- Creating the Creole Island: Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius (1735-67)
Creating the Creole Island is an important contribution to the study of slavery. The book is erudite, comparative, interdisciplinary, and it raises important questions about the creation of Creoles in slave societies. Like William St. Clair's The Door of No Return: The History of Cape Coast Castle and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Afua Cooper's The Hanging of Angelique, Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton's Slavery & South Asian History, Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker's Many Middle Passages, and Ehud R.Toledano's As If Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East, Vaughan's study of Mauritius examines a slave society outside of the Caribbean and North and South America. These areas have been for over forty years the center of slavery studies. This scholarship has revealed a great deal about the profitability of slavery, the work that slaves performed, master-slave relations, and slave culture. Vaughan's book will enable scholars of slavery to see how the institution developed on an island that was not as important as either Cuba or Haiti.
Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean and was explored, colonized, and populated by many different groups of people. At various moments in its history, Mauritius was scoured by the Dutch and Portuguese, but from the early eighteenth century until 1810 the island was a French possession. Then it was conquered by Great Britain. The island's population comprised Europeans and slaves brought from Africa and India. Because Mauritius was uninhabited, its population consisted, as Vaughan says, "of no one thing or people but of many more or less foreign, more or less naturalized" (2). Noting that the term Creole is "slippery," Vaughan writes that Mauritius "without natives has always been the product of multiple influences, multiple sources, which to differing degrees merge, take root, and 'naturalize' on new . . . soil" (2). In brief, there were no Native Americans or Zulus to contend [End Page 431] with or displace on Mauritius. The eighteenth-century history of the colony was characterized by both instability and poverty. The island was also ravaged by hurricanes and swarms of rats. Initially Frenchmen did not want to come to Mauritius because economic prospects were not good. The white population of the colony was unstable and did not reproduce itself. "The latter was a function," according to Vaughan, "both of high mortality rates and the island's role as a strategic base rather than as a site of colonial production" (265). The whites also lived in fear of the slave population.
From the very beginnings of settlement, the Europeans did have to confront the fact that some of the people imported as slaves ran away to the mountains and became Maroons. These former slaves harassed the settled communities for food, women, and other supplies. Marronage was never the problem on Mauritius that it came to be in either Jamaica or Brazil. Nonetheless, the French colonists were always worried about slave conspiracies. The major contribution to the field of slavery studies in Vaughan's book is its discussion of what I call the variegated slave and free black population of Mauritius.
Slaves on Mauritius, who came from India and Africa, were all defined as black under the French and later the English. But whether slave or free, they created "distinct identities for themselves" (266). These differences consisted of dress, hair styles, and the retention/creation of some linguistic forms, which suggest, as other studies of creolite have, that the slaves were never completely socialized by their masters. Vaughan does not suggest that slavery was a benign institution on Mauritius. But she does indicate that there were places based on religious and ethnic distinctions that the slaves and free people created for themselves. This process was facilitated in part by the colonial administrators of the island. Students of American Negro slavery, like me, will be surprised to learn that on Mauritius free people of...