Creating the Creole Island. Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius

Article excerpt

Creating the Creole Island. Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius. By Megan Vaughan. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 341. $89.95 cloth, $23.95 paper.

Most studies of slavery in Mauritius concentrate on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this finely produced book, Megan Vaughan sets out to examine the development of this slave society from its beginnings until the island's transition into a West Indian style slave plantation society in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This is an ambitious project that aims to fill an important gap in the history of pre-nineteenth-century slavery in Mauritius.

Vaughan's examination of late eighteenth-century court cases involving slaves forms the most insightful section. The records of the judgments of a slave-owning society inevitably suffer from the usual biases. However, they offer glimpses into the reality of slaves' lives, and bring a few acutely, if momentarily, to life. As with similar studies in the Americas, court records underline the complexity of slave life, and, most importantly, indicate considerable slave agency.

However, such insights are rare, and individual slaves appear only fleetingly. The greater task of analyzing the cultural and other values slaves from West and East Africa, Madagascar, and India brought with them, and how these contributed to what inevitably developed into a Creole community, proves more difficult, and the result is generally vague and unfocussed. This is perhaps due to a lack of sources, but also stems from Vaughan's penchant for a form of history, common amongst some social historians, which considers imaginative speculation a valid method of analysis.

First, the setting: Vaughan describes Mauritius as an isolated island from which early colonists, as well as slaves, longed to escape back to their native land. She overplays its isolation and underplays the importance of maritime travel. Mauritius developed into one of the major ports of call for especially French ships bound to and from the East. Indeed, in the pre-railway age, Mauritius was as accessible to the main French ports and Paris as were many regions of France.

Also, Vaughan's exploration of the various contributions to the emerging Creole language of Mauritius displays scant awareness of the vastly differing linguistic backgrounds of freshly arrived slaves, or of the linguistic complexities of eighteenth-century France. …