Abolition slavery

After abolition

Indentured labour from India in 19th century Reunion Island


Associate Researcher CRHIA,
University of Nantes

Indentured labour from India in 19th century Reunion Island

Indentured labour was the format which replaced slavery in slave colonies where the system of production had been based on having large numbers of slaves. Though legally free, this was in truth ‘forced labour’.

In Reunion Island, as early as the 18th century, the French East Indies Company brought in indentured workers to compensate for the lack of European manpower. But it wasn’t until the advent of the sugar industry in the 19th century that this enlisted workforce, made up of indentured labourers, really increased. Out of an estimated 200,000 individuals, more than 70% came from the Indian subcontinent. The varying numbers of arrivals from India set the pace for indentured labour in Reunion Island.

Map taken from ‘Tableau Géographique et Statistique des Possessions françaises orientales’.
Baudoin brothers. 19th century. Print.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle

Indian indentured workers were brought to the island in three phases, each coming from different places of origin and different periods in respect to the period of slavery.
The first wave of migrations was minor, and took place while slavery was still the norm on the island; the second wave occurred following the abolition of slavery and, finally, the third wave was triggered by the prohibition of indentured labour from Africa in 1859.
A total of 117,813  Indian indentured workers were apparently brought into the island, but the real figures are likely to be higher, given that children and babies were only counted as a half or even a quarter of a person. In the absence of any formal lists of ships transporting Indians to Reunion Island, it is impossible to give the exact number of these indentured workers.

By the time the island was handed back to France by the British in 1815, planters were worried about the imminent ban on the slave trade enacted in 1817, and sought solutions to the impending shortage of workers, despite the fact that considerable clandestine trafficking continued, as well as methods to keep people in servitude . The sugar cane plantations were steadily growing and, at the initiative of Charles Desbassayns, required large numbers of workers who were easy to control.
However, from 1826, the colonists had a powerful ally stationed in India: on 12th March 1826, Eugène Panon Desbassayns de Richemont, grandson of Ombline Panon Desbassayns, arrived in Pondicherry as Commissioner of the Navy and Administrator of the French Trading Posts in India, and was Governor of Pondicherry from 18th June 1826 to 2nd August 1828.

Eugène Panon Desbassayns Comte de Richement (28th March 1800 – 26th June 1859).
Detail from the Desbassayns family tree. Jéhan de Villèle. Watercolour, black pencil. 1989.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle

In 1826, it was made easier for ‘Indian servants’ to come to the island, on condition that they had a mastere . In December 1827, following the second abolitionist law of 27th April 1827, this was also made possible for indentured workers.

Indian woman, Tom-Jones, Indians [other characters without descriptions].
Jean-Baptiste Louis Dumas. 1827-1830. Watercolour.
Collection: Departmental Archives of Reunion Island
In 1828, probably between April and June the 19th century’s first ‘indentured sugar workers’  » first arrived. Fifteen of them were transported on the schooner La Turquoise, which set sail on 16th March 1828 from Yanaon, a small French territory and enclave on the Coromandel Coast in British India.
These workers arrived as free men, while the workforce was still essentially made up of slaves until 20th December 1848.
Thanks to a few documents, it is possible to specify their places of residence  but for most of these Indians, Yanaon was considered their native birthplace. They were described as members of the ‘Thélinga’ caste (such as SOUBA VENCADOU, aged thirty-five in 1830) or of the ‘Pariah’ caste (such as BANLA VINCADOU, aged twenty-six when he arrived in 1830 on the ship La Pallas).

Group of Indians in the 1860s. In ‘Album de Caroline Viard’. 1860. Photograph.
Collection: Departmental Archives of Reunion Island

It was essentially economic hardship which led these people to flee the Orissa coast and the land of the Telugu. According to Pitoëff , of the 268 Indians who arrived from 1828 to 7th August 1829, 197 were pariahs, 27 were Muslims, 13 were weavers, 13 were farmers and 5 were fishermen.
Of course, in India they were sold on the promise of attractive working conditions: they would benefit from a contract that had been adapted from one used by the French East Indies Company to bring in skilled Indian workers needed for construction projects in the 18th century.

Work carried out in the port of Saint-Pierre (Reunion Island).
Biou, engraver; Maurand, engraver; M. Roussin, artist. In ‘Le Monde Illustré’. 1861. Print.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle. Michel Polényk Foundation

Contracts ran for a period of three years with a salary of seven rupees (or ten francs) per month, on top of accommodation and food. An advance of three months’ salary was paid upon signature in India, and parts of their wages earned in Bourbon would be sent back to their families. In addition, transport to and from Yanaon and Bourbon Island was paid for by their employer.
Upon arrival, Indians would have the right to practice their religion and customs, such as the cremation of their dead. Dr. Morizot, health officer in Saint-Paul from 1832 to 1838, wrote in his thesis that: “not so long ago they would still burn their dead, in specific places designated by the authorities some distance from the towns ”…  ». This practice seems to have gradually disappeared, with cremations replaced by burials.

Indian workers’ celebration. Louis Antoine Roussin, Paul Eugène Rouhette de Monforand; Taken from A. Léon. 1998. Lithography.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle

In 1830, more than 3,000  Indian indentured workers arrived on twenty-one boats , representing about 3% of the total numbers, and were all registered on an official list set up for them in July 1829 .
Even though these workers were mainly men, there were a few women, such as Naly Péry ‘a free Indian woman, of the Pariah caste, aged about thirty-five and native to Yanaon’. She died on 23rd November 1830, less than seven months after arriving on board La Pallas. She was in the service of Mr Joseph Desbassayns, and died at his home in Bel Air, in Sainte-Suzanne . This short life expectancy bears witness to the difficult life experienced on the island.
In the town of Sainte-Suzanne alone, 1829 saw four deaths of ‘free’ Indians and six in 1830, without any mention of the cause of death. Among them was one of the fifteen men brought in aboard La Turquoise, a certain Chinon (or Chinom) Abigadou Apaya, a farmer working for a sugar factory owned by Rontaunay and Malavois. He died there on 6th October 1829 , at the age of 23, leaving a widow back in India, Chinom Saty . As for the others, six died during their first year and three the following year…

In Indian immigration. A gendarme confirming a death. Anonymous. 1888.
In ‘Journal des voyages et des aventures de terre et mer’. N° 564. 29th April 1888″, 1st cover.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle. Michel Polényk Foundation

However, the decree of 3th July 1829 clearly set out recruitment and working conditions, creating a supervisory committee to ensure that these regulations were duly applied. But, while these laws reminded employers that they should not confuse Indian indentured workers and slaves, and that even a trade union was created in 1831, their situation worsened because these laws were not enforced and, as a result, contracts were rarely respected. Planters justified this situation by the low productivity of their free labourers compared to that of the slaves, hence the frequent use of corporal punishment, even though it was forbidden. Faced with such difficulties, Indian labourers had a variation of reactions, ranging from the downing of tools to downright rebellion and desertion.
The sugar crisis of 1830-1831 only served to worsen their living conditions, and after 1832, most planters abandoned the idea of using ‘free labour’.
This first wave of emigration was supervised by the government of French India, with all negotiations left to local traders, but only lasted 18 months. In reality, colonists would respect their commitments in neither Bourbon or in India, where the question of non-payments to workers’ families very quickly arose. The government of French India had to step in, which led finally to the prohibition of this form of emigration via the Pondicherry decree of 6th March, 1839.
The number of indentured workers fell rapidly, mainly due to departures and deaths. Observing that most Indians had abandoned their workplaces and turned to ‘vagrancy’, the governor issued a decree on 13th June in order to better manage indentured workers: a local registration list was provided to each police office except in Saint-Denis (which already had a general registration list). Every worker now had to be on both lists..

Bourbon / Reunion Island was the only place where for a few years, twenty years before the abolition of slavery, thousands of Indians went to work in the plantations alongside slaves. Even after this had been forbidden, hundreds of indentured workers continued to arrive on the island .

It was not until 27th April 1848 and the abolition of slavery that the recruitment of large numbers of indentured workers from Indian was once again authorised by the decree of 29th July 1848. From this date, the legislative framework was strengthened, and the colony was supplied from the French trading posts in India, especially from ports along the Coromandel Coast.
On 20th December 1848, the three-masted Mahé de Labourdonnais unloaded the first 500 men shipped in from Pondicherry and Karikal.
This was the beginning of the second wave of indentured workers from India, which saw tens of thousands of individuals who in theory had been recruited on French soil, but of which many actually came from the British hinterland. According to a decree issued by the Commissioner of the Republic in Pondicherry on 23th June 1849, workers had to be at least 21 years of age, and that an emigration commission would have to verify that they were leaving of their own free will and fully aware of the terms of their contract.

Indentured worker’s ID papers. 1901.
Collection: Departmental archives of Reunion Island

The leading merchants in Pondicherry and Karikal founded the Pondicherry Emigration Society in 1850, which had the monopoly on supplying workers to transport ships. It was an extremely profitable business: in 1850, for 4,500 workers delivered to Reunion Island, the profit was 90,000 rupees, or 225,000 francs . Shipping companies such as the CGM would increase their profits by refusing children.
In Reunion Island, between 1848 and 1849, a number of decrees were issued regarding working conditions and disciplinary workhouses; the decree of 24th May 1849 governed immigration logistics and appointed special unionists who would both defend and control the immigrants and their interests.
The entire set of regulations were laid down in the decrees of 13th February and 27th March 1852, which marked the date when the French state would intervene in the migration of workers to all its colonies.
To avoid excessive costs, an Immigration Society was created in Reunion Island in 1853, which had the monopoly on bringing in workers until 1855. About 47,000 people were shipped in from Karikal and Pondicherry between 1848 and 1859, which represented 40% of all those who arrived during the 19th century .
Because the West Indies also needed indentured workers from India, numbers to Reunion Island fell sharply, with only one third of shipments arriving there after 1854.

Arrival in Guadeloupe of coolies hired for the French West Indies. Anonymous. 1858. Print.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle. Michel Polényk Foundation

Furthermore, the British government was also in need of indentured labour for its own colonies, and put in place obstacles prohibiting any emigration to a foreign colony as early as 1839. Thus, while transporting British citizens in 1849, Reunionese trader Bédier-Prairie was stopped at Yanaon at the mouth of the river Coringuy, and was imprisoned for five days: the whole business created a lot of waves.
This competition between countries and destinations resulted in brutal recruitment methods, as shown by the De Souza affair in 1853 and that of L’Auguste in Karikal in 1854  : De Souza had set up a network of kidnapping young minors addicted to hashish, and then shipping them off, managing to trick either emigration doctors or the police . As for L’Auguste, brutalities were carried out on the emigrants as soon as the ship left Pondicherry, with women raped and the sick thrown overboard.

Etablissement Menciol, sucrerie de M. Menciol Establishment, Mr Soucaze’s sugar factory in the hills of Bras des Chevrettes, near St. André. Louis Antoine Roussin, artist, lithographer. 1857. Lithograph.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle

On rural sugar plantations, indentured workers experienced difficult living and working conditions. Their employers just wanted a cheap and easily controllable workforce, which was no longer the case for all the 62,000 recent Freedmen . Contracts were now for five years, paid at 12F50 for men, 7F50 for women and even less for children over ten years old. The housing promised in their contracts was often very cramped: several people were squeezed into tiny rooms; food rations were cut down to the bare minimum and often their wages were used to cover any debts accumulated at the plantation shop. Finally, the ‘double cut’ system (two days’ deduction for one day’s absence) prolonged the duration of their contract by the same amount. The offence of vagrancy was punishable for anyone found outside the plantation without justification: vagrancy guards were appointed to look for deserted indentured workers, in the very same way that bounty hunters used to hunt down escaped slaves. Indentured labour existed in the very same places and had the same organisation as slavery, essentially on sugar cane plantations and mills. One key difference was that indentured workers had the right of ownership and the right to pass on their names to their children, who would keep their Indian first names and retain their religious freedom. However, the Church sought to evangelise these people, calling on Jesuits such as Father Laroche who, from 1855 to 1868, took on the role of preaching to the Indian population, which in fact only concerned 2,000 to 3,000 people. While some wealthy landowners such as the Desbassayns, Villèle or Kervéguen families pushed hard to convert their workers, others were more reluctant, not only because of the time lost from work, but also due to the Indians’ devotion to their own religions. .

Shacks or straw huts, home to Malbar workers at the Sucreries de Bourbon sugar refinery.
Jules Gaildrau. 1887. Print. In ‘La France coloniale illustrée : Algérie, Tunisie, Congo, Madagascar,Tonkin et autres colonies françaises’, A.-M. G.”, p. 225.
Collection: Departmental Library of Reunion Island

In 1860, out of a total population of 175,000 inhabitants, 65,000 were indentured workers: between 37,000 and 38,000 Indians, 26,000 Africans, 443 Chinese and a few from the Pacific Islands.

The example of Mauritian prosperity, with the arrival of more than 264,000 indentured workers from India between 1842 and 1859, led to negotiations with Great Britain on the possibility of recruiting indentured labourers from British territories. The prerequisite for this was the end of African immigration, which was considered as a new type of slave trading. This law was duly enacted in January 1859 and the practice prohibited in Reunion Island on 18th March, 1859.

Faces of Mauritius: Indian labourer. Alfred Richard. 1850. Lithography.
Collection: Historical Museum of Villèle

On 25th July 1860, a Franco-British agreement was signed, authorising an initial recruitment of 6,000 Indians destined for Reunion. On 1st August 1861, this agreement was extended to France’s other sugar-producing colonies, with no limit in numbers: these agreements provided the terms and conditions for Anglo-Indians immigrants, all the way from the recruitment process to the details of everyday life. In exchange, a British Consul was appointed in order to ensure that these contracts were respected and to manage any complaints from the indentured workers.
The port of Calcutta, the main embarkation point for British colonies, was now open for recruitment. Upon arrival, around 10,000 workers known as ‘Calcuttas’ and ‘Bengalis’ were sent to the quarantine bay in Grande Chaloupe, but the colonists then judged them unfit for hard work in the fields and turned them away. Cholera had decimated their numbers and these workers were particularly affected by the disease.

List of ships landing with cholera on board in 1861. Manuscript.
Collection: Departmental archives of Reunion Island

Shipments of workers swiftly resumed from the French trading posts (mainly Pondicherry and Karikal) and the British port of Madras.
However, in the mid-1860s, a major crisis shook the sugar cane industry: already facing harsh competition from sugar beet, the crops were hit by diseases such as borer parasites, to the point that in certain years, indentured labourers could find no contracts at all. Living conditions deteriorated for all employees until the British Consul asked for an enquiry commission. In 1877, this commission, made up of a Frenchman, Commander Miot, and a British Major General by the name of Goldsmith, revealed the miserable situation in which many indentured workers found themselves, some of whom had been on the island for twenty years despite their wish to be repatriated . Among other things, the British government requested that: immigration-related costs be mandatorily included in the Colony’s budget; an agent to protect immigrants’ rights be appointed (as was the case in Mauritius); early re-enlistments were to be halted; an end to the consumption of alcohol by workers and the Consul to be granted the right to visit workplaces. This final point was rejected outright by the colonial authorities, who labelled this as foreign interference.
Finally, on November 11th 1882, the 1861 convention was suspended: the last Indian indentured workers were recruited in Pondicherry with some difficulty and then arrived on board La Marguerite in 1885.

Even though an Immigrant Protector was duly appointed in 1881, the duration of contracts was reduced to three years, working conditions were relaxed and new agreements were drawn up, Indian emigration to Reunion never resumed and the colony had to look for other sources of labour.
Due to a lack of reliable sources, the exact number of Indian recruits who arrived between 1860 and 1885 is not known. According to Scherer’s figures, they numbered 57% of the total arrivals, which was about 66,000 people. For the time being, only 114 convoys have been identified which would have transported between 40,000 and 46,000 individuals .
Indentured workers from India was above all a migratory wave of male labourers, with very few women at all. This arrival and settlement in large numbers of mainly men, of whom only a quarter would return to India, would have a permanent impact on the island’s make-up and cultural practices.

[1] According to Scherer A. in Histoire de la Réunion, Que sais-je? PUF, 1980, p. 74. However, the lack of documents makes it impossible to verify this figure.

[2] Between 30,000 and 50,000 individuals, depending on the source..

[3] Aïssaoui M., l'Affaire Furcy; Marimoutou Oberlé M. L'esclavisation des Libres de couleur au XIXe siècle : le cas de l'Indien Isidore in Histoire de la justice, La Documentation Française, 2020.

[4] According to the local decree of 18th January 1826, they had to be employed by an official resident of the island who would undertake to pay any costs if their workers were sent back home. These were indentured labour contracts in disguise.

[5] June, according to LACPATIA F., Les Indiens de La Réunion, 3 volumes, 1st edition 1983.

[6] Title of my work published in 1986, 1989, 1998, Les engagés du sucre.

[7] Annex 1-B in GOVINDIN S.S., Les engagés indiens, Ile de La Réunion-XIXe siècle, Azalées éditions, 1994, p. 151.

[8] PITOËFF P., Yanaon et les engagés de La Réunion : trois expériences d'émigration au XIXe siècle in Les relations historiques et culturelles entre la France et l'Inde XVIIe-XXe siècles, 1986, t.II, p. 228.

[9] MORIZOTJ, Considérations historiques et médicales sur l'état de l'esclavage à l'île Bourbon (Afrique), thesis presented at the Faculty of Medicine in Montpellier, 25th July 1838, re-published by Orphie, Reunion, 2017, p 27.

[10] 3012, according to WICKERS L. in L'Immigration règlementée, op.cit., p.32; 3196 according to WEBER Jacques, Les conventions de 1860 et 1861 sur l'émigration indienne, op.cit., 2000, p.131.; 3,211 according to Pitoëff, op.cit. 11.

[11] Currently identified number of Indian immigrant ships bound for Reunion Island from 1828 to 1830 (20 from Yanaon and 1 from Calcutta).

[12] This document no longer seems to exist.

[13] ANOM, Death certificate no. 18, of 24 -11-1830.

[14] ANOM, Death certificate n°7 of 7-10-1829.

[15] Annex 1 in GOVINDIN S.S., op.cit., 1994, p. 151.

[16] At least 7 shipments arrived from India between 1839 and 1848. Regarding the question of the links between slavery in India and indentured labour in the Mascarene Islands, see Le coolie-trade vers La réunion au XIXe : une traite déguisée ? in Chaillou-Atrous V., Penot P-E (n. d.), Mélanges offerts à Jacques Weber, les Indes savantes, 2019, pp.135-147.

[17] Weber J., Entre traite et coolie trade : l'affaire de l'Auguste (1854), in Lettres du CIDIF, n°11, 2010.

[18] CAOM, C 118, D 1011, Immigration statistics from 1848 to 1860: 46,685 Indians brought in.

[19] Weber J., l’affaire de l’Auguste, 2010, op.cit.

[20] Weber J., « les conventions de 1860 et 1861 sur l’émigration indienne », in Cahier des Anneaux de la Mémoire n°2. Esclavage et engagisme dans l’océan Indien, la traite atlantique, Nantes, 2000, pp. 128-168.

[21] X. Le Terrier reveals how workshops quickly recovered and even improved their original production levels with the arrival of indentured workers from India (from 1849 in the north and east, and from 1850 in the west and south) thus avoiding a drop in production, as had happened in the West Indies. La main d'œuvre du sucre-De l'engagementisme au colonat-Bourbon/ La Réunion1848-1914, Editions du Musée Stella Matutina, 2016, p. 45 & sq.

[22] Delisle P., « Un échec relatif : La mission des engagés indiens aux Antilles et à La Réunion (seconde moitié du XIXe siècle) », in Outre-Mers. Revue d’histoire, 2001, pp.189-203.

[23] CAOM c.277; Commander Miot's confidential report was microfilmed and partially published in Archives de La Réunion-Recueil de documents et travaux inédits pour servir à l'histoire des îles françaises de l'océan Indien, Conseil général de La Réunion, 1986.

[24] Marimoutou-Oberlé M., Engagisme et contrôle sanitaire-Quarantaine et lazarets de quarantaine dans les Mascareignes aux XIXe et début du XXe siècle, PhD thesis presented in October 2015 under the supervision of Professor Jacques Weber, University of Nantes, currently being published.

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Associate Researcher CRHIA,
University of Nantes