DR STEPHANIE TAMBY,
Historian

The payment of compensation was essential to the final dismantling of the British slave-system, and when that compensation was proposed to slave-owners in the 1830s, this occasioned an enthusiasm amongst sections of the Mauritian elites over the compensation money, an enthusiasm that pulled thousands of slave-owners including planters, attorneys, traders and even members of religious institutions, into affirming their ownership of enslaved once the state assigned specific and immediate monetary value to the claims of ownership.

In agreement with instructions received in May 1834, Governor William Nicolay appointed eight distinguished colonists (ex-officio members) to sit with the Procureur-Général (then Prosper D’Epinay) and himself, on a local Commission of Compensation. The main duties of the commission were to sort out the average value of Mauritian enslaved for the period 1822 to 1831 and to find out the exact number of enslaved persons in the island at the time. The colonists that were appointed to serve on the commission were Faduilhe, Edward Davies, Henry Perrot and H. Jolivet, all lawyers, Guillemeau and Pierre Lucas were planters, and James Blyth and Hugh Hunter were British merchants. While Faduilhe and Lucas had particularly prominent records of opposition to the slavery amelioration measures, all the other members except Perrot and Jolivet had close ties to the sugar industry. [1] Perrot, a solicitor (avoué) who as such in all probability acted as an agent for sugar estates, had been a prominent member of the Comité Colonial. Blyth and Hunter were merchants with business associates in England, who had established businesses in Mauritius, which by mid-1836 ranked second and third respectively in the colony as sugar exporters.

The Commission sent a preliminary estimate of slave numbers and average slave prices to England, on the strength of which Mauritian slave-owners were awarded £2,112,632 in compensation for 7,386 claims, involving 66,343 slaves – or an equivalent of £31,8 per enslaved. The island’s share of the total compensation fund of £20 million for the British Empire as a whole was calculated from the estimate of average enslaved prices and from a summary of returns submitted to the Registrar of Slaves in 1832 (see Table 1). However, the returns were not complete, and it was known that at least 1,939 enslaved had not been properly registered, apparently because their owners were reluctant to pay the 10 shillings registration fee. The central Commission of Compensation decided that while the total compensation awarded would not be affected by the incompleteness in the returns, the civil status of the formerly enslaved would be affected thereby, since articles 1 and 12 of the Act for the Abolition of Slavery stipulated that only duly registered enslaved could be apprenticed, while others had to be unconditionally set free. [2]

The local Commission of Compensation was by the very nature of its composition likely to support the colonists’ claim. On 4 July 1834, Le Cernéen reported that the commission had initiated a correspondence with the colonial agents, John Irving and David Barclay in England, for them to support and defend behind the Central Commission in London, the rights of the colonists for a fair distribution of compensation. [3] Sixteen days earlier Ordinance No. 8 was promulgated by the Colonial Government to solve the problem of incorrectly registered enslaved persons. The slave-owners involved were given 21 days to comply with the law. [4]

The instructions of the British Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg of 4 June 1831 appeased Mauritian fears of wholesale emancipation without compensation. However, these instructions offered some judicial recourse to unlawfully enslaved persons, by setting a special court to deal with their complaints, in the place of the Court of First Instance. [5] At the end of 1833, Richard Morris Thomas, the Protector of Slaves, reported that he had collected evidence for the hearing of 200 such cases. A year later, he was investigating 550 claims for freedom “upon the grounds of illegal importation and fraudulent registration”. Thomas complained that the number of claims might be increased nearly fourfold “but from the vexations impediments which were encountered at every stage of the investigations”. [6]

The Protector’s efforts in this field were also hindered by a reversal of Lord Glenelg’s instructions of 1831. At the end of 1833, Protector Thomas discovered that up to 70 Malays, who had been illicitly imported into Mauritius, were being illegally detained in slavery. He took immediate steps to have them freed and secured the release of six of the Malays from the Vice-admiralty court. It should be noted that Thomas received no assistance from the local Commission of Compensation in his endeavours to have illicitly imported apprentices freed.

Mauritian slave-owners had been threatened with large scale property losses at the end of the 1820s when allegations of illicit slave trading led to calls for setting free Mauritian slaves without compensation to their owners. The political over-reaction of the slave-owners to these suggestions, the anxiety of the British government for avoiding political unrest and social instability and a concern for upholding property rights, all served to moderate official policy in this respect. This explains why, while means of redress were made available to illegally enslaved persons, wholesale emancipation was actively discouraged; and why the imperfections of the slave register were largely overlooked in the appointment and payment of compensation claims. The composition of the local Commission of Compensation was bound to favour the slave-owners in any settlement, for only the men on the spot could establish the legitimacy of claims satisfactorily. In the end, as Pridham put it, “the planters succeeded in obtaining compensation claims found too complex for disentanglement.” The payment of compensation was fixed per enslaved, according to that enslaved category. The chief categories were praedials (attached to the soil), praedials unattached and domestic slaves. Considering that compensation was not paid if claims were not accepted, it was in the interests of the colony that all claims should be validated, and this accounts for the attitude of the local commission of compensation.
Not all Mauritian slave-owners benefitted equally from the award of slave compensation. Small proprietors, lacking the funds or the know-how, to validate their claims, were forced to rely on local attorneys or London merchants, who opened bureaux d’indemnités in Port Louis. By contrast those intermediaries and most large planters received substantial sums either, as commission, or, in compensation for the loss of their enslaved. Given the accusations of illegal slave importation that weighted heavily on the colony and the threat of emancipation without compensation, it can be argued that on the whole Mauritian slave-owners successfully dealt with the issue of emancipation.


REFERENCES

1. British National Archives CO 167/174 Letter of Nicolay to Stanley, No. 34, dated 5 June 1834; CO 167/195 Jeremie to Grey dated 15 April 1836.
2. Pridham, Charles, 1869. An Historical, Political and Statistical Account of Mauritius and its Dependencies, London: T. and W. Boone, p. 343. Pridham stated that the average value of slaves from 1822 to 1830 was set at £69,7. The compensation awarded was thus only 46% of the estimated value.
3. Pitot, 1914. L’Ile de France : Esquisses Historiques IV. 1828-1833, pp. 311-313.
4. Bonnefoy, T., 1853. Table générale (alphabétique et analytique) pour servir aux recherches à faire au greffe de la Cour suprême de l’Ile Maurice, concernant les lois et autres dispositions règlementaires et administratives de cette colonie. Ile Maurice : Imprimerie de L. Channell, p. 191.
5. The structure of the Mauritian judiciary retained its original form after the British conquest. The Court of First Instance was a tribunal of first resort for civil cases which fell outside the competence of the district magistracy. The Court of First Instance was a court of last resort in certain cases, but litigation involving large sums was handled by a Court of Appeal. Cf. Toussaint, A., L’administration française de l’Ile Maurice et ses archives 1721-1810, Port Louis : Imprimerie Commerciale, pp. 61-65, 73-75.
6. Extract from Slave Protector’s report for half year ended 31 December 1833 and ‘Extract from Slave Protector’s Report from July 1834 to February 1835’, Parliamentary Papers (144) 28 March 1836.