Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 4: “New Africans in the Postslavery French West Indies and Guiana, 1854–1889” (Excerpts)

In the fourth chapter of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images, Céline Flory examines the employment of thousands of indentured workers in French West Indies and French Guiana after the French abolition of slavery in 1848. Bought by private merchants, these West Central Africans from the Gabon and Loango-Congo areas were promised freedom in return for a ten-year contract to work in Martinique, Guadeloupe, or French Guiana. Flory explores the various dimensions of the encounters and reciprocal perceptions among the newly arrived Africans and the French colonies’ inhabitants, who were mostly African descendants and former slaves. The chapter offers new clues for understanding the circulation of West Central African cultures in the Atlantic world as well as for appreciating the social and cultural influences of African presence in French postslavery societies. Below is an excerpt from the chapter:

After April 27, 1848, when slavery in the French colonies was permanently abolished, colonial administrators and planters attempted to reorganize colonial labor by introducing foreign contract workers. It was hoped that the presence of such workers would counteract the wage demands of a newly mobile workforce of former slaves and resolve labor shortages on the plantations. The Ministry of the Navy and Colonies, responding to requests from plantation owners, established a state-funded system to import foreign workers. The French government authorized the immigration of workers from India, from China, and—once again—from Africa.

Between 1854 and 1862, some 18,518 indentured African workers from Northwest and West Central Africa arrived in French Guiana and the French West Indies. Between 1854 and 1859, an estimated 1,826 Africans arrived in French Guiana between 1857 and 1861, some 6,140 Africans arrived in Guadeloupe; and between 1857 and 1862, some 10,552 Africans arrived in Martinique. Counted a few months after the arrival of the last contingent, these indentured Africans represented approximately 7 percent of French Guiana’s population, 3.5 percent of Guadeloupe’s population, and 6 percent of Martinique’s population. Ninety-three percent of these workers had been recruited through a method called repurchase, whereby private merchants purchased captives in the markets of Gallinas, Gabon, Loango, and Congo in order to “free” them in exchange for a ten-year contract of indenture in one of the three French colonies in the New World. The workers themselves, who were denied any say in the process, were then deported to the Americas, where their status automatically changed from captive to indentured. The proportion of repurchased workers differed between colonies; the following shows the percentage of all indentured Africans arriving in each colony: 99 percent in Guadeloupe, 97 percent in Martinique, and 52 percent in French Guiana.

Seven percent of all indentured Africans arriving during the 1854–1862 period were recruited under a six-year indenture contract established on a voluntary basis among free populations of Gorée Island, Bissau, Freetown, Monrovia, Cap Coast, and the Kru Coast towns. The recruited were taken predominantly to French Guiana, where they represented 48 percent of the indentured Africans in French Guiana. Under these contracts, workers agreed to work for several years
on behalf of whoever purchased the contract in the colony of arrival. In exchange, the employer was to provide housing, food, clothing, medical care, and a monthly salary. Despite the terms of their contracts, only about one hundred of these workers were repatriated to Africa at the end of their commitments; the vast majority of them would set down roots in their host colonies.

Although indentured Africans quickly adopted the social and cultural codes of their host societies and even participated in political activities, they continued to be identified and branded as different. Their African origins and their status as indentured workers contributed, in part, to their stigmatization and therefore to the ambivalence of their integration. The African origins of indentured workers in French West Indies and French Guiana painfully reminded all the members of these societies of the recent period of slavery. Moreover, their African origins restricted these people to the lowest position in the persisting socio-racial hierarchy that had structured these societies during that
period of slavery. Indenture imposed on them a subordinate and inferior status; their living conditions contributed significantly to their differentiation within their host society, from which they were legally excluded.

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available as in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.