The Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius has a long history of slavery from Western colonisation and owes many of its modern day legacies to the contribution of slaves.
The island was discovered by the Portuguese before being settled by the Dutch in 1638, who were also the first to bring over slaves.
In 1715, the French took over control of the island and increased the use of slaves for the country’s sugar plantations. Mauritius then became a colony under the British Empire in 1814, and slaves were used to increase existing sugar production.
Mauritius was the last British colony to abolish slavery in 1835, before implementing indentured labour until around 1918.
SLAVERY IN MAURITIUS- DUTCH, FRENCH AND BRITISH RULE
The Dutch established a settlement in Mauritius in 1638, and brought slaves around 100 slaves from Madagascar to cut down ebony trees, a natural resource on the island.
The French gained control of the island in 1715 and slaves were brought in from other African colonies.
Slaves were sent to work on the now established sugarcane plantations. They were also sent to Chagos to work on coconut fields. Under French colonial rule, around 60,000 slaves were brought to Mauritius, accounting for 80% of the island’s population.
Under the Treaty of Paris in 1814, Mauritius became a British colony. The British tripled sugar production on the island, with 259 sugar factories in operation at its peak.
TREATMENT OF SLAVES
The French also established Le Code Noir (Black Code) which defined slaves as ‘commodities’ and movable assets that were shared on divisions and wills. In addition to forced work under terrible conditions, slaves lived under strict rules. Offenders were subject to corporal punishment.
Physical and emotional suffering, malnutrition, injury and disease were inevitable for slaves.
ABOLITION OF SLAVERY IN MAURITIUS
Slavery was officially abolished under the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. However, only children under a certain age would be immediately freed- adult slaves were now regarded as ‘apprentices’ and still had to work over 40 hours a week with no pay, in exchange for free board and lodging.
This practice meant Mauritius was one of the last British colonies to abolish slavery, on 1st February 1835.
Under The Slave Compensation Commission, slave owners in Mauritius were paid reparations for the loss of their slaves. For the entire British Empire, £20 million (over £2billion in modern money) was allocated as compensation for slave traders, while slaves themselves were left with nothing.
However, as cheap labour was still required for the sugar estates, a system of Indentured Labour was then adopted to replace slaves. Mauritius was the first colony chosen for this, in a trial known as The Great Experiment, a system only abolished around 1918.
LEGACY OF SLAVERY IN MAURITIUS
The Abolition of Slavery in Mauritius is celebrated as national holiday on 1st February each year. A monument at Le Morne Mountain, a UNESCO world heritage site, commemorates the slaves.
The slaves’ contributions are prominent on the island. In addition to constructing many buildings- especially in the capital, Port Louis- which still stand today, and the island’s sugar plantations, slaves built the national culture for modern Mauritius.
Examples of these include Mauritian Kreol, the island’s main language and mother tongue, and Mauritian Sega, the local music and dance.
However, many modern Mauritians who identify as Creole and are likely to be descendants of slaves, remain one of most disadvantaged ethnic groups on the island.
Meanwhile, it is estimated between 10-20% of Britain’s wealthiest people today have significant links to slavery.
Baker, P. and Fon Sing, G. (eds.) (2007) The Making of Mauritian Creole. United Kingdom and Sri Lanka: Battlebridge Publications
Barker, A.J. Slavery and Anti-Slavery in Mauritius. London: Palgrave Macmillan
Vine, D. (2009) Island of Shame. New Jersey: Princeton University Press