are two islands in the Western Atlantic colonised by the French. In Louis Dupuis's
Grammaire franfaisetamoule, published in 1863, is found the statement that there has been
a demand for a Tamil grammar in French even from such distant places as
Reunion and Martinique.
Since reading this statement about twenty years ago, I have made enquiries concerning the
presence of Tamil descendants in these countries, but obtained no precise information
until I was able to visit these islands,
Professor Guy Lasserre in his two-volume work on Guadeloupe has devoted a chapter to the '
Indians' of Guadeloupe, and published also an article in the Cahiers d'outre-mer in which
he states that until 1882 the migrants were entered in a separate category from the rest
of the population, and they formed on 31st December, 1882, a total of 21,084 immigrants
distributed mostly in plantations, especially of sugar cane.
He mentions the Tamil names and generally classes the migrants as
Dravidians. For Martinique, however, no study has been made, and the impression both among
the majority of Indians and non-Indians was that the immigrants came from India and were
Hindi-speaking. A study made of the history of migrations to Martinique is contained in an
unpublished thesis presented to the Sorbonne in 1965, in which Eugene Revert has studied
the policy and the practice of migrations to the Martinique.
The sources from which a study of this kind may tse made are many, but the
present paper confines itself to the published material, to the references in the Bulletin
Officiel de la Martinique, (BOM) the Annuaire Martinique, and to the weekly newspapers,
e.g., Le. moniteur de la MartiniqueJournal officiel de la colonie, the baptismal and
school registers, and to personal interviews.
Slavery was abolished in Martinique in the year 184S, and this was the
occasion for many slaves to abandon the sugar and other plantations on which they had
worked. The negroes were particularly averse to working in agricultural estates since it
was in these estates that they had been forcefully employed.
The economy of the islands was very much dependent on labour, and an
attempt was made to recruit labour from Madeira and from Europe, but the experiment proved
a failure. The Governor and his advisers as well as the Ministry for the colonies
advocated the introduction of Indian labour, which they observed had been such a success
in the Burbon and Reunion islands.
The Moniteur stated in an article on February 4, 1855 (Vol. I, No. 4) that
the British, having tried Germans, Irish, Portuguese, Maltese and Africans, finally found
that the Indians were the saviours in Demerera, Jamaica, Trinidad and ten other colonies.
On September 13, 1851 the Governor of Martinique in a letter admitted that
immigration was " une des necessites de l'epoque" and that it was indispensable
and urgent. It was estimated that more than 7,000 agriculturists were necessary to
continue the work on the plantations so that the economy might not fail.
The planters themselves were most anxious that Indian labour should be
recruited for Martinique and various reasons were advanced, such as the success of Indian
labour in the Burbon islands; the need in Martinique for an intermediary ethnic group
which would soften the ethnic rivalries already found among existing groups in the island,
and that ' les noirs' were inconsistent and irregular whereas the Indians were docile,
hardworking and belonged to an enlightened country and people, and labour would be cheap.
There were others who argued in favour of immigration from Africa because
the Africans would be able to acclimatise themselves more easily and would integrate
better with the existing population of African origin. The opponents of Indian immigration
added that the Indians belonged to a soft and lackadaisical race and would not be able to
stand the rigours of perpetual rain, cold and fever. The Governors, however, of both
islands favoured simultaneous immigration (from Africa and India).
A proprietor planter from Francois in Martinique wrote to Mr. St. Remy in Paris (28th
August, 1851) that he would not demand labourers from Europe since the few who had been
introduced in the colony had given a bad example and spread nefarious doctrines, the evil
results of which they were experiencing. He looked both to India and to Africa for labour.
Africa, Madeira, the Canary islands and even the Azores were considered places which could
be exploited for labourers (BOM, p. 350).
Accordingly the necessary legislation was passed and the conditions of
immigration, of repatriation, of re-employment and of permanent residence were cautiously
stipulated. These decrees and contracts of labour followed the same pattern as for
immigration to other countries, but were not always so strictly observed in the Antilles.
Gradually, as the number of immigrants increased, a committee for immigration was
instituted (1861) for the allocation of immigrants.
Already by the decree of 1852, a special agent had to be appointed at the
place of emigration, the recruits were subject to a medical inspection and had to live in
depots prior to embarkation; the ship itself had to be inspected in France prior to its
departure for the country from which the immigrants embarked, and the food, clothing,
medical attention, separation of men from women, and disciplinary action for indiscipline
during the voyage, were all provided for.
In order to ensure a safe working of the plans of immigration, a commission was set up
consisting of M. M. L. Hayot and M. de Percin Northumb, proprietor planters of sugar who
were authorised to travel to Trinidad and Barbados on the ship " Chimere " to
study the agriculture and economy and the conditions of Indian and Chinese workers, and to
make " practical and perceptible recommendations for the exploitation of agriculture
in Martinique." (BOM. 1853, p. 271).
Franco - British
Since most of the recruitment of labour was done in the British
colonies, on 1st July, 1861, a convention was signed between France and Great Britain
concerning the conditions under which labour could be recruited and employed. The second
clause of Article 9 provided for the repatriation of the labourer, and of his wife, and
children born in the colonies. The labourer was required to work on six days out of seven,
and for nine and a half hours each day (Art. 10). Sailings of emigrant vessels to ports
east of the Cape of Good Hope were permitted any time of the year.
For other Colonies, the period of sailing had to be between the 1st of
August and the 15th March. This restriction applied only to sailing vessels; steamships,
however, could take immigrants any month of the year (Art. 10). A European doctor and an
interpreter were provided for. Any person over ten years of age was considered an adult
emigrant, and two children between the years of one and ten could be counted as one adult.
The women and children were to be accommodated on the ship in positions different from the
Because of complaints which arose during periods of transportation,
further restrictions were imposed on the movement of men to other parts of the ship and
maistrys were appointed to supervise discipline and be intermediaries between the officers
and the emigrants (Art. 14). It was also defined that the same convention applied to
Indian immigration to Reunion, Martinique, Guadeloupe and their dependencies, and to
The decree of 27th March 1852 said that in order to augment the agricultural potential of
the island the business of transportation was being confided to a Captain Blanc who
already had satisfactory experience of transporting emigrants between India and Reunion.
of Immigration & Conditions of Recruitment
The first batch of Tamil labour arrived in Martinique and Guadeloupe in
1852 and 1853, and until 1883 there were regular sailings from India. Sometimes there was
more than one sailing a year carrying new contingents of labourers, as well as sailings
from India of repatriated labourers. Statistical tables are available for the years 1853
The importation of Indian labour was discontinued after 1883 partly because of the
objections raised by the Government of India against the recruitment of labour in its
territories and partly because of the high mobility of Indian labour. Most of the recorded
sailings of Indian labour are from Pondicherry and Karaikal. An agreement was signed dated
20th April, 1864 between the Government of Martinique and the Compagnie Generale
transatlantlique for the transport of labourers recruited in India.
The signatories were M. Gabriel Contarier representing the Government and
M. Charles Borde representing the Company. According to the agreement, in 1864 and 1865,
1400 immigrants were to be introduced. The women were to be between 14 and 30 years; the
men between 16 and 36. Children over ten were to be considered as adults, and children
under ten of both sexes were not to form more than a tenth of the contingent. This
classification was to be made before their departure from India, and the Company was not
to refuse to receive and transport all the children accompanying their mothers.
Article 4 of the Agreement explicity stated that workers from India
destined for Martinique were to be embarked exclusively from the French ports of
Pondicherry, Karikal or Yanaon or from the ports of the Madras Presidency. The company was
to provide each " engage " with some clothing for the journey, a pair of
trousers and a shirt (pantalon, chemise) for the men, cloth (pagne) for the women, a
blanket sheet for each person, and clothing of wool necessary for passing through the
lower latitudes. These articles of clothing became the property of the immigrant. The
Company was to be paid for each living adult immigrant they landed the sum of 415 francs
and 45 centimes. Children under ten years were not to be paid for.
The Company was to have a sailing to Martinique at least once a year, and from 1865 were
to take back to India contingents of repatriates for whom stipulated sums would be paid:
291 francs per person, if total of repatriates was below 50;
242 francs 50 c. per person, if total of repatriates was below 100;
194 francs per person, if total was below 100 or over.
That the vast majority of migrants to Martinique and Guadeloupe were Tamil
speakers is also evident from the provisions made for the celebration of the Pongal
festivities in Martinique. It was stipulated in the " Contrat d'engagement de travail
" (1858) that every year at the end of the year, a four-day holiday shall be given in
order that the " Indien " might celebrate the feast of Pongal. The new weekly
newspaper Le Morliteur published on 14th January, 1855 (Vol. I, No. 4, p. 2), a full
account by a planter from Francois in Martinique about the celebration of the Pongal feast
in his estate. The chief priest chosen from among them was adorned with flowers and two
lambs adorned with garlands were killed as a sacrifice. The boiling of the rice and the
cries of " Pongal " are described by him in detail.
The sailings of ships from Karikal and Pondicherry were followed with great concern in
Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the official newspapers published lists of planters with
the number of labourers they were prepared to employ. The demand was far in excess of the
supply and therefore the commission decided on the number they would be prepared to assign
each year. The official newspaper gives the dates of departure of ships from the Indian
ports, and the dates of their arrival in the Antilles. For example, there is a record of
the Hampden which left Pondicherry on 22nd September, 1856 with 570 persons - men 440,
women 81, children (m) non-adults 36, children (f) non-adults 2, infants and "
non-engages " 11. Again on the 11th December, the newspapers announces that the
Hampden has arrived at Saint Pierre with 549 Indians and 4,430 sacks of rice.
Since the cessation of migration and repatriation in 1893, the history of the Tamil
community has been one of slow integration with the rest of the Martiniquian and
The migrants did not find themselves socially accepted even by the
population of African descent. For an Indian migrant to be married outside his own
community was considered to be an elevation of social status, and for such persons was
applied the term " Chappes-Coolies ", or one who had escaped the disabilities of
his own milieu.
On the other hand, in Guadeloupe there was still a distinction, until the
last generation between the " Calcuttas " or those of North-Indian origin and
the " Malabars " of South Indian descent.
Vis-a-vis those of African descent, the " Indians " maintain
that they have closer affinities with the European than with the African. Though
intermarriage of Indians with those of African and Creole descent has reached a stage
where only a few Tamil families remain without any kind of racial admixture, somatic
characteristics such as colour and hair, still make a type easily recognizable as Indian
The Indians themselves are completely integrated culturally with the rest of the
population. They are now the third or fourth generation, and bear no memories of India and
no kind of contact or affiliation with anything Indian in or from India. A type of checked
cloth worn as head dress by the women is known as " Madras ", probably from the
cotton imported from Madras. A number of terms used in cooking are of Tamil origin.
Of a possible population of Indian descent of 15,000 in Martinique and
20,000 in Guadeloupe, hardly 17 persons speak Tamil. These are mostly above the age of 60
or 70. One of them, Albert Marimuttu, speaks it extremely well, and recordings of his
speech were made.
The only clue to the region of their origin is in the Tamil or Indian names which are used
as family names. From personal interviews, baptismal registers and school registers were
collected the family names, but one has to note that the spelling and pronunciation have
been very gallicized, sometimes beyond recognition. In the process of gallicization,
however, the alveolar "l" seems to have been maintained and the palatal "
r" changed to "1". A name like Naidu is written Nayaradou; Muththamal
is written Moutammalle. Some of the other names are: Moutou, Moutoussamy,
Sacarabany, Pavade, Caroupin, Rangon, Ainama, Vaity, Kamatchy, Vaillammal, Thangaman,
Velaye, Virapin, Sinama, Kouppy, Poonga, Carpin, Chinama, Rengasamy, Govindin, Palvilli,
Narainen, Subarayan, Soupama.
There seems to have been interest in the study of the Tamil language through private
tuition for some time. One elderly informant was able to recite verses from plays which
had been staged in Martinique, such as Raama nhaaTakam, HiraNiya nhaaTakam, Theecingka
raaja nhaaTakam and oppaari verses. There were others who tried to remember Tamil songs
they had sung in their childhood, and they seemed to remember more and more of the texts
as they made the effort to remember.