Abolition slavery

After abolition

Share-cropping and colonial agriculture: the case of sugar-producing plantations


Share-cropping and colonial agriculture: the case of sugar-producing plantations

During the second half of the 19th century, given that there were sufficient immigrants available to provide the necessary labour for the island’s sugar mills, the main production format continued to rely on these indentured workers to farm the land and keep the mills running.

However, recruitment shortages after 1860, the end of Indian immigration in 1882 and difficulties in replacing the existing workforce after that time forced sugar producers to come up with new ways to get the most from all of their land. Dependence on day labourers had not stopped the movement of progressively waning quantities of crops around sugar mills which were increasingly in need of sugar cane.

As a return to slavery was no longer legally possible in the colony and the recruitment of foreign workers was becoming increasingly problematic, some landowners decided to come up with a different type of contract for their workers, one which varied from the sugar industry’s traditional format. It was known as ‘share-cropping’, a method of farming known since the Middle Ages in France as ‘metayage’.

Until the beginning of the second half of the 19th century, share-cropping was apparently a rarely used farming method in the colony, and this was particularly true for the sugar industry. The existence of ‘cheap’ slave labour made the concept of any widespread system whereby both owners and workers could share the profits completely unnecessary.

Sugar cane. [1899 ?]. Engraving. In “Le journal de Marguerite ou les Deux années préparatoires à la première communion / par Melle V. Monniot”, vol. 2, p. 183.
Departmental Library of Reunion Island Collection
In times of labour shortages and unexploited farmland, this was really a case of resorting to a system which, albeit tinged with a certain ‘agrarian paternalism’, sought to bring more people into farming or to provide a more stable life for workers on the land, while at the same time reconciling the interests of both land management and labour. Of course, even though a considerable amount of local literature on this subject regrettably lists this format as merely an extra afterthought, or only put in place to allow some (the landowners) to establish or maintain their domination over others (the settlers), this system, if we are to believe Lucien Wickers, author of a report on regulated immigration in Reunion Island, was actually intended to allow everyone to make a living. Quite probably ill-informed about agricultural practices in the colony, Wickers claimed that this ‘special contract’ was not used on large estates, particularly those producing sugar.

[Reunion Island – aerial view of a site in the middle of sugarcane fields].
Jean Legros. [1950-1960]. Photograph.
Jean Legros (1920-2004) private fund. All rights reserved
It is true that the widespread usage of share-cropping only became the case quite late in the development of the sugar industry, but it is incorrect to write, as Wickers did, that this practice was unknown to sugar producers before 1882. Léonce Potier, who was very familiar with the colony’s agricultural reality having visited the Reunionese countryside, claimed that ‘share-cropping’ had existed since the mid-1850s, specifically on Charles Desbassayns’ plantations near Rivière des Pluies, and this at a time when the sugar industry was frankly not short of manpower. Potier’s statements were corroborated by a notarial deed of 1856 mentioning the existence of land “leased and toiled and the crops duly shared” .

Bridge and Desbassayns sugar refinery, Rivière des Pluies. Louis Antoine Roussin. 1867. Lithograph.
Departmental Library of Reunion Island Collection

Similar trials were observed in Saint-Gilles les Hauts, then owned by the de Villèle family, related to the Desbassayns. This system was also put in place on another property in Saint Paul called Savanna, whose mill was rebuilt at the end of the 1850s. However, it is difficult to evaluate to what extent the standards of living for the share-croppers were affected by this technique of exploiting the land.

As Potier describes, the island’s agricultural and commercial sectors were suffering from a barrage of problems such as cyclones, borer parasites, diseases, and generally slow business, and this severely hampered the initial forays into share-cropping. Lacking the means to cope with these simultaneous afflictions, settlers would probably have thrown in the towel. However, it was in fact another crisis, the growing scarcity of labour, which actually contributed to reviving the interest of sugar manufacturers and potential settlers in this type of contract. This happened at the beginning of the 1880s, allowing parts of the Savanna sugar estate to be farmed once again. According to an 1886 report by the Immigrant Protector, the phenomenon observed in Saint-Paul was actually part of a larger movement, mentioning the existence of ‘shared commitments’ which in reality served to conceal fictitious commitments.

[Reunion Island – Saint-Paul : aerial view of the Savanna factory]. Jean Legros. 1950-1960]. Photograph.
Jean Legros (1920-2004) private fund. All rights reserved
After 1880, this phenomenon of share-cropping became sufficiently frequent to attract the attention of the colonial administration, but it is important to recognise that it only concerned a minority of individuals: only 4.64% of a population of 44,592 Indian or African immigrants.

Although not commonly practised on sugar-producing estates, landowners were well aware of it before 1882. However, this method of farming had no specific legislation throughout most of the 19th century, despite its historical usage and importance in rural life across France. While legislation came about in Mainland France (the law of 18th July 1889) which aimed at providing a legal framework for common usage, this law was not immediately enforced in the colony. A quarter of a century went by before a decree was proposed (1915)  and enacted  to apply the 1889 law governing the leasing of land to share-croppers . The enactment of this law probably led to the drafting of the small Questionnaire d’enquête sur la situation des colons et l’exploitation des terres (Survey on the situation of settlers and land usage) of 1915 .

[Reunion Island – Female workers in a sugarcane field]. Jean Legros. 1950-1960]. Photograph.
Jean Legros (1920-2004) private fund. All rights reserved
In an article in the new Journal de l’île de La Réunion of 12th July 1911, the Haute-Loire parliamentarian Édouard Néron stated that share-cropping was becoming more and more widespread and that recourse to this farming method was, like any progress in agriculture, clearly responsible for the increase in production. According to him, this type of contract “will soon allow the colonists, if they are thrifty, to in turn acquire land themselves”. Archives do not address the question of share-cropping in sufficient detail. In truth, it is difficult to measure its impact on the island’s sugar industry insofar as there are no surveys comparable to those carried out in the farmlands of Mainland France during the second half of the 19th century. The same difficulty may be encountered when it comes to evaluating to what extent this activity was profitable for the landowners or settlers. With this in mind, it is highly likely that benefits varied and that there were contrasting realities. Share-cropping would satisfy those landowners who, whether professional, commercial or industrial, wished to avoid the constraints of direct landownership. In times of crisis, this technique would have assured them of an income, and this without spending money on labour nor working the land, however successful the harvest. From the settlers’ point of view, such as formerly wealthy De Villeneuve family in Saint-Benoît who had been ruined by the economic downturn and evicted by the Crédit Foncier Colonial, ended up recovering quite well. Others, like the Mourouvin family, enjoyed a certain economic success to the point of becoming major industrialists and being considered by Émile Hugot himself , as one of the colony’s wealthiest landowners, on a par with families such as Choppy or Le Coat de Kervéguen.

[Sugarcane harvesting]. [G. P. Lagnaux]. 1950-1959. Photograph.
Departmental Archives of Reunion Island Collection
However, one should not lose sight of the fact that often the plots of land granted were narrow and the capital also quite low. This meant that when land development costs were not covered upfront, it was difficult (or quite slow at least) for the settlers to make any money, who could benefit from a double socio-professional status: that of a daily labourer or an indentured worker. This dual status allowed workers to be paid like independent farmers, the only difference being that they would receive less money. This was due to two things: firstly, the fact that the indentured workers did not own the land being farmed and secondly, due to the small role they played in the actual transporting of harvested crops.

After Indian immigration came to a close, this farming method became more popular on sugar-producing estates, but this was by no means the main cause. Share-cropping only gradually juxtaposed itself to other approaches to farming, as was the case wherever money was lacking and agricultural competition was under-developed. Thus, at the end of the 19th century, sugar cane fields were farmed by indentured labourers, daily or monthly hired labourers and by share-croppers.
By resorting to share-cropping, sugar producers’ intentions were purely economic. This method allowed them to cultivate parts of their land at a low cost, areas which they would not have farmed due to labour shortages. While it is true that this system engendered a form of employer paternalism, with the sugar mills maintaining control over the peasant community, this form of ‘domination’ (the way that that colonisation has long been perceived and still is today) did not create any kind of waves as seen in the farms of the Landes region at around the same time, where this domination became unbearable . On the other hand, despite its imperfections and, even if it did not bring about any immediate major change to the island’s economy, share-cropping was the transitional precursor to the 20th century practice of dividing large estates into smaller plots, allowing large sugar mills to embark on the long journey towards industrial centralisation.

[1] ADR 3 E 1204 n° 6651, Act of 3rd May 1856.
[2] Official Bulletin of Reunion Island, Decree of 13th August 1915.
[3] Official Bulletin of Reunion Island, Order of 30th September 1915
[4] The same law was only applied in Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1916.
[5] ADR 7M1.
[6] Hugot (É.), L’usine et l’économie générale à La Réunion, 1961, 36 p.
[7] Lafargue (J.) Le maniement du droit dans la France rurale du 19e siècle. Sur l’efficacité symbolique de champs juridiques incertains, in Ruralia, 2004-15. http://ruralia.revues.org/document1023.html.
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