By Mrinal Roy
On the 177th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Mauritius on 1 February 1835, we have a duty to reflect on and remember the tens of thousands of men, women and children forcibly uprooted from their homes in Africa, Madagascar, the East Indies and elsewhere to be enslaved in Mauritius and Isle de France. On the global scale, millions were similarly displaced by unscrupulous slave traders to provide slave labour for the development and enrichment of the colonies across the world including the United States where it was perpetuated after its independence in 1776 to its abolition there in 1865 after the American Civil War.
As was the case across the colonial world and elsewhere, the story of slavery in Mauritius is shameful. It is a story, spanning 1638-1835, of colonists aided by the Governors of the island during primarily the Dutch and French periods but also during the early British period, robbing fellow human beings of their basic rights and freedom and forcing them into life-long servitude and toil. The slaves were subjected to inhuman ill-treatment, intolerable suffering leading to revolts, violent repression and cruel punishment.
In memory of those who suffered this scourge, I am sharing this perspective on slavery in Mauritius drawing principally from a recent re-read of Jay Narain Roy’s ( JNR) book ‘Mauritius in Transition’.
The ugly face of slavery
Slaves were first introduced to Mauritius in 1641 from Madagascar by the Dutch Governor Adrian Van der Stel to cultivate the land and rear cattle. Van der Stel also introduced sugar cane in 1639 from Batavia in Java. Etienne de Flacourt’s history of Madagascar, published in 1658, describes the deceitful manner people were snared, caught and forced into slavery. According to Flacourt’s account, ‘the Chief of the French Establishment in Madagascar told some people to go to the butcher’s shop to get meat. When they went, he closed the door and trapped about 40 of them and tied them in two’s and sent them to the ship. He sent people to chase and catch those running away and delivered them to the Dutch until they had enough’. The transport conditions of these captive slaves who were lumped in the cramped and insalubrious holds of the ships carrying them were inhuman. A host died of suffocation during transit while others threw themselves into the sea or fled into the woods on arrival in Mauritius.
The slave trade seems to have been among the most important functions of the Dutch Governors. To this end, numerous trips were organised at regular intervals to Madagascar by the various Dutch Governors as from 1641 till the Cape authorities who had jurisdiction over Mauritius decided to put an end to the second period of Dutch settlement, in 1710. It was thanks to the slaves that the Dutch were able to carry out their diverse activities, including the cultivation of sugar cane, during more than 70 years of colonization of the island.
The slaves also included Africans and Asians brought by the Dutch from their colonies in the Cape and the East Indies. All were compulsorily converted. The diversity of the origins of the slaves and the heinous punishment meted out against those rebelling against the Dutch is shown in the sentences carried out against a group of eleven slaves accused of conspiracy in 1706. Peter of Bali, Louis of Bengal and Jan of Goa were torn to pieces at the wheels. Jack of Madagascar, Ventura of Mozambique, Abbas of Penang and Domingo of Patti were hanged. Simon of Ceylon, Anthony of Onderwarde, Celebar of Celebes and Paul of Timor were tied to poles and whipped, then marked with red iron and chained to serve their sentence of life imprisonment. There are many documented accounts of such horrible punishments of accused slaves during the Dutch period.
Greed delaying freedom
From the outset the French who came to colonise the island in 1721 brought 30 slaves from Bourbon with them. Land and slaves were distributed among the free settlers. The able bodied slaves were to be paid by the settlers over a three year period at an agreed rate. It is during the French period that the number of slaves increased significantly especially as from 1735 with the arrival of Governor Mahe de Labourdonnais who embarked on an ambitious programme of constructions and agriculture to develop the island. The population of the island which stood at 190 whites and 648 slaves in 1735 jumped in a period of some 30 years to 3,163 whites and 587 free slaves and 15,022 slaves towards the end of the rule of the French East India Company in 1767.
Under the Governors of the Royal period, slave trade became the most lucrative business of the colony. Prices offered for slaves were very high whilst slave traders obtained them in Madagascar simply by bribing chieftains and agents. Pierre Poivre alone introduced 10,000 slaves. The bulk of the slaves resigned themselves to their woeful fate whilst others longed for freedom. Any attempt to escape from the straight jacket of strict rules and harsh conditions of work was severely punished by whipping and on recurrence of offences by amputation of limbs or death. Still, slaves ran away to freedom and in some cases participated in armed revolt in spite of the risk of being hunted by slave hunters and put to death on being caught.
Slavery generated wealth and the slave trade assured significant profits. Both thrived unabated as none of the protectors of society’s moral values including the religious establishment stood up against this blemish on human civilisation.
It is worth noting that following the French Revolution in 1789, the rich settlers of the colony refused to execute the decree 16 Pluviose An 11 of the French National Assembly making all slaves French citizens. They prevented the payment of a pay to slaves as decided by the Revolution and chased out agents of the French Assembly who had come to Isle de France to enforce the decree.
Resistance to Abolition
Britain had been at the forefront of the moral stand taken against slavery and the slave trade. By 1807, Britain had outlawed the slave trade with The Slave Trade Act. The hopes harboured by the slave community following the capture of Mauritius by the British on 3 December 1810 were quickly thwarted. The first British Governor Farquhar had proclaimed that the French planters would be allowed to keep their slaves. Virieux, one of the planters was made Police Chief in charge of the slaves. In spite of the penalties imposed by the Slave Trade Act abolishing the slave trade, the trade went on with the collusion of the authorities. The census of slaves was falsified. Despite the setting up of a special court with a specially appointed British Judge to try crimes against the Act, there was stiff resistance from the planters. Whistle blowers were threatened with death. Farquhar who was entrusted with the task of applying the Slave Trade Act and introducing slave reforms was, after retirement as Governor, appointed as London agent of the anti-emancipation planters’ lobby!
The slaves who numbered 60,000 in 1809 had increased to 87,000 in 1815 whilst the island was under British jurisdiction since 1810. In the face of allegations of connivance in respect of non respect of the outlawed slave trade, the British Parliament set up an Eastern Enquiry Commission to enquire into the affairs of the Cape, Ceylon and Mauritius. After remaining in Mauritius during the years 1826-29, the Commission chaired by Sir George Colebrooke confirmed in their report the allegations of collusion and recommended the emancipation of the slaves clandestinely introduced since the abolition of the slave trade.
The three first British Governors had been disappointments to the slavery reformers in London. A Protector and Guardian of Slaves was appointed in 1829. The reformer press exposed the atrocities meted out on the slaves of Mauritius. In 1830, the British Minister Lord Goderich asked that the slave legislation be consolidated. The planters dreading the application of the Colebrooke recommendations sent petitions to the Governor and delegated Adrien d’Epinay to argue their case with the British authorities. The Minister accepted to shelve the Colebrooke recommendations and to give a substantial compensation to the owners of slaves as the price of emancipation.
The resistance to the emancipation of slaves was robustly pursued by the planters until slavery was abolished in Mauritius in February 1835, after it had been abolished by the UK Parliament by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 throughout the British Empire. A sum of £2,112,632.10 was paid to the slave owners to free 68,613 slaves. Rev Patrick Beaton indignantly remarked: ‘If the number of slaves illegally imported be estimated at a fourth of the whole number, more than half a million of British money were paid to those, who by the law of England deserved a felon’s doom.’ The slaves included those born of slave parents, a certain proportion of Indians including Malays, slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique.
In addition to the annual events and commemorative ceremonies marking the Abolition of Slavery, it is time to re-introduce the study of our history in secondary schools as a core subject through selected books providing an objective and analytical view of events which shaped the destiny of this land. Appropriate pedagogical tools and support material must be harnessed for this purpose.
The sharing and interaction of knowledge on our history would provide an efficient learning process for the young towards understanding our roots and our common past as a necessary building block for the future. It will also help put, with the benefit of hindsight and facts, historical figures like Farquhar, d’Epinay and Ratsitatane who led a revolt of slaves and was hanged under the British rule, as well as the key actors of our history in their true light and define the true heroes and icons of the nation.
* Published in print edition on 3 February 2012