The slave trade

The origin of the slaves on Bourbon island

Where did the slaves on Bourbon island come from ?
Jean-Marie DESPORT


Where did the slaves on Bourbon island come from ?

The slave trade, today considered as an insult to civilisation and qualified as being a ‘crime against humanity’ by many States  , already deemed to be shocking by many educated people during the modern period  , was a child of its time; the trade, which was even practised in the name of the French king and was blessed by the Church  , was, in the 18th-century on Bourbon island and elsewhere, a driver of the economy .

Whereas in Europe the slave trade had been taking place in the direction of America for over one and a half centuries , it started to develop on Bourbon island a short time after the start of settlement . So great was the need for an abundant workforce that  slaves were brought in from many different countries. In addition to the trade carried out as a secondary activity along the maritime route to India, a regional trade soon became essential, with Madagascar and the east coast of Africa becoming the sources of the immense majority of the slaves brought to Bourbon island in the late 18th century.

L’Aurore, slave ship from 1784. 1998.
De Villèle historical museum.

Along the route to India

From West Africa

The slave trade to Bourbon island from the west coast of Africa in the 18th century.

From West Africa, a few individuals were embarked unofficially  as from 1702, on board a number of occasional ships sailing through the region, and then exchanged  to be sold on Bourbon island; the number of slaves taken in this manner was actually very small .
While finding the slaves to be ‘excessively expensive’, the French East India Company had persons brought in from west Africa: 200 slaves from Juda  in 1729, 76 slaves, then 188 from Gorée  in 1730 and 1731.

Slave trader from Gorée. Labrousse. 1796.
De Villèle historical museum.

Made illegal in 1731, the trade was once more authorised in 1737 by Mahé de La Bourdonnais  and again organised to a certain extent from 1739 to 1744.
Despite the large number of requests made by the administrators of the island, regular supplies of slaves ceased: the last captives from west Africa arrived in 1767.

From India

The slave trade to Bourbon island from India in the 17th and 18th centuries.

As from the end of the 17th century, slaves were also brought in from India on ships sailing back to mainland France , a practice that became more common from 1728. In 1729, Pierre-Benoît Dumas  sailed to Pondicherry , where he witnessed the recruitment of servile workers. The slave trade from India ceased for a time from 1731 to 1734, then picked up again under the governor Mahé de La Bourdonnais, with hundreds of slaves arriving on Bourbon island from Pondicherry. After 1767, slave traders  on Bourbon had contacts in Pondicherry and Chandernagor , and slave ships sailed to Goa from the island.

However, the wars between France and Britain  almost put an end to the trade: at the end of the 18th century, it was only practised occasionally. The memory of the commerce, however, served as a reference for the system of indentured workers  in the mid 19th century.

From Madagascar

The slave trade to Bourbon island from Madagascar in the 18th century.

The conditions of the slave trade from Madagascar

Madagascar very early on became a source of the slave trade: as from the 10th century, and perhaps even earlier, Muslim traders would use the island as a source of slaves; the Portuguese followed in the 16th century and then the Dutch and the British in the 17th century. Between 1685 and 1726, pirates who settled in the north of Madagascar occasionally brought slaves to Bourbon.
Wishing to develop the island, the French East India Company decided to take control of the trade in 1717: considered to be French, Madagascar was the source of slaves closest to Bourbon island.
With the troubles linked to the French Revolution, commercial regulations were neglected, to the benefit of political legislation. The trade was restricted from 1789 to 1794, prohibited from 1794 to 1802, to be permitted once more. The slave trade ceased in Madagascar through British action from 1810 to 1811.

Three successive centres of slave trade

Writing a report to the directors of the French East India Company in 1681, former commander Régnault  recommended going to ‘trade’ Madagascans in parts of the island other than the south.

In the 18th century, the northern stretch of the east coast of Madagascar became a true preserve for slaves to be brought over to the Mascareignes. Benefiting from excellent moorings, it offered abundant human resources: Betsimisarakas, ‘Kaffirs’  who disembarked in the North West of Madagascar and were made to cross over to the east on foot, as well as Merinas.

From 1722 1735, most of the Madagascan slaves on Bourbon island came from Antongil. However, as slaves were constantly captured there during this period, the source dried up in the mid 18th century.
In 1758, Foulpointe became the official centre for the slave trade in Madagascar. A simple trading post was set up there with warehouses, a salve barracoon, huts and storage sheds. The decline of Foulpointe occurred in 1791, following the death of king Yavi . In 1797, the British destroyed the palisade protecting the trading post and from then on, the slave trade was reduced to simply a few individuals.

Between 1798 and 1801, Tamatave, up to now a secondary centre of the trade, took on a certain importance. While the bay of Tamatave was dangerous during the winter months and the marshy ground around the town was often the cause of fevers, the town was the coastal destination for those coming down from the high plateaus where the Marina slaves had been taken. In 1807, Decaen, the general captain of the French Indian Ocean establishments, posted the chief trading officer there, his authority extending ‘from the Bay of Antagonil as far as Mananzary (Mananjary)’. However, Tamatave never became as important as Foulpointe had been. Finally, as from 1811, the British forced the French to abandon their Madagascan trading posts.

From the east coast of Africa

The slave trade to Bourbon island from the east coast of Africa in the 18th century.

First, from Mozambique

Map of the bay of Mosambique. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin. Around 1750.
De Villèle historical museum.

When Colbert set up the French Company to manage trade with the East Indies (1664), its directors began to take an interest in the east coast of Africa. However, lack of funds prevented any expeditions from being organised to this region, at the time still virtually unexplored. From time to time, Portuguese sailors would sell a few slaves from East Africa to the settlers on Bourbon island .

In 1721, the Viceroy of Portuguese India  was forced to stop off at Saint-Denis; victim of pirates , he sailed back to Portugal on a ship belonging to the French East India Company ; to show his gratitude, he promised to write to the authorities of Mozambique asking them to facilitate slave trading in the direction of Bourbon. The first shipments, however, turned out to be disappointing, due to the heavy human losses sustained during the voyage.
Mahé de La Bourdonnais systematically organised trading between Mozambique and Bourbon island: each year, two expeditions were organised, bringing over several hundred slaves. The commerce ceased between 1746 and 1750, then, benefiting from complicity from the Portuguese administration, picked up again during the period of the French East India Company, even though the latter was supposed to reserve the Africans originating in Mozambique for the Brazilian market. Sources then shifted to the north: Sofala and Mozambique were abandoned in favour of the Querimbes islands, and the Muslim trading posts also started to gain popularity.

The East of Africa, the main source of slaves for Bourbon island

Slave convoy. In “ Aventures de six français aux colonies.” Gaston Bonnefont. 1890.

De Villèle historical museum.

During the final years of the French East India Company, the east coast of Africa, quantitatively speaking, became a far greater source than Madagascar. During the early years of the Royal Period in France, the number of ‘Kaffirs’ (Africans) disembarked on the Mascareigne islands was five times as high as the number of Madagascans.
In the Portuguese possessions, the slave trade was mainly organised by the Yao, who used to sell along the coast slaves they had captured in the hinterland of lake Nyassa .

From Cape Delgado to the Gulf of Aden, the African coast was, theoretically, under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Muscat; in actual fact, the local authorities there were practically independent , which resulted in uncertainty for the trade. Trading to Bourbon island from there had started in 1754 and apparently continued on a regular basis following the end of the monopoly by the East India Company, almost certainly culminating around 1785-1790, a period during which slaves were cheaper than those from Mozambique. Difficult to locate precisely (in many cases, the vessels were declared to have sailed from ‘the African coast’, but without any more precise details), this trade was organised within the large number of Muslim trading posts that had been set up along the coasts of what are now Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia, from Lindy in the south as far as Mogadiscio in the north, the main centres being Quiloa between 1770 and 1794, then Zanzibar from 1802.

The slave market in Zanzibar. Emile Bayard. Bayard, Emile.
De Villèle historical museum.

Illicit trading during the 19th century

In the early years of the 19th century, the economy of Bourbon island started to be centred on the production of sugar , an agricultural and industrial activity requiring abundant slaves , at the very time when slave trading was forbidden and slavery itself appeared threatened.
On 8th January 1817, an ordinance issued by king Louis XVIII prohibited slave trading; the settlers on the island could no longer openly oppose the decisions of mainland France  and the ordinance was officially registered on 27th July 1817. However, faced with the obsessional fear of a shortage of workers, the island started trading slaves illicitly , with some 50,000 new slaves brought into the island illegally, mostly between 1817 and 1831 .

The beginnings of the struggle against the slave trade (1817-1825)

From 1817, cases of trading began to be brought before the courts. Thanks to the governor Milius , who cooperated with the Mauritian authorities to try and combat traders , Bourbon island was the French colony with the largest number of seizures resulting from illicit trading. In actual fact, the magistrates of Bourbon island seldom sentenced slave traders .

Capture of a slave ship on the west coast of Madagascar. HJ Ray,
De Villèle historical museum.

Proving occurrence of illicit trading turned out to be difficult. It involved identifying the vessels concerned which, when used for the trade, were then often renamed. Inspecting a ship before it had been loaded with captives or after they had been unloaded was generally pointless. Catching a slave ship at sea could result in the captain throwing overboard his human cargo. A slave ship could only be caught out when it was disembarking its content , so the traders mainly operated at night, in spots which, being considered dangerous, were rarely surveyed.

Arab slave-traders Throwing slaves overboard to avoid capture. 19e siècle.
De Villèle historical museum.

Attempting to identify new slaves on the island caused an outcry from the settlers, who considered this to being a form of persecution, disturbing the progress of work and triggering a spirit of rebellion within the slave community.

The period of hesitation (1826-1831)

Michel Eusèbe Mathias Betting de Lancastel, director-general of the interior as from October 1826, attempted to put an end to the slave trade. On the other hand, the governor De Cheffontaines  was far less severe in this respect.
Public opinion was mainly favourable to the trade. The white population saw it as a way of accomplishing a sort of ‘feat’, taunting the State authorities, carrying out profitable financial operations and ensuring the economic prosperity of the island.
However, the drawbacks of the trade were becoming more and more obvious. They were, first of all, political: the authority of the Bourbon island’s administration was compromised; the gulf between mainland France and its colony was widening and diplomatic pressure on France from the United Kingdom was becoming more intense . There were also health issues: the absence of any quarantine arrangements on arrival turned out to have negative consequences for the new slaves, as well as for the entire population of the island . Finally, there were the moral questions: since the slave trade had become illicit, conditions were even more horrendous than in the past. The vessels used were smaller and the slaves were piled up in indescribable conditions , while at the same time any facilities likely to betray the presence of the human cargo disappeared ;

Dhow or slave boat, theoretical cross-section, showing piling up of unfortunate slaves crouching and hidden between floorboards. In “La traite des nègres et la croisade africaine comprenant la Lettre Encyclique de Léon XIII sur l’esclavage, le discours du Cardinal Lavigerie à Paris,” …. Alexis-Marie Gochet. 1889 ».
De Villèle historical museum.

the death rate of the captives increased during the sea crossing, as well as on arrival, as a result of hasty nocturnal trans-shipments. All these elements reinforced the abolitionist discourse in mainland France.

The end of the slave trade, now seriously repressed (1831-?)

With the July Monarchy in France, the slave trade was no longer considered simply as an offence but treated as a crime. The law voted on 4th March 1831, enacted on Bourbon island on 26th July, punished the crew, the ship-owner and the insurers of slave ships with confiscation of the vessel and its cargo, heavy fines and forced labour for the officers. In addition, those selling, dealing in and purchasing new slaves faced imprisonment.
On Bourbon island, the last person to be published for slave trading (the 30th since 1818) was sentenced in 1832.
However, this was perhaps an indication that the commerce was taking place more under the carpet . Proof that a residual form of trade took place for years was the fact that the number of slaves decreased only extremely slightly in the years following 1831. According to Hubert Gerbeau, some 4,500 were probably disembarked illicitly on Bourbon island between 1832 and 1835; Hai Quang Ho estimates that the period between 1836 and 1847 saw approximately 5,000 illegal entries. In addition, forms of labour derived from slavery were even noted on Reunion after 1848.
In the 19th century, there were a large number of suppliers on the island contributing to the clandestine trade. According to Serge Daget, between 1815 and 1832, of the new slaves on the island whose origin can be defined, 43% came from the east coast of Africa (25% of these from Zanzibar), 36% from Madagascar (mainly Tamatave), 15% from the west coast of Africa (more precisely from Bonny, in the region of the Niger delta) and 6% from the region around the Cape.

From the 12th century, the various forms of slave trade (occidental, oriental and internal to Africa) treated as commercial goods over 40 million human beings. Residual forms of slave trade are still present today, notably in certain Muslim countries.
The trade in the direction of Bourbon island thus represented a very small portion of this trade, quantitatively speaking. On the other hand, this same trade was a major factor contributing to the demographic growth of the island. The great diversity of the geographic origins of the slaves brought to Bourbon island, inheriting a very painful past, is clearly one of the factors behind the rich ethnic diversity of the current population of Reunion .

[1] Including the French republic (“The French republic recognises that the slave trade (...) and slavery (...) are crimes against humanity.” French law dated 21 May, article 1).

[2] “I do not know whether coffee and sugar are necessary to the happiness of Europe, but I do know that these two crops are responsible for the misery of two parts of the world,” wrote Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in 1769 in “Voyage à l’isle de France, à l’isle Bourbon, au cap de Bonne-Espérance (...) par un officier du roi » (letter XII). Coming from a writer who was personally familiar with the French plantation colonies, the book was at the origin of the first criticism of slavery that had a true impact on French opinion. At the end of the 18th century, certain persons already referred to it as a “disgraceful commerce”.

[3] Renouncing the principles of the original Church, as from 1454, the Pope had given legitimacy to the trade practiced by his faithful Portuguese allies in the direction of the Atlantic islands lying close to Europe: through the papal bull entitled “Romanus pontifex”, pope Nicolas V authorised the King of Portugal to reduce to perpetual slavery “Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ.” It was not until 1839 that Pope Gregory XV officially condemned the slave trade.

[4] The 18th century was by far the greatest period for the Atlantic slave trade. The paradox is that the western trade achieved its peak during the century of the Enlightenment. During this century, when mention was often made of ‘the noble savage’, the transatlantic trade depended on the traffic of human beings being captured, marked, deported, enslaved and exploited.

[5] Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau situates the first recorded expeditions to have taken place around 1519.

[6] By the ten Madagascans and two whites who settled there in November 1663.

[7] In a letter addressed to the Minister of the Navy and the Colonies in 1768, Guillaume Léonard Sarrazin de Bellecombe, governor of Bourbon from 1767 to 1773, wrote: “At the moment, the trade is the most important object of my administration. Without it, there would be no workforce.”

[8] A merchant ship was referred to as being “unofficial” if it traded fraudulently in territories granted to a commercial company, in colonies where foreign vessels were not admitted, in ports under a blockade.

[9] Historians specialised in the slave trade consider that, as regards the western trade (all forms of trade supplying slaves to western countries and their various possessions), only 2% of the captives were initially taken by Europeans. With the exception of Angola, the production of captives was generally a purely African affair, since it was African slave traders who procured, transported, parked and estimated the cost of the captives. Listing the main categories of reduction to slavery by Africans, the American sociologist of Jamaican origin Orlando Patterson refers to capture at war, tribal and tax conflicts, debts, punishment for crimes, abandon and sale of children, voluntary servitude and birth.

[10] 10 out of the 311 slaves on the island in 1704, 2 out of 387 in 1709.

[11] The main coastal town of the realm of Abomey (Today the Republic of Benin), Juda (currently Ouidah) was often visited by Portuguese slave traders as from the 16th century. In 1671, the French constructed the fort of Saint-Louis there (a simple earth construction). In the 18th century, the realm of Abomey became a true slave-trading State, at the service of the Fon ethnic group. Juda was deliberately isolated from the rest of the realm in order to guarantee the monopoly enjoyed by king Kpengla (1774-1789).

[12] In 1677, the French settled on the small island of Gorée that had been taken by the Dutch 60 years before. The island is in Senegal, in the bay of Dakar.

[13] Appointed Governor general of Iles de France and Bourbon island, Bertrand François Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1699-175) gave a new impetus to the economic and demographic development of the two islands; the île de France, having two excellent harbours, benefitted more from the work of the former sailor. Plotting by Dupleix led to his being replaced (1746), then imprisoned at the Bastille (1748), on the pretext of treason and corruption.

[14] The 15 Africans from San Thomé disembarked by the vessel Jules in November 1672 were almost certainly Tamil Indian slaves; they had been captured during the siege of San Thomé and sent to Bourbon by the Viceroy of India Jacob Blanquet de la Haye. San Thomé is the name that Europeans had given to Mylapore, today one of the southern districts of Chennai (Madras). Dated 1687, the first deed of sale concerning a slave on Bourbon concerned a 12-year-old Indian. The general census of 1704 even records the presence of a slave from Malacca and Jean-Michel Fillot observes that slaves from Malaysia arrived on Bourbon island in significant numbers from the 1770s.

[15] Pierre-Benoît Dumas (1696-1746) occupied the post of president of the higher Council and general director of the Company from 1727 to 1735. During this period, Bourbon did not have an official governor; the Governor General of the Mascareignes was represented by a director of trade, second commander and chairman of the island's Higher Council.

[16] Situated on the coast of Coromandel (the south east of India), Pondicherry was, at the time, the main French trading post of the French East India Company.

[17] Under the Ancien Régime (period of French Royalty), the word ‘traitant’ (trader) generally referred to a merchant; thus ‘traite des bledz’ was used in relation to trading of cereals.

[18] Situated in Bengal, Chandernagor was the only French trading post not located along a coast.

[19] The French and the British clashed from 1744 to 1748 during the Austrian war of Succession, from 1756 to 1763 during the seven-year war and from 1778 to 1783 during the American war of independence.

[20] A form of salaried labour imposed on immigrant workers mainly coming from India by large landowners in the Mascareignes islands and the French Caribbean, these settlers having found themselves short of docile labour following the abolition of slavery by France in 1848.

[21] “Commandant pour le service du Roy et de nos sieurs de la Compagnie des Indes” (Commander at the service of the King and the gentlemen of the India Company), Étienne Régnault was the first to exercise official authority on Bourbon island.

[22] The word ‘cafre’ apparently comes from the Arab ‘kaffir’ » (infidel). For the Arabs, the region of the Kaffirs, was that of Africa south of the equator; the Europeans limited this space to the coastal regions of east Africa, from the colony of the Cape to the Zambezi basin. On Bourbon, the word ‘cafre’ was used to refer to all black people from Africa, even though they originated from dozens of different peoples.

[23] Yavi reigned over the region of Fénérive from 1767 to 1791. Madagascar’s main slave trader, this Betsimisaraka sovereign would take his prisoners of war to provide captives to slave traders.

[24] Despite the threats of the Company: “It has been ordered to all the inhabitants of Saint Paul who have bought Africans from the Portuguese and have not yet declared them, that they must do so or face a fine of 50 pounds or confiscation to the profit of the Company.”

[25] Luís Carlos Inácio Xavier de Meneses, count of Ericeira, was Viceroy of Portuguese India from 1717 to 1721, then, following a long period of disgrace due to the 1721 affair, from 1740 to 1742.

[26] After sailing out of Goa in January 1721, his flagship the Nossa Senhora do Cabo was caught in a violent storm, which forced him to moor in Saint-Denis on 6th April to repair serious damage. On 20th April, the ship, when at anchor, was attacked by two pirate vessels commanded by John Taylor and Olivier Levasseur (called La Buse) who seized it and plundered its very valuable cargo; a cargo which, even to this day, gives rise to multiple fantasies around the ‘treasure of La Buse’.

[27] On 14 July 1767, the Company reassigned Bourbon island to the king. The ‘Company period’ was followed by the ‘Royal period’.

[28] Today named Lake Malawi.

[29] The distance between this coast and Mascate is over 5,000 kilometres.

[30] The cyclones and ‘heavy downpours’ of 1806 and 8007 had decimated the coffee plants and spice trees on Bonaparte Island (the name given to Reunion from 1806 to 1810); in 1815, Bourbon, no longer needing to supply Mauritius, which had become British, turned away from food crops. The colonial agreement guaranteed sales of sugar on the market of mainland France where, in the 1820s, demand was on the increase. All this explains why, as from 1850, the economy of Bourbon entered a new phase with a handful of rich settlers deciding attempt the adventure of sugar production.

[31] In 1748 in ‘De l’esprit des lois’ (book XV, chapter V), Montesquieu, in a pastiche of the reasons generally given to justify slavery, wrote: “Sugar would be too expensive if we did not work the plant that produces it thanks to slavery.”

[32] As had been the case between 1794 and 1802 when the settlers of Reunion had refused to apply the decree dated 4th of February 1794 (French revolutionary date 16 pluviôse, year II), abolishing slavery.

[33] Certain persons, for example Serge Daget, refuse the expression ‘clandestine trading’ for the reasons that this would give negative connotations to the noble character of the ‘clandestine’ resistance to the Nazi regime.

[34] In his doctoral thesis defended in 2005, Hubert Gerbeau advances the hypothesis of 38,500 slaves brought to Bourbon island between 1817 and 1830. No source of supply was neglected: in 1827, the vessel ‘Chevrette’ brought some 300 slaves to Bourbon from New Guinea.

[35] The capital of the ship, Pierre-Bernard Milius, exercised the functions of both Governor and authorising officer of Bourbon. He was ‘commander and administrator for the King’ from 11th September 1818 to 14th February 1821.

[36] This cost him his post: as it disturbed many people, Milius had to leave Bourbon for French Guyana.

[37] In 1820, the captain Bertrand, master of the brig ‘Succès’, a slave ship, wrote to his ship-owner in Nantes: “All the magistrates are also settlers who have even bought slaves from our cargo; consequently, we can rest easy and so can you.” Not only were the slave traders frequently acquitted, but they were even occasionally awarded damages!

[38] A ruling dated 19th November 1817 ordered restitution to their owner, Julien Gaultier de Rotaunay, 23 Africans seized at the entrance of Saint Denis “since the African seized were not spotted when they supposedly disembarked, and they could only be seized on arrival and, if that the customs officers did not lost sight of them between their arrival and the seizure.”

[39] Achille Guy Marie, count of Cheffontaine (1766-1835) governed Bourbon from 20th October 1826 to 4th July 1830.

[40] In 1807, Britain abolished the slave trade over the whole of Africa. They became champions of the struggle against the slave trade, both to satisfy the philanthropy of British opinion, but also to prevent others benefiting from a trade that they themselves had renounced, even though the trade in question had become less lucrative than into the past. As from 1811, British vessels would patrol along the coasts of Africa in order to prevent the trade.

[41] Illicit slave ships caused an epidemic of cholera (1820) and smallpox (1827).

[42] A terrible record, the one established in 1819 on the ‘Joséphine’, a schooner of 23 GRT that arrived from Madagascar transporting 117 captives!

[43] In 1845, Ange René Armand de Mackau, Minister of the Navy, notified the governor of Bourbon that he had been informed of “serious facts concerning attempts at trading that apparently took place on Bourbon”. As the settlers were engaged in “a serious search for agricultural workers” (Hubert Gerbeau) and on Bourbon the liberals themselves were slave owners, it is difficult to share the opinion of the governor Charles Léon Joseph Bazoche (Governor of Bourbon from 15th October 1841 to 4th June 1846), who expressed his denial, declaring that “the population would unanimously reject arrivals of such a character.” The same argument was expressed on 15th March 1848 in an article published in the ‘Feuille Hebdomadaire de l’Ile Bourbon’: “Everybody knows that since 1830, the slave trade has completely ceased within French possessions. Even if someone wished to import African slaves, there would be no master wishing to buy them.”

[44] According to Daniel Vaxelaire, “At least 200,000 persons were certainly deported from their native country towards Reunion.”

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Jean-Marie DESPORT