies, for there is no use for them here. I sold one of mine very well and the other to a Dutch farmer for 19 pounds. I asked him 20 pounds, he offered me 18 and we sat in my room in silence until after 2am, until we clinched the bargain, a real Dutch 'opsit'. The sea journey was as offensive as usual, and the only amusing incident was the smuggling into the island of Wanda, my precious little dachshund, dressed in baby's long clothes with a veil over its face and carried by one of the sergeants' wives. She never budged, thus avoiding 6 months' misery in quarantine. Mauritius is an absurd place, and what they want with a whole regiment here beats me, unless it is to keep the very unsavoury locals in order. The island is about 40 miles by 30 miles, more or less round, and our barracks are at a place called Curepipe, somewhere about in the middle. It is very beautiful in an unhealthy sort of way, and the vegetation, owing to the fact that it is in the tropics and that it rains over 300 days in the year, magnificent. The main industry is sugar-growing, though the sugar one buys for the mess, owing to some trade nonsense, comes from England, 9,000 miles away.

The barracks are very luxurious, and well they may be, for there are no compensations in this exile. It is a wretched place to spend one's adjutancy in. There are about 50 different races in the island, the majority being Indians, who work on the sugar plantations. There is a toy railway from Curepipe to Port Louis, the capital, on the coast, and they tell how a train one day, coming from Curepipe, couldn't stop at Port Louis for some reason or other, so swung up the opposite incline, back again and back again, until it came to rest in Port Louis station. Quite possible. We play golf and tennis every single day with exactly the same people in the rain, which is a kind of thick Scotch mist, except in November and December and January when it is fine, and February and March, which is the cyclone season and is quite past description. It is impossible to go out because it is impossible to stand up against the gale, and it is hot and damp, and we have to burn charcoal in braziers all the time to keep our clothes dry. And then the electric light goes out. What a life!

There are a lot of old French families living here. The two principal professions are lawyers and doctors - lawyers because these people are always quarrelling, doctors because they are always getting abscesses on the liver from too much drink. It is the sort of place where any vice one had would be sure to be developed to the utmost. The governor is Sir Cavendish Boyle, whose hostess is his niece, Miss Lane, a rather sad little female with a grievance and a leaning towards religion. The General is one Macdonald, of the Royal Engineers. I got up a mock bull-fight the other day to amuse the troops, and invited Sir Cavendish to sit in the 'Royal Box' with the king and queen, ie two subalterns. I did so really because the governor had been to Spain, and so was interested in bull-fights. The General wrote afterwards officially for an explanation as to why he and his wife hadn't been invited to the box, and the whole matter went up to the War Office, where, I'm told, it caused the most unseemly hilarity. But at the same time it was most unpleasant, particularly for me.

Reunion 1908

The other day I went with a party of friends to the neighbouring island of Reunion, which belongs to France. Incidentally I suppose you know where we are - off the north coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Look at your map. The Isle of Reunion is almost completely round, with a diameter of about 50 miles. At equal intervals around the island are 12 small and insignificant towns named after the Apostles, and connected by a ridiculous toy railway. In the centre is an extinct volcano, with a sort of primitive spa in the middle of it called Cilaos, wither we were bound. We landed at St Paul, the capital, a perfect disgrace of a place, with ill-paved, grass-grown streets and a mass of dirty little cafes - such a complete contrast in every way to Mauritius. I understand that the French method of colonisation is to bag all the taxes and in return to allow the colony to send a representative to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, whose chief job is to get as much cash back as he can for his country. You may imagine how much he gets sometimes. The result is that an unimportant place like Reunion is left to stew in its own juice.

We went by train to another little town on the coast before making inland for Cilaos. On the way we were asked to leave the train, as there was a dead cow on the line, and to get into another train on the other side of the dead cow. From the look and smell of the cow I should say it had been there at least a week. Apparently it was being left to the crows to remove it. We continued our journey in deck chairs carried by natives through most lovely and picturesque scenery. Cilaos is nothing but a collection of little wooded houses with a so-called inn, in which we ate abominable food. We were lodged out in various houses and cottages - I was in the Mayor's - and we used to go out in our pyjamas to fetch our water for washing from the pump in the village street. There was a deep ravine behind the village with a crude bath installation at the bottom and with various hot-water baths and a cold douche. The water is impregnated with iron to a quite unusual degree, and is excellent for certain ailments. If any other nation but those stingy French owned the place they would have made something really good of it by now, and people from South Africa might well be coming there in crowds. However, it is impossible to expect any foresight from the French, or that they will invest in anything but certainties.

Mauritius 1910

This second year is much the worst. We have all seen too much of each other, and these incessant tennis parties in the rain, the same dreary people, the same girls fishing for military alliances, the same bourgainvillias and oleanders are enough to drive one mad. There is something strangely unhealthy about this place. It is not that there is much illness. Since the draining of the marshes and other precautions there are few mosquitoes, and consequently next to no malaria, and the troops keep remarkebly well, but there seems to be something downright decadent in the atmosphere of this hot, over-fertile island. The smallness of it, too, and its remoteness - it is some 9,000 miles from England - add to this impression. Our mails arrive alternately at fortnightly and six-weekly intervals, and the local French papers, of which there are quantities, are beneath contempt and only, Frenchwise, concerned with the miserable local politics. I have been seriously studying French with a dirty old native, who is more negro than Frenchman, and who smells abominably, but he has the trick of teaching. Guy du Maurier, Jack Jefferson and I try to read decent books which we get out from England and at intervals meet to discuss. But it is difficult not to deteriorate mentally in this atmosphere. I think everyone has been on leave except myself, but I have stayed on obstinately because I am too fond of being Adjutant, and do not fancy a locum tenens playing ducks and drakes with my pet institutions during a six months' absence.

We gave a ball the other day in the Mess, and I organised it... Food is excellent, especially the local cameron, a freshwater prawn, and the palmiste - a small variety of palm tree, the heart of which makes salads and various other dishes. A tree dies as soon as it is used in this way, but the heart of one tree will make about 30 dishes - all delicious to eat. So, one way and another, we were able to supply a supper every bit as good as what you are eating any night in London. I thought I would pay a visit to the kitchen during the course of the day to see how things were getting on. I was struck on entering by a great deal of movement under the sink, always the filthiest corner of our very filthy kitchen. On further examination I saw a small completely naked black boy sitting in a large tin basin vigorously throwing lettuce leaves about, which were falling back on his body and covering him with oil. He was mixing the salad for the supper. The natives believe that throwing lettuce leaves lightens them. I did not eat any salad that evening. But neither did I give my secret away. I am credibly informed that native cooks make rissoles in their mouths. They certainly look like it - the rissole, I mean.

Mauritius became independent in 1968.
Imperial Flag
map of Mauritius
1901 Map of Mauritius
1906 Map of Mauritius
Historical Mauritius
Images of Mauritius
National Archive Mauritius Images
Mauritius 1941
The film shows Port Louis, the capital; workers on sugar plantations and road mending as well as colonial life in the then British dependency.
1810 - 1966
Further Reading
A Gust of Plumes: A Biography of Lord Twining of Godalming and Tanganyika
by Darrell Bates

Be Of Good Cheer: Service In War And Peace
by Gerald Bryan

Proconsul: Being Incidents in the Life and Career of the Honourable Sir Bede Clifford
by Sir Bede Clifford

More A Way Of Life Than A Livelihood: An Autobiography
by Andrew S MacDonald

So Many Worlds
by Patricia Maddocks

King George’s Keys
by Sir Robert Stanley

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