Between Indenture and Slavery? African indentured laborers in the French West Indies (1852-1862)

Following the abolition of slavery in the French Caribbean, a certain type of forced labor called ‘indenture’ was implemented. It consisted in forcing laborers to work for a certain number of years in order for them to ‘buy’ their own freedom. Céline Flory explores the extent to which this specific form of labor consisted in a rupture or a continuity with slavery.


Céline Flory is a historian chargée de recherche at CNRS, France. Her research focuses on indenture and post-slavery Caribbean, more precisely on the social and cultural trajectory of African, Indian and Chinese engagés and their descendants. Her book, De l’esclavage à la Liberté Forcée. Histoire des travailleurs africains engagés dans la Caraïbe française du XIXe siècle, published in 2015 by Karthala has been granted the Fetkann – Maryse Condé 2015 Research Award.


During the nineteenth century, all Caribbean slave societies abolished slavery and gradually passed from a system based on slave labor to a system based on wage earning. During this transition, most societies resorted to a form of unfree labor: the indentured labor system.

France was no exception. After 27 April 1848, when slavery in the French colonies was permanently abolished, colonial administrators and planters lobbied for the introduction of foreign workers under contract as a means of reorganizing labor, which was, as of that time, a free market. In this way, they aimed to avoid resorting to dependence on the local population which was, at that time, highly mobile and whose wage demands were more than what the planters were willing to pay. In response, in 1852, the French government proclaimed two decrees, which opened its colonies to indentured laborers coming from India, China and also from Africa[i].

To successfully recruit a significant number of indentured laborers in Africa, the French government established a special process called “rachat”, that is to say “repurchase”. By this process, French private merchants purchased captives in order to force on them a ten-year indenture contract. The indenture was to be executed in one of the French colonies: Réunion, Martinique, Guadeloupe or French Guiana. 98% of the fifty thousand Africans recruited along the West and East-African coasts between 1852 and 1862 had these contracts imposed on them.

By questioning the legal and economic nature of this system, I will show that the experience of these African indentured laborers was close to that of both the captives of the transatlantic slave trade and of the Indian indentured laborers.

The indenture system was based on the principle of individual freedom. Article 8 of the decree of 27 March 1852 stipulated that this commitment had to be the result of personal, voluntary and informed choice. According to the agreement concluded between private recruiters and the Ministry of the Navy and Colonies, every indenture contract had to record the terms of the commitment:

“The consent of emigrants and their terms of commitment will be recognized in a labor contract which will be passed under the eyes and bearing the certification of a delegated administration.”[ii]

In the context of the “rachat” recruitment of captives, indenture contracts were a primary element to legitimize the legal system. Here, the contract did not serve to notice but to create individual volunteers artificially. Looking at the first lines of the contract, one would assume it was the result of an agreement between two individuals in full possession of their means:

“This Day, 29 March 1859, in front of us, Enseigne de Vaisseau, Commissioner of the French government, emigration agent, in accordance with Article 8 of the Decree of 27 March 1852, assisted by two called witnesses, appeared the appointed Kiluemba, free black, born in the village of Quibanda, Loango coast, aged 23, who consented to go to one of the French Colonies in America freely and voluntarily to contract the following detailed work commitments and who was presented by Mr. Regnier on behalf of Mr. Regis to benefit the inhabitant who will be appointed by the local government on his arrival in the colony.”[iii]

The first striking element of this excerpt is that the indenture contract transformed the individual’s status. With the mention “free black” added to his name, the contract mentioned his new status and Kiluemba thus became a free man in the eyes of French law. The mention “free black” without reference to prior emancipation, suggests that these individuals had always been or had long been free men. This maneuver was clever because it implied that the recruiters had acquired labor commitment on the free will of the laborer, an assumption reinforced by the contract: “[he] consented to go to one of the French Colonies in America freely and voluntarily to contract the following work commitments […]”.[iv]

But the specificity of indentured contracts was precisely that they left no options for “repurchased” individuals but that of labor commitment as an alternative to captivity and/or slavery. The people who were freed by an official act, which asserted their actual emancipation, could refuse to commit or they had the legal means to question their commitment. Yet, this contract stipulated on the one hand, their status as legally free men and, on the other hand, the conditions of their engagement. This system of “rachat” was based on two intertwined actions: buying a captive as well as his commitment to work for several years. But, since these men were not free at the time of purchase, they could not, in principle, freely agree to a contract.

Therefore neither recruitments nor commitments, not to mention emigration inherent to the process, were based on the expressed will of the emigrants. Besides, the fact that these migrations of populations were based on the purchase of captives, their association with work commitments and lack of free will made them tantamount to deportation and forced migration.

Unlike the indenture system among Indian or Chinese populations, the indentured labor contracts drawn up for the “rachetés” laborers were fraudulent and were designed to legitimize the process by concealing the forced nature of the commitment to work. The agreements, freely agreed to in the former case and imposed in the latter, cannot be considered as equivalent. While in theory all the ships sailing to the host colony were supposed to have only men of free status on board, those transporting “rachetés” laborers were in fact carrying men who did not have the opportunity to enjoy freedom or choose their destiny.

The issue of voluntary workers also reveals the ontologically different nature of this type of labor and the one set up by Indians and Chinese volunteers, although they both were carried out under the same legislation. Indeed, laborers were not only engaged as volunteers, they were also granted free status when they were asked to commit, while the “repurchased” individuals were captives, that is to say tradable goods belonging to a merchant. Thus, the nature of these markets in which contracts of indenture were negotiated and concluded were highly dissimilar. In the case of “classic” indenture (that is to say free and voluntary), the recruiter was exchanging an individual’s capacity to work for a monthly salary and material support (food, housing, clothing and medical care), whereas in the framework of forced indenture, the recruiter had to buy the whole person from a merchant to obtain his capacity to work. In the first case, it was a wage labor market; in the second case it was a trade of human beings, in other words the same principle as that which prevailed during slavery.

Moreover, the vast majority of these Africans arrived in the French West Indies with the same physical and psychological conditions as the slaves who had arrived in the past: physical weakness, skin diseases, fear and panic. As with the captives during the slave trade, these newcomers came from inter-African slave trade networks and were taken without their consent to the American colonies. At the time of their “rachat” by the French recruiters, these Africans were already very weak after deportation within Africa and long months of captivity in extremely harsh conditions. Furthermore, although a French legislation defined the material and sanitary conditions of these individuals during the Atlantic crossing, this one was not fully respected. Both logistic and medical care put into practice by the recruiters and the government officials, were never equal to the needs of these extremely afflicted individuals.[v]

While this first phase – the recruitment and the Atlantic crossing – appears little different for these Africans from that of captives deported during the slave trade, their experience upon arrival in the Colonies was similar to that of free immigrants voluntarily engaged. Indeed, on arrival in the colonies, they became part of the same market as that of classic indenture. The recruiters sold the indentured contracts of “repurchased” laborers to employers via the administration. In this exchange, the workforce of individuals previously purchased was sold via contract to the future employer but not the persons themselves. From a legal and economic standpoint, this administrative process arbitrarily turned these captives into indentured workers. They would recover or acquire full possession of their own integrity as a person, but not of their workforce as they had given it up by contract. The specificity of their mode of recruitment-commitment never appeared in the legal texts regulating “immigration”. Although some terms of engagement were different, all indentured contracts were established on the same model and were similar in nature.

In the colonies, the indentured Africans would enjoy a similar status to indentured Indians or Chinese. They became “immigrants” (the administrative category) like any other, and like them, they were subjected to the same laws and the same tough life and work conditions.

The similarities of life and work in the colonies notwithstanding, an essential difference remains between the experience of “rachetés” captives and that of individuals who chose indenture. The latter voluntarily entered a form of unfree labor while the former were subjected to a form of forced labor which was half way between slavery and indenture.

[i][i] Bulletin des Lois, 1852, number 3724: Decree of February 13, 1852 on immigration and hiring in the colonies and n°3958: Decree of March 27, 1852 on emigration from Europe and outside Europe to the French colonies.

[ii] Author’s translation of : « Le consentement des émigrants et les conditions de leur engagement seront constatés dans un contrat d’engagement qui sera passé, sous les yeux et revêtu de la certification d’un délégué de l’administration ». Article 4 of the convention of March 14, 1857 between Régis Aîné, shipowner, and Hamelin, Minister of the Navy and Colonies [Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer (ANOM), Fonds ministériel (FM), série géographique (SG), Généralités, 118/1020].

[iii] Author’s translation of : « Ce jourd’hui vingt neuf mars mil huit cent cinquante neuf par devant nous Enseigne de vaisseau, commissaire du gouvernement français, agent d’émigration, conformément à l’article 8 du décret du 27 mars 1852, assisté de deux témoins requis, a comparu le nommé Kiluemba, noir libre, né au village de Quibanda côte de Loango âgé de 23 ans lequel nous a déclaré consentir librement et de son plein gré à partir pour une des Colonies Françaises d’Amérique pour y contracter l’engagement de travail ci-après détaillé et présenté par M. Régnier au nom de Mr Régis au profit de l’habitant qui sera désigné par l’administration locale à son arrivée dans la colonie.». ANOM, FM, SG, Généralités, 118/1020, contract of March 29, 1859 between Régis Aîné, shipower, and Kiluemba, “ransomed” captive.

[iv] Author’s translation of : « […] lequel nous a déclaré consentir librement et de son plein gré à partir pour une des Colonies Françaises d’Amérique pour y contracter l’engagement de travail […] ». ANOM, FM, SG, Généralités, 118/1020, contract of March 29, 1959 between Régis Aîné, shipower, and Kiluemba, “ransomed” captive.

[v] The average mortality rate of the thirty-nine Atlantic crossing made by the “repurchased” Africans was 10.90 percent (for an average duration of thirty-six days).