Saturday, September 21, 2013

Slavery in Mauritius

The evolution of slavery in Mauritius dates back to the early days of Dutch settlement. The Dutch, hailing from a cold climate like most Europeans, were not able to deliver and therefore resorted to slave labour. The French, in turn used slavery for different purposes. The slaves were imported from Madagascar, Mozambique, South India, mostly from Pondicherry and West Africa. Indian slaves were mainly used as domestics, skilled workers for road and bridge repairs and construction of infrastructures, and as tailors, goldsmiths, shoemakers and masons.  They also ran errand for their masters and did other petty jobs. The Malagasy slaves were not much appreciated as they did not pull their weight and they always thought of returning to their country by all means.

They formed the bulk of most runaways. They were sometimes exchanged against arms and weapons. The African slaves were docile, obedient and hardworking. They were therefore better prized and attempts were made to get more of them. They were employed in agriculture, to help in the production of coffee, indigo, sugarcane, spices and other plants. 

Property and chattels

According to Filliot, it seemed that 45% of the total slave population came from Madagascar, 40% from Mozambique, 25% from West Africa and 13% from India.

Slavery received a boost from Mahe de Labourdonnais as he devised some very efficient and effective methods to treat the slaves. He trained them as sailors, soldiers and used them to fight against the British in India. He also trained them as policemen to track runaway slaves and to ensure peace and order. He sometimes visited them and spent a few hours with them. Dr Charles Telfair was another humane master who treated his slaves in a humanitarian way. He provided them decent living conditions, schooling for their children and medical treatment on his estate at Bel Ombre.

However, all masters were not alike and treatment differed from master to master and from estate to estate, though on the whole they were looked upon as property and chattels. They were exposed to corporal punishment that at times was very harsh and atrocious and they were forced to increase output of work. Some masters argued that the labour force needed to be scared to be disciplined. For an iron discipline was needed to make them work. The colonists and the masters were in the ratio of 1:10 or even more. 

Mild treatment, comprehension and in brief, humanity, were superficial evidence but the reality was different. Force was used, accompanied if necessary by rigorous chastisements. Slavery being a horrible and inhuman practice, it is necessary to understand the mindset prevailing in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to recall the harsh conditions of life of all workers  either in agriculture  or in trade or in the army. Corporal punishment was universal, even at school, and a man’s life was not valued too highly when constant dangers were considered though not daily in terms of epidemics and wars. This should not however, serve as an excuse to condone the harsh treatment meted out to them. The same Europeans later claimed abolition of the system. They held up the owners to public obloquy and condemned them in the framework of the twentieth century. That was for them too difficult to accept in the wake of the Declaration of Human Rights.

The code noir

In Mauritius it was not easy to evaluate exactly the output of the labour force, their wages, frequency of punishments and their gravity and the rate of births and deaths. The census carried out prior to the abolition of slavery gives a rough idea of its importance.
The Code Noir compiled by Jean Baptiste Colbert in 1685 was meant to do justice to the slaves but in fact it turned into a Bible for masters to lord it over the slaves. The punishments were extremely severe and even inhuman. The fugitives had one ear cut for a first offence, thigh cut for the second and fleur de lys stamped on shoulders. It tried to establish the vital minimum masters had to comply with. Pere Laval and Jean Lebrun thought that better treatment would have yielded better and more positive results.
Slaves were given 1 kilo of maize per day or the equivalent in rice, manioc or sweet potatoes. No roots were allowed. The slaves supplemented their meal by vegetables they cultivated on a square plot of land allotted to them. They also reared pigs and poultry and could eat meat periodically. They received a set of dress per year. Men: a pair of trousers, a shirt and sometimes a waistcoat, women: a shirt, a skirt, and a kerchief. A few masters even gave them a sheet of linen they used as cover in winter.

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