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Trade in the Indian Ocean

Trade in the Indian Ocean
  • © UNESCO

The societies of the Indian Ocean, including Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, Seychelles, came into being at different times through ancient slave trades and the migrations of populations from Africa, Asia and Europe.

The system of slavery had existed in the islands of the Indian Ocean since before colonization, particularly in Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, where slaves were brought by Swahili traders from the east coast of Africa.

The arrival of Europeans to the Indian Ocean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries heralded the start of a revitalized slave trade, which led to the population and exploitation of the Mascarene Islands. Thus, the system of slavery severed millions of people from their roots and ultimately gave rise to a new society. For example, new oral traditions developed throughout the period of slavery as slaves were forbidden to read and write up to the time of the abolitions. Furthermore, the suppression of slavery did not propagate the end of social discrimination as servility persisted through alternative forms of servitude such as recruiting, day-labouring and share-cropping.

The Oral Tradition
UNESCO’s research program to identify and register the oral memory of the islands of the south-western Indian Ocean, working from within the framework of the Slave Route Project, has brought to the fore the need to safeguard the oral heritage of the islands that have experienced the slave trade and slavery.

Additionally, UNESCO’s programme to trace oral memory has generated growing interest in the preservation of memory among populations effected by the trade. As such, the University of Mauritius, the Nelson Mandela Centre, the Seychelles National Institute of Education, the Abro in Rodrigues and the CNDRS in the Comoros each launched documentary programmes in 2001 and 2002. These programmes are continuing with both inventory and field training activities. Documents have been digitalized and stored in the national institutions of the islands and may be accessed by the general public.

An Inventory of Sites of Memory in the Indian Ocean Region
The programme to identify and catalogue the oral heritage, developed over three years in collaboration with UNESCO, has achieved significant results in the Indian Ocean region (Reunion, the Comoros Islands, Mauritius and Rodrigues, the Seychelles Islands and Madagascar). It is now possible to envision the drafting of an exhaustive list of all sites linked to the memory of the slave trade. The programme must take into account the specificity of the slave trade in the region such as its development over a thousand years, and its continuation after the legal abolition of slavery under the guise of recruiting. It involved not only the African continent but also the Indian sub-continent and Asia, as well as the places relative to marooning. In this respect, the data collected on the oral heritage should provide information to help carry out the listing of the sites and places of memory.

Some of the islands of the Indian Ocean, such as Reunion, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, have already registered some of the sites linked to the slave trade. The project, which will be implemented during the 2006-2007 biennium, will begin by listing sites in Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, as they have not yet established an exhaustive list of their sites and places of memory.

The project will be coordinated by the UNESCO Chair after a regional scientific committee has been established. The committee is to be supported by local authorities as well as regional scientific institutions and academia

Underwater archaeology
The project entitled l'Utile...1761, Esclaves oubliés (Forgotten slaves) includes a component for underwater archaeological research on a slave ship that sank off the coast of Tromelin Island, abandoning its cargo of slaves from Madagascar on the island.

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