Archival Research in the Indian Ocean

In this archival post Jehanne-Emmanuelle Monnier, an independent researcher, discusses her research on the history of indentured labour and scientific explorations, outlining which archives might be of interest to historians working on the history of French colonialism in the Indian Ocean region: 

Although South Asian studies and African studies still prevail, the history of the Indian Ocean as a region is an emerging field. The unity of the area is particularly tangible in the study of networks, which have connected the islands, South Asia and East Africa for centuries.

Since France had a significant colonial empire in this region, and still holds overseas territories such as La Réunion and Mayotte for instance, there are a number interesting French language archives that hold material relating to the Indian Ocean region, which English-speaking researchers may not be aware of.

As an MA and then a PhD student working on the 19th century-Indian Ocean region, I have had the opportunity to visit several archives, both in France and in the Indian Ocean. My research focused on two main topics: illegal slave-trade and indentured labour and scientific travels but I have also worked on shipwrecks. Such work involves archival research in multiple locations.

Regarding the illegal slave-trade and the coolie-trade, which involved significant rivalry between the British and the French, the best source remains the French Navy. The central archives of the French Navy are located in Vincennes (East of Paris). There you can find all the files of the officers and, more importantly, individual ship records, as well as all the correspondence between the officers or between the officers and the administration in France. In Lorient (Brittany) there are the archives of the Navy specific to the Indian Ocean region. Here you can find copies of the correspondence held in Vincennes but I found that some documents in Lorient do not exist in Vincennes and vice-versa so it is worth going to both places. Personally, I enjoyed working in Lorient very much because there are less people, so you can have more files in a day and the archives catalogue is very clear and easy to use. Besides, there also is a good library you can access. Although there is an online catalogue for the archives of the French Navy, it is not very detailed and you have to refer to paper based catalogues in each place:

In terms of local archives in the Indian Ocean region itself, the Archives Départementales of La Réunion have some documents relating to the illegal slave-trade, including the civil ships involved in the. Unfortunately though there is no online catalogue for this material and even the paper based catalogue is not very precise. It is a similar situation with regard to the archives for Mauritius and the Seychelles, neither of which are online.

In spite of this you can find a huge amount of valuable material concerning La Réunion, as well as Mauritius and Seychelles, in the Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer (CAOM), in Aix-en-Provence (South of France). The website and the catalogue are well-presented and you can even do your research in English. The sorting is geographical, but then, on a lower scale, you can find themes for each territory. I have worked there several times, both on indentured labour and scientific explorations. Almost any topic in the history of French former colonies requires to a trip to the CAOM. The greatest part of the archives comprises administrative documents and correspondence between the administration in Paris and local ones in each colony. Regarding slavery or indentured labour for instance, you can find information about the transportation of labour, the legal regimes that underpinned these labour systems and the social and working experiences of labourers once they arrived in the colonies. The CAOM also holds an extensive and rich collection of photographs. You can have a look online, though your research will have to be done in French:

To finish with, I would like to focus on the extensive, rich and unknown collection of photographs held at the Académie Malgache in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Dozens of photo albums, totally some 3,500 pictures from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century, are stored there. They belong to the Grandidier Collection. Alfred Grandidier, the French naturalist and explorer, was the subject of my PhD thesis topic. Each photo album is labelled with a theme or a region. I believe these pictures to be a genuine treasure, for they can lead to different kind of research: history of photography, history of the French conquest, history of the Madagascan peoples prior to the French conquest. Because some pictures had been taken with an anthropological purpose, there are numerous pictures on ‘traditional’ festivals, clothes and artefacts. There also is a huge number of photographs relating to colonial infrastructure projects, such as road and railway works, agriculture and buildings. In addition to this invaluable photographic collection, the Grandidier Collection includes 13,000 books and manuscripts, mostly written in French but also in Malagasy and English. Unfortunately, the website created to promote this collection is no longer working. The only information that is available remotely is an article (in French) published in 2006, which summarises the collection.

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