Mauritian History from 1700 to 1800

Written on 09/16/2021
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The French Settlement

In Mauritius, the 18th century was marked by the French settlement. After the Dutch left the Island in 1710, the French were already occupying Reunion island (230km west of Mauritius), known as île Bourbon at that time. They set foot on île Bourbon in 1659 and in 1715, they realized that the Dutch left and decided to settle in Mauritius since they knew well about the island. So, in 1715, Guillaume Dufresne d'Arsel arrived on a ship named ‘Le Chasseur’ in Mauritius through Port-Louis Bay, unlike the Dutch who arrived through Mahebourg bay. Since the island was almost deserted, Dufresne d'Arsel took possession of the island in the name of the King, Louis XV. Hence, the name of Port-Louis was given to the place where they landed, in honor of the King. A Management Act was then passed which handed over the management of the island to East India Company. Yet, in 1767, the King regained his governance over the island.

 

An important point, which is not often mentioned, was that the French who arrived in Mauritius in 1715, not only knew about the island but they were also familiar with the ‘Kreol’ language, mostly the ‘Kreol Bourbonnais', since they’ve been living in Réunion for more than 50years.



The Maroons on the island

As mentioned in the previous article (See here: 1600-1700), when the French arrived, the island was not completely desert but already occupied by the maroons. The maroons had built their own life and settled to live on the island with the resources left by the Dutch. 

Even if the exact number of maroons on the island when the French landed is still unknown, there were maroons on the island and births certainly took place during the time they were living here. Yet, as of today, no one can say if they should be considered as a ‘Native’ people - Since they were few and no trace of how they were living during and after the Dutch. We still don’t know the relation between the Mauritian Maroons and the first French settlers, a possible assumption was that they could have cohabited together since the maroons were on the island well before the French and the latter did not have enough power to enslave them at first


The Island takeover

Although they were established on île Bourbon for several years, the French decided to come to Mauritius due to the numerous benefits they could get from the island. For example, Mauritius had seaports that facilitated the entry of different commerce vessels. In île Bourbon this was not possible at that time, the island had no seaport and no lagoon, making it even more difficult to land there, especially during bad weather.

 

Mahebourg’s bay is definitely bigger, but the French identified Port-Louis’s bay as the easiest one to get in and out of. A marshy bay which they managed to reshape and transform the swampy area into what is today known as ‘Jardin de la Compagnie’. The French also realised that Port-Louis had a gigantic green space not so far from the bay, now known as ‘Champ de Mars’. Since, all these facilities were on the spot, with a bay easy to get in and out, with better weather, and furthermore, protected by all the mountains, Port-Louis was then proclaimed as Capital under the reign of Governor Maupin (but further development was later bought by Mahé de Labourdonnais).

 

A point that is not mentioned; when the French arrived in 1715, they left a Frenchman of German origin on the island. They left and then returned to Mauritius much later because they had to go to Batavia (Dutch East Indies), on the way back to the island, they brought more people to stay in Mauritius. So, from 1715 to 1723 the French were only making round-trips to Mauritius while leaving people on the island.



The reign of the East India Company (1715 - 1767)

A little anecdote, in 1723 there was a repossession (in name of the King) by another Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Garnier Du Fougeray. Due to the frequent round trips of the first French settlers, Garnier Du Fougeray thought that the island had no ruling power and he decided to take possession of the island. From then, to clear all uncertainties, Dufresne d'Arsel and his companions decided to stay on the island and started the development of some villages, to show their ruling power over Mauritius, named  île de France during the French period.

Dufresne D’Arsel took possession of the island in 1715 in the name of the King while Garnier Du Fougeray arrived in Mauritius on behalf of the East India Company. Hence, there has been a concession by the King, which stipulated that the island belongs to France but with a Management Act that handed over the management of the island to the East India Company until 1767 (The island was under the control of the East India Company from 1715 to 1767). 

It is important to understand that during that period, the island’s lands were distributed free of charge. The aim of the East India Company was to develop a ‘morcellement’ and distribute it to people. (Fun fact, each ‘morcellement’ was named after the last name of the one obtaining it), this distribution was done over the whole island, where the land was exploitable. 

Another interesting fact to be noted was that, not only did the East India Company distribute lands, but according to the area’s surface, they also assigned the required number of slaves (slaves they brought from Madagascar) to work on the land. The deal was, they gave you the land but the person receiving it was in charge to make the harvest yields, otherwise, the land would be withdrawn from you.



Slavery in île de France

As previously mentioned, during their round trips to île de France, the French were leaving people on the island and among those people were the slaves. We often tend to equate slavery with black Africans, however, records show that there had also been a lot of non-African slaves too. At the beginning of the French period, the majority of the slaves were from Madagascar, then others came from Mozambique and other regions of Africa as well as from parts of India.

 

Records revealed that revolts were less present in île de France than in other islands such as Saint-Domingue, which was known as one of the biggest slaves’ revolts among the French colonies of that time. A revolution that started in 1791 and in 1792, France was forced to send political delegates to stabilize the colony, in vain, and the revolution lasted until 1804. 

Until 1998, in Mauritius especially, people had lots of pejorative connotations on slaves, portraying them as submissive human beings who did not rebel. Yet, resistance to slavery abuse existed. For example, by escaping their master’s house, through rebellious acts such as strikes or by poisoning their master’s food. Another wrong perception that started to change in 1998 (very recent), was the thought that slaves/maroons were uneducated but they actually had knowledge, their own culture, traditions, and language which was proved by the remains of the different African Kingdoms and society.

 

Slaves were undoubtedly abused and forced to live in deplorable conditions. They had no right to voice out, no right to practice their own religion or culture, and no right to start a family. 

An important aspect that is also almost never mentioned is the conditions of young slave women: In addition to being their master’s maids, the young enslaved women were also used for reproduction, and their children were snatched up and sold. This was present in all three periods of colonization.



However, there are records of love stories between slaves and colonizers during this time. A known example was the story of Lislet Geoffroy. Lislet was the son of Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, a white French engineer working in Ile de France, and his loved one, Niama, an enslaved Senegalese princess. Jean-Baptiste had freed his wife, Niama, in order to ensure his son, Lislet, was not born enslaved and he would legitimize him years later.


1794: The first abolition of slavery

After a wave of public revolution swept Paris in the spring of 1789. The revolution's leaders established a new government called the National Assembly. With the growing revolution in Saint-Domingue, the National Assembly was forced to reconsider its position. Thus, in 1794 the French republic outlawed slavery in its colonies. However, in 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of revolutionary France and wanted to reconstruct a French empire. With Napoleon Bonaparte’s takeover, in May 1802, slavery and the slave trade were restored in the French colonies. Colonizers in Mauritius however did not agree on the first abolition of slavery and did not free the slaves at that time



Mahé de Labourdonnais

Appointed as Governor-General of the Mascarenes on behalf of the Compagnie des Indes in 1733, Mahé de Labourdonnais took up his post in 1735. His first five years of administration were very fruitful to the island. Mahé de Labourdonnais created the first sugar refinery on the island, built a city, roads and made Port-Louis a real port of call, hence its name The Founder of Port-Louis. He also encourages the colonists to cultivate cassava, a plant resistant to various predators and whose root provides flour, cassava, which will become the staple food of slaves. A clear fact not often mentioned, Mahé de Labourdonnais was a pro-slaver, who did several campaigns to bring slaves from Madagascar to île de France.



The ‘Code Noir’

What today is considered as illegal, back in 1723 the ‘Code Noir’ was drawn up on the islands of îles de France and Bourbon, and was a written document (considered as legal back then) to officialize and regularize slavery practices in the French colonies (île de France, Mauritius Island and île Bourbon, Reunion Island). If the ‘Code Noir’ was originally established to curb the abuses by masters over their slaves, it only had the effect of codifying slavery and the slave trade.

There was often a misunderstanding about who wrote the ‘Code Noir’, the first version was written by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, son of The Great Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The Great Colbert served as First Minister of State from 1661 until his death in 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV. The first version of the ‘Code Noir’ was promulgated in March 1685 by Louis XIV and the second version was promulgated by Louis XV in early 1724, excluding articles V, VII, VIII, XVIII, and XXV of the 1685 version. 

Historically, four key stages in colonial legislation linked to slavery can be observed:

  • The text from 1723 setting out the legal domination of masters over the slaves

  • The 1805 colonial Civil Code introduced the duality of liberty while maintaining slavery

  • The 1840s royal legislation granted increased protection for the slave as well as the possibility of the master-slave interactions being mediated

  • In accordance with the decree of April 27th, 1848, the legislation following the abolition of slavery was enacted, providing compensation for dispossessed masters.

From this last point, we can somehow conclude that slaves have never been recognized as victims. Indeed, in 1835, it's the masters who have been compensated for the reason that they lost manpower, yet no slave has been compensated for any kind of abuse. The question to ask ourselves here is, how much crime and injustice to humanity is that



Segregation between the different populations

It was quite obvious that during this colonization period, segregation existed between the different populations on the island. Although the main segregation (often talked about) was between the white and the colored people, segregation also existed between the white, meaning there were different categories of white colonizers; e.g. different names such as ‘mûlatre’ existed to designate the “categories”. 

It was found out later on, that ‘mûlatre’ was a disparaging term used to describe people who were neither white nor colored but more of an illegitimate offspring of a white and a colored person - the term ‘mûlatre’ referred to the animal (mule), which is the offspring of a donkey and a horse, they can’t reproduce and are usually considered to be better field workers. This terminology was used to segregate the ‘Pure’ white colonizers and the ‘mûlatre’ that were considered ‘High-Grade Slaves’. 

Segregation was omnipresent in a slave society and classification was essential during that period. We should also not forget that the 19th century was the century of classification and the whole Mauritian society has been classified during this period, based on your skin color, region of origin, and/or name



Roman Catholicism: The starting religion & The changes brought by Pierre Poivre

Most (if not all) French settlers who came to Mauritius were Roman Catholics. Since they were in majority and were the colonizers, Christianism was imposed over the slaves. Other African cults were not tolerated and all slaves were forced to be baptized.

Yet, it was Pierre Poivre who argued that people should be free to practice their religion as they wanted. Hence, Hindu cults and practices were authorized. Pierre Poivre was against slavery and a part of religious freedom (for Hindus cults especially) originated from him. A possible reason why Pierre Poivre was for religious freedom, maybe due to his travels (from China to India). He had to relativize his own religion in view of the fact that he has traveled through regions as prosperous as France but which had other religions than catholicism, and a prosperous and functioning society. 

For the record, Pierre Poivre was officially sent in 1767 by the royal government to île de France as intendant. Pierre Poivre had two main aims as intendants, the first one was to restore the capacities of the port of Port Louis, a strategic military and commercial point in the Indian Ocean. The second one was to ensure food independence in île de France by developing agriculture. The intendant ensured the well-being of the acclimatization project for spices and other plants he brought back from his travels as well as the protection of the local environment


Information provided by Emmanuel Richon, Museum Curator of the Blue Penny Museum