Indentured immigration and social accommodation in La Réunion

Christian Ghasarian
Center for South Asia Studies
University of California-Berkeley

Tamils in the Diaspora are living in various places among which the French Island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Settled in this relatively isolated Island since the second part of the last century, Tamils have developed some patterns of behavior that are not quite those of their ancestors from Tamil Nadu nor those of the other inhabitants of La Réunion. Anthropological investigations nevertheless show that despite a strong policy of acculturation and assimilation led by the French administration on the populations transferred to the Island, people of Tamil origin have managed to maintain, in an adapted manner, most of their ancestral conceptions and practices. An examination at some of these conceptions and practices allows to catch a glance at the strengths and adaptive resources of the Tamil culture.

Devoid of any inhabitants three centuries ago, La Réunion has been a French colony until 1946, when it became a French Department. Like its neighbor Mauritius, La Réunion was originally constituted to produce sugar. On both Islands we find the same varied population of European, African, Indian (Hindu and Muslim), Chinese, Malagasy and Comores descent; each subgroup arriving in the Island under different circumstances. Yet, while these two societies, usually called "the sister Islands," have both been man aged in a coercive manner by the French government in La Réunion and by the British government in Mauritius, they have developed very differently because the two colonizing countries had a different approach of colonization.

In Mauritius, the purpose of the British government was not to make the displaced and colonized populations integrating the British ways. As a result, when Mauritius became independent in 1968, most of the traditional customs and habits of the people that have been under British rules until then were still alive. Today, a basically "Indian atmosphere" pervades the society. The population of Indian origin, numerically the most significant on the Island (usually called the "little India"), manifests its identity through many signs of identity not so explicit in La Réunion (among which the daily use of the Hindi, Bhojpuri and Tamil language, the common wearing of Indian clothes, the selling of Indian food in the street, etc.).

On the other side, in La Réunion, since the beginning of the immigration, the French government made everything to assimilate the populations under its control. The political project was to exploit the resources of the Island, while allowing and pressuring the transferred people used for that purpose to become "French". As a result, descendants of Tamil immigrants are today heavily involved in the French culture. If we neglect their physical characteristics and patronymics, they are simply French citizens, like other members of this multicultural society. Yet, despite their important adaptation to the public life of La Réunion society, people of Tamil origin still do not eat beef, which denotes a typical Hindu attitude. In reality, despite more than one hundred years of settlement on the Island, they have retained many ancestral patterns of belief and behavior in their private lives. Transmitted with rigorous attention to children in families whose parentage is ethnically endogamous, these traditional models confer on them a sense of their difference.

I present here some of the main Tamil patterns these people have retained in the family and community spheres and the way they manage their life between the Indian and the French world-view. After describing the changes and continuity in the external presentation of the self, in the religious attitude and in the language, I will mention some domains of life where the Indian sense of hierarchy and distinction have been adapted to the cultural and social contexts of this French plural society. To understand the situation of people from Tamil descent in La Réunion Island nowadays, it is necessary to retrace briefly the history of their immigration to this French territory. In the eighteenth century, the economy of the Island was based on sugar cane plantations. The abolition of slavery of African people in 1848 led the white landowners to recruit new laborers by contract to work on their plantations. That policy resulted in the immigration of many Tamils, principally in the middle of the last century.

The great majority of Indian workers coming to La Réunion originated from South India, notably from French settlements in Tamil Nadu (Pondichery and Karikal). A mistaken appellation in the nineteenth century led Westerners to designate all the people of South India (Tamils included) as "Malabars". This term, accordingly applied by the French to Tamil laborers coming to La Réunion, has been kept by the latter to label their own identity as well. The vast majority of the Tamil immigrants were from a variety of different castes. Hard living conditions at home were the main reason behind their departure to La Réunion. The immigration offered the promise of their being able to return home with enough wealth to begin life anew. Thus the recruitment of laborers was principally from the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, and since they were intended for the arduous work in the sugar cane fields, the women's recruit among them were relatively few (from 1848 to 1883, around 80% of the Tamil immigrants to La Réunion were men).

The daily life of these immigrants was very harsh, for the labor relations in this society were shaped by a past of slavery. Initially, the engagement contract lasted for five years and the so-called "coolies" intended to return to their homeland after this period. Yet, the majority of the landowners did not respect the terms of the contract and routinely pressed their employees to extend their work period. Toiling from ten to twelve hours a day, the contract laborers also suffered under a new hierarchical relationship regarding the white landowners and their supervisors. Although they were "free" and "voluntary workers", they experienced bad treatment, and sometimes physical punishments. Their wages were also often delayed or simply withheld. Moreover, they were virtually banned from practicing their "Hindu" religion. Tamil workers were disillusioned and many of them tried to escape, revolt or even commit suicide. Escaping or dying were two means of ending -- in a definitive manner -- the contract with the employer.

Numerous complaints, describing the non compliance with the conventions governing the living conditions of the South Indian coolies on the Island, were sent by the immigrants to the British Consulate, since the majority of them were British subjects and so supposed to be protected under British law. Consequently, in 1881, the British government suspended the agreement on immigration they had with the French. While preventing more immigration, that decision did not improve the situation of the workers already on the Island. Indeed most of the landowners did everything within their means to keep the Indian labor force on their plantations, most notably by delaying the departure of the ships which would return the laborers to their homeland at the completion of their contracts. Thus, even when the workers were fortunate enough to complete their contract and get their wages, many of them often had to wait several months before gaining passage on a boat back to Tamil Nadu. The repeated postponement of their departure often obliged them to spend all their savings and to accumulate new debts that, ultimately, forced them to remain in the Island and seek a new contract either with their former employer or another.

In this way, the majority of Tamil laborers could not return to south India at the end of their contracts. Such circumstances, coupled with the occasional voluntary decision to settle in La Réunion, account for the process of a Tamil Diaspora to this Island, a Diaspora whose members have had scarcely any relation with Tamil Nadu until approximately the last decade. Culturally uprooted, and experiencing very harsh living conditions, Tamils had to adapt themselves and to develop a new way of life in response to the different needs and obligations they faced in this new social and cultural context. This brief description of the coercion they experienced in the past was necessary in order to understand the behavior they exhibit today on the Island. The gender imbalance among Tamil immigrants did not allow all of them to preserve and to transmit their identity. Since a great number of men could not find a Tamil spouse, they married women of African or European origin. This explains why many people in La Réunion today have Tamil name without any corresponding adherence to Indian values. Among Tamil immigrants, those who could marry a Tamil woman were able to maintain their original culture in their private life and to transmit it to their descendants. This criterion of ethnic endogamy is very important in understanding Tamil culture or practices on the Island today: only people whose ancestors have strictly intermarried among Tamils continue Tamil values. Speaking here about Tamil patterns of behavior, I necessarily focus exclusively on this endogamous population and its cultural experience.

Because of the French ethical policy of avoiding any mention of ethnic and cultural distinctions in the National Census, it is practically impossible to exactly enumerate the people of Tamil descent on La Réunion. Yet, it is fair to consider that, because of the numerous mixed unions, that are of considerable sociological and historical significance on the Island, no more than ten per cent of people having a Tamil ancestry have a strict Tamil ancestry on both sides. Nowadays, if many persons of Tamil descent are still working in agriculture, an increasing number of them also joins the public administration.

To be a person of the third, fourth or fifth generation from Tamil Nadu in La Réunion today means to be implicitly schooled in Indian values within the family. It also means one must deal with the value system of the society, whose dominant cultural models are French. In multicultural settings, when the family values do not match with those of the larger society, people necessary develop some adaptive strategies. By looking at some aspects of the public presentation of the body, at the religious attitude, and at the language, we can understand how representatives of this Tamil Diaspora have managed their way in this alien French context, without loosing the basic principles of their original world view.

The first adaptation Tamil immigrants had to make was in their dress. The French policy of cultural assimilation forced them to adopt a new clothing. Very early, Tamil women stopped wearing their traditional dress, and men had to wear trousers. In addition, the Indian nose ring, anklets and toe ring were no longer worn. The little dot Indian women place on their forehead, similarly expressing their cultural difference, disappeared as well. Meanwhile, despite these changes, some continuity with Indian traditions can be found since girls and women will not wear any skirt or dress up to the knee, especially if they have a strict Tamil descent. As for ornaments, they did not disappear because of their auspiciousness in Indian conceptions. The only difference is that ornaments started to be exhibited as they were in the host society: on the ears, the fingers, the wrists and the neck. Another persistence of Indian manners can be observed in the way Tamil women put up their hair in a bun, which, in an auspicious attitude, they still wear long. Among other Indian ways maintained in La Réunion, we can also mention the usual taking off the shoes when entering the house and the constant concern with pollution leading to frequent cleaning of the feet and hands with water. These details reveal the prevalence of some Indian conceptions regarding the body and its presentation in this French society.

The second important pressure upon Indian immigrants in La Réunion was religious. Despite the contractual commitments they had signed, specifying notably that they could freely practice their own religion, the first Tamil immigrants were practically disallowed from praying to their Hindu gods. They thus inevitably involve themselves in a hidden worship coupled to a feeling of guilt and fear toward the Island's others. Immigrants' disappointment was extreme when they realized that, in fact, everything was set up to convert them to Christianity. When at last Tamils were authorized to build Hindu temples and to officially practice their religion, the great majority of landowners still coerced them to embrace the official and dominant Christian religion, to go to church and to give a Christian first name to their children. As church and administration were intimately linked, the non display of a Christian attitude was criticized and was a bar to integration into mainstream society. A sense of the need to conform outwardly, mixed with an inner strategic attitude, sometimes led the immigrants and their descendants to over compensate in their expected behavior through assimilating certain behavioral patterns of the host society for their own advantages. This is why the number of people of Tamil descent whose first name is "Marie" and "Jean" is today significant. It is even greater among them than among the other subgroups living on the Island.

The interesting point is that the adoption of Western signs and symbols was integrated into fundamental Hindu conceptions. Concerning names for instance, it is striking that while they are Christian, the first letter of the second name (the one used by the relatives at home), important for the child to be lucky and under God's protection during his lifetime, is systematically chosen by the parents after consultation with a Hindu priest skilled in Hindu astrology. Besides, if the children and the parents go to church practically every Saturday or Sunday, they still pray Hindu gods in temples and act as Hindus when such serious events as birth, marriage, illness and death occur. Although the child is systematically baptized at church, many Hindu protective rituals and auspicious attitudes are respected at, and after, his/her birth. The date of the marriage, a very important matter, is decided according to the Hindu astrology as well. The pressure of the host society has led Tamils to adopt Christian marriage practices at church, but that does not imply a complete loss of Hindu principles. The time for the funeral and inhumation is also chosen by referring to Hindu astrology and, again, many Hindu rites and attitudes are then observed.

People of Tamil descent generally consider that their Hindu religion is the best way to solve the problems they face in their life. More demanding than Christian practices, Hindu practices, with their frequent fasts and sacrifices, are de facto stronger than the former. Today, the Tamils' practice of the Christian religion as a "public religion" does not preclude the feeling that each time an important problem occurs, the Hindu religion is their only resort. It should be stressed that people of Tamil descent do not experience any syncretism between the two religions: each one is used in a specific context (social and public for Christianity, familial and private for Hinduism). The split attitude and the aspect of display in Christian religion are notably expressed through the golden ring, and the cross some Indian women openly wear around their necks when going to church, while at the same time, unseen under their blouses, they wear another necklace with a protective Hindu talisman.

The third main external adaptation to the prevailing models of society has been linguistic. On this Island the main languages were (and still are) Creole and French. From the very start, Creole was the popular language for communication in everyday life. Like the practice of the Hindu religion, the Tamil language was virtually forbidden on the Island and Tamils had to adopt Creole to accommodate themselves in society. Creole was in fact the first new language immigrants had to learn. The subsequent development of French education and public schools on the Island allowed Tamils to learn French, the official language of the society. Since the masking of Indian patterns facilitated incorporation into the society, the Tamil language became less and less favored and was eventually forgotten. Today, it is exclusively used by a few priests able to read Hindu scriptures and to recite prayers in the temples. The interesting point is that the principal ideas of the Tamil culture have persisted even through the media of Creole and/or French. Anthropological study reveals numerous Tamil ways of thinking, notably proverbs and maxims referring to elders and their advice, in the use of the two adopted languages. It also allows to noticed the prevalence of some fundamental notions of the Indian world view such as cleanliness, purity, honor, protection, devotion, auspiciousness, sacrifice, fate, separation of things, propitiation, the evil eye, dependence, hierarchy, etc., notions that Tamils in La Réunion constantly mention or implicitly refer to in daily life. The example of the caste division shows particularly vividly how strong cultural patterns can persist even when displaced from their original land of expression.

Because of the physical proximity among the workers (in the cane plantations during the day and in the camps at night), and because of the relative difficulty of marrying exclusively among Tamils in the Island, the caste system and its rules have lapsed for Tamil immigrants and their descendants. Furthermore, in this colonial society, the Indian traditional stratification based on professional occupations was no longer practicable. Living in a social world where caste status no longer made sense, people originally from south India were primarily preoccupied with improving their immediate living conditions. The ideas of life improvement and upward mobility entailed a new way of being Tamil. In truth, the disappearance of caste distinctions did not efface the hierarchy principle. Tamils in La Réunion have still been assessing each other on a hierarchical scale of values even if the individual and family's rank are much more achieved, in terms of education and wealth, than ascribed at birth.

Thus, to be born in a Tamil family on La Réunion implies learning very early on a number of rules closely linked with Tamil identity. Indeed, even if the general cultural model of the society is quite Western, parents (especially the mother) will make the child integrate into what they consider the "normal" way of life. Inside the family, the integration of norms and values of the Tamil culture is implicit in children's upbringing. Very early, children learn to take model from elders of their gender and to respect the elders. The most pervasive pattern children acquire is that of separation of things: they soon separate themselves from their siblings of the opposite sex; they separate from "others" outside the family's home, especially non-Indian others; they separate their Hindu religion at the temple from the Christian one that shows society their conformity to French norms. This early separation between the inside and the outside milieu, related to the purity/impurity conception, follows the person all the life.

When children have to go outside the home (notably to school where they meet children with different patterns of behavior than them) they start realizing that the way they have been raised is not the only possible one. Let us remember that, in La Réunion, people of Tamil descent have to deal with the values of a culturally dominant Western society. This situation entails some contradictions that sometimes can, and sometimes cannot, be solved. One of the most important contradiction results from the unavoidable encounter between the traditional south Indian conceptions and the educational system of the larger society. A good education leading to serious degrees improves the honor of the family. Yet, in La Réunion, the more a child succeeds in his/her studies, the more he/she diverges from the primary socialization he/she has received within the Tamil family. The degrees obtained at school and later at the university are associated with the system of values of the Western world that strongly challenge the ideas of dependence, self-sacrifice, family honor, fate, etc. All the Tamil traditional conceptions do not match the realities of French schools and some adaptations become necessary. Given ingrained disposition to separate things, persons of Tamil descent generally manage these contradictions by developing a contextual consciousness. That contextual consciousness allows them to act selectively according to the norms of the social situation in which they are involved.

To conclude I would like to mention the very recent ideological change people of Tamil origin now have to face on this Island. We have seen that from their very arrival on La Réunion, these immigrants and their descendants had to adopt another clothing, another religion and another language. Yet, these external impositions did not succeed in eradicating the main south Indian patterns. Since the modern ideology favors the expression of particularities, specific identities in the Island are now becoming a matter of pride. By a strange irony of history, differences that Tamils once feared to express too overtly are now more and more valued in the society. The Hindu religion, disparaged from outside for a long time, is currently recognized and estimated as one of the riches of La Réunion. With no more feeling of guilt, Indian clothes, like saris, are progressively reintroduced among the Tamil population on the Island and are now proudly worn by the youth when going to the temple. Tamil names for children, once forbidden, are presently allowed. The Tamil new year is now officially a feast-day in La Réunion and persons of Tamil descent working in governmental jobs may have a day off to celebrate the event. Since 1990, the ceremony of Divalee (the feast of the lights) has been the object of a spectacular celebration and Indian musical and dance exhibitions are then presented to the general population of the Island. Last but not least, the Tamil language has begun to be re-learned by people of Tamil origin, notably by the children, who can now officially study it in the public schools.

Times are changing in La Réunion. Paradoxically, it is at the moment when people of Tamil descent are culturally becoming more and more French that they can experience more vividly the pride of being culturally different. Having been born Tamils and compelled to become French, they are now French citizens seeking to express a Tamilness. Meanwhile, the real status of this identity reinforcement should not be mistaken: the ancestral culture and religion, that elders have preserved in an adapted form during difficult times, today incurs a considerable risk of folklorization and reification in its recent ostentation produced by that the current ideological climate of the society. Something different is emerging from this cultural revival, but we can guess that it will keep a Tamil fragrance.


  1. People of Tamil descent are estimated to be around 100,000 on a total population of 620,396 inhabitants on the Island in 1992
  2. There are today 97 Department in France, among which 4 located overseas: La Martinique and La Guadeloupe (in the French West Indies), La Guyane (in South America) and La Réunion (the 97th, in the Indian Ocean). The status of department implies having the same political, administrative and social infra-structures as in metropolitan France.
  3. The French settled first in the eighteen century and brought slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar to work in the sugar cane plantation.
  4. The immigration of "free workers" from South India started actually in 1827 but it was only after 1848 that a real indentured immigration began on a big scale. In 1885, 117,813 Indians were numbered on the Island.
  5. Based on French, with a mixture of Malagasy and Tamil words, Creole is the main but unofficial language in the Island. It is used among relatives and during informal interactions outside the household.

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This article explains how in spite the policy of assimilation established by the French Administration in the island of La Réunion since the eighteen century, numerous South Indian cultural traits persist in this multicultural society. These are notably expressed through the presentation of the body, the practice of the christian religion and the daily use of Creole and French. The article also deals with the ideological change that occurs today in the island and that value this time the expression of the Indianness, the Hindu religion and the practice of the Tamil.

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