Slavery and the illegal slave trade

  • The history of Mauritius, its rural and urban developments is intimately tied to slavery and the slave trade, which began with the first Dutch settlers, continued with the French and with the British until the abolition of slavery in 1834.

At a national level

According to the 1723 Code Noir, slaves were defined as “biens-meuble”, considered as private property by their owners, who brought them in involuntary servitude. Slave owners could also be insured and compensated in case of loss, for example during a revolt, bad weather or from disease. Slaves were inherited as fixed assets and had no property rights of their own, they could not earn wages, and their children also became the property of owners.

The slave population grew immensely during the 18th century, from 2,533 in 1746 to 63,821 by 1810. When Mahé de Labourdonnais  brought in skilled workers from Africa and India, a small proportion of the slave population became skilled workers and artisans, while the rest performed the heavy manual labour. Other occupations included agricultural workers, household servants, fishermen, port workers and sailors. Conditions of slavery were horrendous; from the voyage, to the housing and food conditions, where there are many reports of insufficient food provided, inadequate clothing and extremely violent repression of dissent.[1]


Savane and Bel Ombre

The labour of slaves extended to all parts of the island and was no less present in the South. The slave population of Savane – which formed the vast majority of the population – was estimated at 4541 in 1817 and went down by 122 to 4419 in 1825, while the number of free persons increased from 208 to 308 in the same period.  It is thought that the decrease might be due to the slave trade being made illegal. [2]

However, Bel Ombre was not foreign to the illegal slave trade. Due to its remote location and difficult accessibility from other parts of the island, it has been reported that Bel Ombre played an important role in the disembarkation of slaves who were brought in illegally. The illegal slave trade has led to a discrepancy in the official number of total slaves brought to Mauritius. It is also thought that illegality might have increased mortality on voyages from country of origin, which could be anywhere [1] between 10 and 50% of all slaves on board.


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

[2] Yvan Martial, Notes prises dans le livre “Ephémérides et Statistiques” du Baron d’Unienville, datant de 1838.


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