Daily Archives: 24 August 2018

Slavery in Mauritius and Seychelles

From “Slavery and Indenture in Mauritius and Seychelles” by Burton Benedict, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 136-137:

Mauritius is a volcanic island of some 720 square miles located about 500 miles east of Madagascar and 20 degrees south of the equator. Seychelles is an archipelago of more than 90 islands with a total area of 107 square miles about 1000 miles east of Mombassa and 4 degrees north of the equator. Mauritius includes the dependency of Rodrigues and a few outlying islands. Seychelles comprises two sorts of islands: a compact granitic group with a continental base and a widely scattered coralline group consisting of atolls, reefs and sand cays. The granitic group has 80 per cent of the land area and 99 per cent of the population. The largest island, Mahe, is 56 square miles in area and has 86 per cent of the population. Neither Mauritius nor Seychelles had any indigenous inhabitants when they were first discovered by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. They were not effectively colonised until the French took possession in the eighteenth century. Britain seized the islands in 1810 and they became British colonies in 1814. Today Mauritius has a population of 900,000, of which about two thirds is of Indian descent comprising both Hindus and Muslims from five linguistic stocks. Another 28 per cent is known as Creole and is of mixed African and European ancestry. About 3 per cent is Chinese and a further 2 per cent is European, mostly of French ancestry. Virtually all of the 62,000 inhabitants of Seychelles are Creoles, though there are a few Indian and Chinese merchants and a small number of Europeans, again mostly of French descent. The economy of Mauritius is based almost entirely on the production of cane sugar while that of Seychelles rests precariously on copra and tourism. Both Mauritius and Seychelles have recently become independent nations within the Commonwealth: the former in 1968 and the latter in 1976.

From their inception Mauritius and Seychelles were slave societies. The first colonisers of Mauritius were the Dutch who landed in 1598. They made two attempts to settle the island bringing in slaves from Madagascar to cut down the forests of ebony. They also introduced sugar cane, cotton, tobacco, cattle and deer, but they never imported a labour force sufficient to establish plantations. In over a century of sporadic occupation it is doubtful if there were ever more than about 300 settlers. The Dutch finally abandoned Mauritius in 1710. Five years later the French claimed the island. In 1722 the French East India Company brought colonists from the neighbouring island of Bourbon (now Reunion) which the French had occupied since 1674. Settlers were given tracts of land and slaves, and the plantation economy became well established by 1735. The emphasis was on cash crops beginning with coffee and followed by sugar cane, cotton, indigo, cloves and other spices. Sugar cane best resisted the terrible cyclones which periodically strike Mauritius and became the principal crop by the early nineteenth century.

The islands of Seychelles were colonised from Mauritius in the mid-eighteenth century. They remained dependencies of Mauritius until 1903 when they were constituted a separate colony. A similar system of land grants and slaves was provided to early settlers when cotton and spices and some food crops were grown.

The economy of the islands rested on slave labour. By 1735 slaves constituted 77 per cent of the population, and the percentage remained between 75 and 85 until emancipation in 1835 (Barnwell and Toussaint 1949:225).


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Slaves for Arms in Madagascar

From “Modes of Production and Slavery in Madagascar: Two Case Studies” by Maurice Bloch, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 103-105:

The connection of Madagascar on the one hand, and Mauritius and Reunion on the other, lay in in the fact that the East Coast of the great island was sometimes inhabited by small pirate colonies and sometimes by traders and adventurers who supplied the Mascarenes with rice and cattle but also, increasingly, with slaves to be used on the plantations of these islands (Filliot 1974:113-127). Up to 1770 the trading links between Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion had been relatively small-scale and fluctuating over time. They had, however, been extremely significant in Madagascar in that they had supplied petty rulers with European weapons for their aggrandizement and slave raiding (Filliot 1974:205-208). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, the small but growing central state that was to become Imerina, profiting from the disarray of the Betsimisaraka League, captured most of this trade both canalising its network and reducing rivals. The trader Dumaine wrote in 1790 that Imerina ‘is the part of Madagascar which supplies most of the slaves for our islands’ (Mauritius and Reunion). This process was truly momentous in the history of Madagascar because in return for slaves the Merina obtained armaments of high quality in much greater quantities than had been available to anybody else before, since they were lucky in reaching the coast precisely at the time when the demand for slaves in the Mascarenes had boomed and the prices soared (Curtin 1969:266-269; Filliot 1974:62-65, 216).

The war materials that they obtained were probably the major cause of the continuing expansion of the Merina and their ultimate domination of the islands. This expansion, however, was itself in part necessitated by the need to supply slaves in ever greater numbers in order to obtain the armaments necessary for conquest (Bloch 1977:314). By engaging in this sort of trade in order to acquire political power the Merina were following a long tradition which had dominated the political process of Madagascar perhaps since as far back as the sixteenth century. We know this pattern well in the eighteenth century when the Sakalava and the Betsimisaraka managed to dominate large areas of the island by exporting slaves to various European or Arab traders in return for armaments which enabled them to conquer their neighbours and obtain more slaves. The process in the case of the Merina, however, was even more dramatic. The reason was that they captured the trade at a time when the Mascarene economies were booming and so was the demand for slaves.

Once the Merina kingdom had really become established through this process, the pattern began to change in a way which was particularly significant for the history of slavery. In 1814 Mauritius, as it was renamed, became British and, in taking over Mauritius, the British had also gained vague but promising rights over Madagascar. Farquhar, the Governor of Mauritius, therefore encouraged the trade between his island and Madagascar since he saw the expansion of a kingdom dependent on supplies from Britain as a first step towards conquest, a policy we are familiar with in other parts of Africa. This policy was not without difficulty as it was taking place at a time when public opinion in Britain was moving strongly against the slave trade and slavery. Farquhar at first resisted pressure for the abolition of the slave trade, arguing that, in the first place, it would ruin the economy of Mauritius and make his unruly subjects even more difficult to control and, in the second place, it would end the promising connection with the Merina which he intended to use for ultimate conquest.

By 1817, however, the pressure from Britain had so increased that he had to give way, although by then the two stumbling blocks to ending the slave trade with Madagascar had vanished. The economy of Mauritius had been moving away from its dependence on the importation of slaves. Secondly Farquhar had discovered a way whereby he could keep his Merina contact. He signed with Radama a treaty which in return for the abolition of the slave trade would guarantee Radama a yearly supply of armaments, as well as military assistance. By this treaty the British hoped to continue their influence in Madagascar and to ensure the ever-important supply of rice and cattle to Mauritius. This treaty had its ups and downs and for a significant period was abrogated altogether, but it remained the major template for British Merina relations during the nineteenth century. It also ensured that whenever it was in operation the Merina would be dependent on the British. For the Merina the advantage of this treaty is also obvious. Radama, the Merina King, still retained a steady supply of British armaments but gained as well, and this is probably the most significant point, a monopoly of European weapons in Madagascar, a monopoly which many tried to break but never with complete success. When the treaty was in operation British frigates patrolled Madagascar to stop any signs of the slave trade. In doing so they were stopping any potential rivals of Radama from obtaining arms with which to resist him. They were, so to speak, putting Madagascar in a vacuum in which only one group had access to modem weapons. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that nobody could offer any significant resistance to the Merina during their greatest period of expansion.

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