Freedom and Indentured Labor in the
French Caribbean, 1848–1900
AS THE CAMPAIGNS to abolish slave trading and slavery achieved their goals in the Caribbean, two questions needed to be answered if plantation colonies were to continue prospering. Where could sufficient free labor be found to meet current and future needs? And what would “free” mean in this new context? This chapter traces the attempts to answer these two questions in the three French colonies of the Caribbean following the end of slavery in 1848: the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles and the colony of French Guiana (Guyane) on the northern coast of South America. The problems the French encountered in this enterprise and the solutions they devised may serve as a case study of the larger situation of free labor and invite comparisons with the better-studied efforts of the British Caribbean colonies to contend with the same issues after they ended slavery and apprenticeship.
In a few Caribbean colonies, such as Barbados, the former slaves chose to continue their old plantation jobs under such new terms as emancipation brought them. But elsewhere in the Caribbean, where newly emancipated people had access to other types of employment or land for subsistence farming, large proportions of freed people refused to resume plantation labor. In order to replace these lost laborers and to provide sufficient hands for expansion, the colonies needed to resume some form of large-scale labor recruitment from overseas. A portion of the new laborers were recruited in Africa, a few from China; but most came from South Asia. Nearly all were recruited under contracts of indenture that bound them to work (for wages) for a period of years in return for their passage from overseas.