Labour Migration to the French Islands of the Western Indian Ocean, 1830–60
This chapter explores the history of indentured labour migration to the French islands of Réunion, Sainte Marie, Nosy Be, and Mayotte in the period 1830–1860. These islands traditionally used slave labour, but by the late 1820s, British anti-slave trade patrols and political pressure slowed the traffic in slaves. This created a manpower shortage increasingly felt on Réunion due to the rapid rise of the sugar industry between the late 1820s and 1860, and the consequent demand for cheap labour. Initially, demand was met by the clandestine import of slaves, but increasing anti-slave trade pressure and the abolition of slavery in the French Empire in 1848, following which most newly emancipated slaves fled the plantations, left small planters with limited capital resources more dependent than ever on cheap immigrant labour. French planters turned to imported engagé (indentured) labour. Following a short-lived experiment with Indian and Chinese engagés in the late 1820s, the French increasingly imported engagés, from Madagascar, and especially from Mozambique. Most were, in fact, slaves, or slaves forcibly liberated into indentureship. In 1859, the French authorities bowed to British pressure and banned recruitment of engagés from Africa, Madagascar, Nosy Be, and the Comoros because of its similarity to the slave trade. In 1860, a new convention was signed with the British permitting from 1861 the immigration of Indian contract workers. Thereafter, the trafficking in slaves of regional origin in the form of engagés slowed, although it continued into the early twentieth century.
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