Tracing “la Traite” in the Indian Ocean

Margaret Schotte
York University

“Sailing with the French”, a SSHRC-funded, traces more than 1200 voyages of the Compagnie des Indes, both the movements of ships to and within the Indian Ocean, and the movements of individuals from port to port. The goal is to uncover previously anonymous individuals and to map their lives.

The rich data shows patterns that reflect the different phases of the French Compagnie(s) des Indes. Material details of voyages (vessel tonnage, crews) changed as priorities shifted and in response to the tumult of several wars.  Evidence of regulatory changes are more elusive. 18th century legislation to limit the number of Black individuals in France was enforced only rarely, so many Frenchmen brought enslaved individuals with them when they travelled. In voyages where enslaved individuals accompanied paying passengers, did Company record keepers make any adjustments as new prohibitions were introduced? Were enslaved individuals of African origin recorded differently from those of South Asian origin? By employing new methods to analyse these documents, it is possible to reach a more nuanced understanding of how the Company viewed the unfree individuals who sailed on its vessels.