1. THE BEGINNINGS – DAWN OF 16TH TO END OF 19TH CENTURIES
The island of Mauritius was uninhabited before its first recorded visit during the Middle Ages by Arab sailors, who named it Dina Arobi. In 1507 Portuguese sailors came to the uninhabited island and established a visiting base. Diogo Fernandes Pereira, a Portuguese navigator, was the first European known to land in Mauritius. He named the island "Ilha do Cirne".
In 1598 a Dutch squadron under Admiral Wybrand Van Warwyck landed at Grand Port and named the island "Mauritius" after Prince Maurice van Nassau of the Dutch Republic, the ruler of his country. The Dutch established a small colony on the island in 1638, from which they exploited ebony trees and introduced sugar cane, domestic animals and deer.
Port Louis was in use as a harbour in 1638.
In 1735, under French government, Port Louis became the administrative centre of Mauritius and a major provisioning halt for French ships during their passage between Asia and Europe, around the Cape of Good Hope. The Port is named in honour of King Louis XV. During this period of French colonisation, Mauritius was known as Ile de France. The French governor at that time, Bertrand-François Mahé de Labourdonnais, contributed to the development of the city. France, which already controlled neighbouring Île Bourbon (now Réunion), took control of Mauritius in 1715 and renamed it Isle de France. The 1735 arrival of French governor Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais coincided with development of a prosperous economy based on sugar production. Mahé de La Bourdonnais established Port Louis as a naval base and a shipbuilding centre
Since Port Louis was relatively well-protected from strong winds during cyclones by the Moka Mountain Range, Port Louis was selected to house both the main harbour and fort for the island. Value of the port continued during the British occupation of the island during the Napoleonic Wars (1800–15), and helped Britain control the Indian Ocean.
France formally surrendered the island to Great Britain on 3 December 1810, on terms allowing existing settlers to keep their land and property and to use the French language and law of France in criminal and civil matters. Under British rule, the island's name reverted to Mauritius. Port Louis Harbour developed rapidly and gained in prominence in the Indian Ocean over the years under the British rule. However, port calls of ships fell drastically following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
2. PORT LOUIS HARBOUR IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Till the 1900s, the port facilities available were able to cater to lighter-age requirements. The construction of Quay D in 1929 was a major development in terms of deep water quay which was followed by a similar facility, the West Quay or Quay No.1, in 1971.
After acceding to independence in 1968, Mauritius had to face many a hurdle on its onwards march for economic prosperity and one of these was the acute demand for adequate port facilities which was fast becoming an active nerve centre of the Mauritian trade and economy.
The 1970s were characterised by crippled port infrastructure, obsolete handling equipment, archaic methods of operations and poor industrial relations leading to regular strikes and labour unrest in the port. In fact, Port Louis Harbour was a lighter age port, with most cargoes being handled in midstream and then towed in lighters for unloading at private lighterage wharves.
Cargo handling operations were extremely slow with long ships waiting times, huge berthing delays and obviously high turnaround time often ending with the imposition of heavy port detention surcharges.
Government commissioned the services of a British consulting engineering firm in 1971/72 to assess the shortcomings and the requirements of the port facilities on a long-term basis. After a detailed study of the resources and potentials available for the expansion of trade and shipping, the Consultants submitted their recommendations in 1973 which emphasised the need for the provision of full-fledged alongside facilities.
The labour-intensive cargo operations particularly for bulk sugar exports were causing many problems to the administrators and the need for mechanising this process was also being felt as an essential requirement.
The World Bank carried out a feasibility study of the construction of deep-water berths and alongside facilities at Port Louis. The study revealed vast potential for development of the country as a whole only if matching port facilities were provided. There was also the need to set up an Authority which would regulate the port sector and also ensure that a level playing field is in place for all stakeholders to participate uniformly without causing prejudice to the other players. It was thus that the Mauritius Marine Authority, a tool port authority, came up in 1976.
The World Bank, under the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) Program, came forward to finance the construction of 3 quays with back-up facilities which comprised:
• 3 alongside berths with depth 10.5m capable of accommodating 15,000 dwt vessels; and
• Covered storage facilities, open storage areas, container park, etc.
Shortly after a separate facility for mechanised loading of sugar, the Bulk Sugar Terminal, was also conceived and completed in 1981.
With these new facilities being completed in the early ‘80’s the Port commenced its cargo operation on a modern footage and issues such as port detention surcharges, demurrage fees, undue waiting time for berths, which were the stigma attached to Port Louis Harbour of 1970’s, became history.
Simultaneously, during this same period the port acquired a wide range of cargo handling equipment for handling containers and general cargo together with a fleet of powerful tugs to safely manoeuvre bigger vessels to these alongside deep-water quays.
3. MODERNISATION PORT LOUIS HARBOUR
Activity in the port increased during the seven-year closure of the Suez Canal (starting in 1967). Modernisation of the port in the late 1970s has helped it maintain its role as the central point for all imports and exports from Mauritius. With the fast industrialisation of the country, moving from a mono culture economy to wide based economic activities the need for additional port facilities were seriously felt. Subsequently, following the recommendation of the World Bank, Government instituted the Mauritius Marine Authority in July 1976 as a para-statal body responsible for the administration, planning, operation of all port services. The Marine Authority was managed by a Board headed by a Chairman appointed by the Minister responsible for ports. All policy matters relating to port operations and administration are discussed at Marine Board meetings held once a month.
With a view to meeting these demands, Government and the Marine Authority came up with a plan to develop Port Louis Harbour to improve port facilities and services. The Authority was tasked with initiating various port expansion projects including:-
• Dredging & reclamation works at Mer Rouge
• Additional dredging and reclamation at Chien de Plomb
• Expansion of container park
• Expansion of fishing port
• Mechanisation of rice handling
• Establishment of a flour mill
Other related developments included the construction of a workshop for heavy equipment, fire station and a port administration building. An important fleet of cargo and handling equipment was also acquired. The major part of these facilities was commissioned in 1979, while the Bulk Sugar Terminal became operational in 1981.
Till 1983, the physical handling of the cargo was carried out by four private companies. Government set up in October 1983 a company under the banner ‘Cargo Handling Corporation Ltd’ (CHCL) having as major shareholders both the MMA and the Government. All cargo handling operations were thus transferred from the private sector to the CHCL. This company is also managed by a Board of directors and headed by a Chairman with a General Manager as chief executive with the responsibility to provide labour commensurate with the traffic demands and to physically handle cargo from ships’ hook till the point of delivery. The Marine Authority, on its part, was required to provide all the required infrastructure and superstructures such as quays, storage areas, backup facilities, handling equipment, etc.
Thus the 1980-90 decade started with the transformation of our port from a lighterage port to new one equipped with deep water alongside facilities for general cargo and container vessels together with the introduction of new operational handling systems. During that period, the focus was mainly on rationalisation of cargo handling operations, the creation of the Cargo Handling Corporation Ltd in 1983, the commissioning of the first comprehensive Port Master Plan in 1984 and its subsequent updating in 1989 as a result of major economic development of the country.
The objective was to develop a longer-term plan for Port Louis Harbour in terms of both port infrastructure and the various port services.
The 1990-2000 decade witnessed yet another historical phase of our port development culminating with the commissioning of our new Container Terminal, i.e. the Mauritius Container Terminal (MCT) at Mer Rouge. This crucial period could be qualified as the transformation of Port Louis Harbour into a modern gateway in the region. The principal achievements during the period were mainly:-
• the carrying out of major dredging and reclamation works, with the creation of over 100 hectares of land at Mer Rouge and Les Salines and the subsequent related revetment works.
• The creation of the Mauritius Freeport Sector
The commissioning of four major studies under the aegis of the World Bank in the context of the Bank’s financial assistance for the Port Development and Environment Project, namely :-
• Port Policy, Institutional Strengthening and Pricing Study
• Updating and Revision of the Port Master Plan
• Mauritius Freeport Development Strategy
• Environment Impact Assessment and Risk Analysis Study
• Development of the Peninsula area with the reconstruction of Quays A, D and E
• Implementation of the Port Development and Environment Protection initiatives in line with the various recommendations of the studies undertaken, the Government Port Sector Reform Policy Statement and the World Bank’s Country Assistance strategy with the overall objective to enhance Mauritius’ transport and trade competitiveness in the maritime sector, in an environmentally sound manner.
• The construction of a modern Container Terminal at Mer Rouge equipped with three post panamax quay cranes and ancillary facilities and their commissioning in 1999.
• The construction of new road networks and associated facilities to link the Mer Rouge area.
• Signature of concession contracts with the Cargo Handling Corporation Ltd for the operation of all terminals.
• The reviewing and updating of the Ports Act leading in the promulgation of the new Ports Act 1998.
It was thus that the previous marine authority was replaced by a new organisation, the Mauritius Ports Authority assuming the role of a Landlord port with a completely new set of objectives. While Port Louis continues to be the business and administrative capital of Mauritius, expansion of the tourism industry in the late 1990s led to considerable development in Port Louis, with many shops, hotels, and restaurants being built in the Caudan Waterfront area.
4. VISION 2040 OF PORT LOUIS HARBOUR
In July 2016, Royal Haskoning DHV was commissioned by the Mauritius Ports Authority (MPA) to carry out an update of the Ports Master Plan for Port Louis and other locations around the island. The Port Master Plan is required by the constitution of the MPA and is revised from time to time. The previous master plan was completed in early 2009. This revision focuses on likely developments between 2015 and 2040.
The purpose of a Port Master Plan is to set up a framework within which the port can address commercial opportunities without impeding later developments. This requires a degree of flexibility and a master plan that exactly defines what is to happen to every square metre of land will fail because the trade will almost certainly not evolve exactly as the planning team project.
Since 2009, many things have changed in the port, the most significant being the cancellation of the harbour bridge project and the return of the land at Les Salines to the MPA. The government has also set up the Ocean Economy initiative to focus on an increased contribution by the maritime sector to the Mauritius economy. The main developments in Port Louis have happened since the first deep water berths were built in the early 1970s. Incremental development since then has helped position PLH as a leading port in the Indian Ocean and the new Master Plan seeks to rationalise the layout as well as to accommodate the evolving trade pattern to further strengthen PLH’s position in the region.