Shattering the Shackles of Slavery: Indian Slaves in Isle de France (1638-1804)

Slavery and Commemoration

On 1st February 2013, the Government of Mauritius and the Mauritian people will be commemorating the 178th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. It is an important day when the citizens of our country ponder on important values such as individual freedom, human rights, equality and social justice for all.

It is also a rare occasion when we explore little known facts about Mauritian history such as the introduction and presence of Indian slaves in this small Indian Ocean island during the periods of Dutch, French, and British colonial rule. Between 1639 and 1835, Indian slaves formed an integral part of the local slave population during the entire duration of slavery in our country. During that period, they made an important contribution in transforming a rugged volcanic island into one of the most important European colonies in the Indian Ocean.

The First Indian Slaves in Mauritius

The presence of Indian slaves in the recorded history of Mauritius goes as far back as the genesis of the Dutch settlement of the island during the mid-seventeenth century. In May 1638, the Dutch East India Company made the first attempt to establish a colonial outpost in Mauritius. More than a year later, in November 1639, the first Indian slave, an emeritus diver of Bengali origin, was brought to Mauritian shores from Batavia (present-day Java in Indonesia) by Adrian van der Stel, the Dutch colony’s commander. Between the 1640s and early 1700s, more than two dozen Indian slaves were introduced into Mauritius and they played a significant role as skilled and semi-skilled artisans and craftsmen.

The period of active French colonization began in December 1721 and several years later, the first Indian slaves were introduced in November 1728, when Sieur Lenoir, the Governor of Pondicherry, sent 28 slaves to labour on his estate in Mauritius. In addition, between 1729 and 1731, more than 300 slaves, mostly south Indian slaves from Pondicherry and Karikal, were sent to our small south west Indian Ocean island. In 1735, there were 485 Indians, both slaves and free men, out of a total colonial population of 2,123.

During most of the eighteenth century, Indian slaves consisted around 15% of the island’s overall slave population. It is interesting to note that towards the end of French rule, in 1804, there were 6,000 Indian slaves out of a total slave population of around 60,000 or 10%. In addition, there were 400 free Indians out of a total free coloured population of more than 4000. In 18th century Ile de France, the Indian slaves were divided into four major groups namely the Malabars, Indians, Bengalis, and Talingas. However, by the early nineteenth century, they became commonly known as Indian slaves.

Indian Slaves & Manumission

In June 1738, the first manumission took place in Ile de France when Sheik Ally, an Indian Muslim merchant, petitioned Governor Mahé de Labourdonnais and the Conseil Supérieur to manumit Amina, his Muslim wife who was an Indian slave. Within a very short period, the island’s colonial authorities granted Ally’s manumission request. But, in general, due to the severe limitations put on manumissions (by the Code Noir or Lettres Patentes of 1723 (the colonial laws which governed slavery in French Mauritius) only about 500 slaves were manumitted between 1721 and 1767.

Between 1784 and 1802, in Ile de France, there were 367 manumissions and a total of 126 Indian slaves were freed or more than 34%. In addition, according to the Mauritius Census of 1804, between 1796 and 1800, around 316 adult slaves were manumitted and 118 adult Indian slaves or 37% were freed. This clearly showed that during the French period, the majority of the slaves who were freed were Indian slaves and most often, it was female slaves who were manumitted.

A careful analysis of the Mauritian manumission cases from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries clearly show that some of these manumitted Mauritian slaves, especially Indian slaves, legitimized their relationships through marriages, they formed families, and started new lives as free individuals in Mauritian colonial society. But even more amazing was the fact that some of them returned to the countries of their birth. After all, there are several manumission cases which clearly show that manumitted Mauritian slaves returned to India during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This can clearly be seen in the case studies of Antoine, Catherine and Anna.

Return Migration of Manumitted Indian Slaves

Antoine, an Indian male slave, belonged to the Marquis de Bussy whom he had faithfully served for more than twenty years. It is interesting to note that this French military commander had spent much of his military career fighting the British in the Indian subcontinent between the 1740s and 1760s. Thus, although a slave, Antoine had the chance of staying in India with his owner for many years.

During the early 1770s, Antoine, who was then in the Ile de France in the care of Sieur Hulot, a friend of the French marquis, was given his freedom and immediately after, he desired to return to India. Thus, in 1773, as a reward for more than two decades of faithful service, the Marquis de Bussy rewarded his Indian slave by manumitting him and paid his passage back to the country of his birth. Later that same year, Antoine left Mauritius for India.

In June 1773, Catherine, an Indian female slave, was manumitted by the will of her late master, Sieur Rouault, a famous merchant vessel officer based in Ile de France. During the 1760s and early 1770s, thanks to the occupation of her master, she was able to travel with him to India on several occasions. Therefore, it was not surprising that once she was freed, Catherine expressed a strong desire to return to the land of her birth. Sieur Jean Charles du Coudray, the captain of a colonial merchant vessel and a former close collaborator of Sieur Rouault, undertook to pay her a sum of 600 livres and the expense of her passage to India. Soon after, Catherine left Mauritius and returned to her country of origin.

These return migrations did not limit themselves to slaves who were born in India, but also slaves who were born in Mauritius and showed a desire to return to the land of their ancestors. In 1804, Anna, a Creole Indian slave or a Mauritian-born slave of Indian descent, purchased her freedom and her own passage to India. She lived there for several years and died during the mid-1810s.

The above case studies show beyond a shadow of doubt that the Indian slaves in Mauritius preserved the memories of their native land. After all, a few of these lucky slaves, after either purchasing their freedom or obtaining their manumission from their owners, expressed a strong desire and were able to travel back to their country of origin. Definitely, through their actions, they serve as an inspiration to all Mauritians and they clearly showed that they were able to successfully shatter the shackles of slavery.

*This article is an abridged version of an academic article written by Dr Satteeanund Peerthum and Satyendra Peerthum, ‘Gauging the Pulse of Freedom: Indian Slaves, Maroonage, and Manumission in Ile de France, c.1728-1804’ published in Asia Annual 2004 by the Maulana Kalam Azad Institute in Kolkatta, India


* Published in print edition on 31 January 2013

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