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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Filed under Africa, Britain, France, labor, migration, Netherlands, slavery, South Asia

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