The abolition of slavery, contract and convict labour

  • The national context

    The French Revolution of 1789 brought about several changes in France and Europe, and before Napoleon rose to power, slavery was abolished in 1794. This was met with much resistance in the colonies, including Mauritius, and thus had very little effect on the situation of slaves. Nonetheless, combined with a number of local and international factors, it set in motion the eventual abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom and its colonies in 1807, with anti-slavery voices becoming more and more prominent, and the revolution having changed the way people thought about rights in general and in particular those of slaves.

    However,the abolition of the slave trade was not fully implemented when Mauritius came under British rule. The new colonial government tolerated the continuation of the trade until an agreement was reached with local slave owners in 1835.

Transition to contract and convict labour

The equalization of tariffs within the British Empire in 1825 triggered the expansion of sugar production locally. This resulted in an increased demand for labour. [1]

The harsh conditions of slavery have resulted in much speculation with regards to what happened on plantations when slavery was abolished. It is a common assumption that most slaves migrated out of the plantations due to the previously inhumane conditions. While this may be true, the Truth and Justice Commission also points out that upon the abolition of slavery, former slaves were left with no land to cultivate, were not offered any housing, and were offered very low wages[2]. The conditions of the abolition, with compensation being directed to slave owners and the availability of cheaper labour sources are thought to have greatly contributed to this migration of ex-slaves away from the plantations.

The first contractual labourers were Africans, Malagasies and Comorians who were brought in before and after the abolition of slavery on contracts. Among them were also individuals who had been freed from illegal slave ships, and they were termed “Liberated Africans”. The contracts were to last 14 years similar to the apprentice system. Most of them were employed by the government and British officials and some local planters, including Charles Telfair who employed 91. Their health and living conditions were reportedly not better than that of slaves, and the mortality rate was extremely high.[3]


[1] Sydney Selvon, A New Comprehensive History of Mauritius, 2012

[2] Truth and Justice Commission, Volume 1 Report of the Truth and Justice Commission, 2010


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