The social and economic history of the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues must be viewed in the context of regional and global developments including the African diaspora of slave origin and European colonialism in both the Indian Ocean and Atlantic worlds. Mauritius and Réunion’s transformation into plantation colonies during the 18th and early 19th centuries was a complex process shaped by the cultivation of coffee, cloves, cotton, indigo, and sugar; Anglo-French rivalry for domination in the Indian Ocean; a reliance upon domestically generated and controlled capital; the importation of hundreds of thousands of African and Asian slaves from a global catchment area that stretched from West Africa eastward to Southeast Asia; and the increasing socioeconomic importance of the local free population of color during the early 19th century.
The Comoro Islands were first settled toward the middle of the 1st millennium ce by Arab or Austronesian traders and navigators and their African slaves. Strategically located in the southwestern Indian Ocean between Madagascar and the African mainland, the islands were well embedded in regional trading networks and served as an entrepôt for goods, particularly slaves, as well as producing livestock and foodstuffs for export. The islands continued to prosper following the arrival of Europeans in the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century, and developed a niche supplying ships, particularly those of the East India Company (EIC), on their way east. During the 19th century, however, shipping declined and the islands fell within the French sphere of influence. Cut off from their trading partners and suffering from a lackluster plantation economy, the islands stagnated, and were a neglected corner of the French colonial empire for much of the 20th century. In 1975 the three westernmost islands attained independence, while the fourth, Mayotte, remained a French possession. The newly independent state was plagued by a string of coups d’état, lurching from one crisis to another as a socialist revolution that bankrupted the country was followed by a mercenary-led dictatorship aligned with South African interests. Toward the end of the 20th century, and despite (or perhaps because of) the restoration of democracy, the country fell apart: two of the three islands not only declared independence, but also called for recolonization by France. A new constitution in 2001 provided for a renewed, if fragile, stability founded on principles of equality between the islands and greater decentralization; but the economy remains weak, based on vanilla, spices and perfume oils, remittances, and foreign aid, while a steady flow of undocumented migrants to Mayotte continues to foment discontent on the latter island, a French department since 2011.
With a population of 186,000 (2012) and an area of 1,001 km², the twin-island republic of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea is the second smallest country in Africa. Following the decline of the once prosperous plantation economy after independence from Portugal in 1975, the country has largely become dependent on foreign aid. More than half of the population lives in poverty, especially women, children, and people in rural areas. After fifteen years of socialist one-party rule, a multiparty democracy was adopted in 1990. The local Creole population, called forros, is descended from white colonists and African slaves who settled the hitherto uninhabited islands from the late 15th century. The minority of descendants of African plantation workers from the first half of the 20th century tends to assimilate into Creole culture, while the angolares, descendants of a maroon community from the 16th century, constitute a distinct sociocultural group. According to 2012 census data, 80 percent of the population is Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic, while 20 percent is nonreligious. African beliefs in witchcraft and other occult forces frequently coexist with Christianity. The kinship system is bilateral where descent and inheritance are passed through both father and mother. Infant baptism is an important ritual, whereas initiation ceremonies for adolescents, including male and female circumcision, are non-existent. The dominant conjugal union is the customary union, while the formal marriage is a rare exception and only practiced by the educated elite. Polygamy is a common practice, but a man’s different wives never live together in the same residence. Local society considers polygyny and male dominance as a natural condition of men. Despite their subordinated role in family and society, individual well-off or educated women have always achieved considerable prestige and recognition. During the socialist regime, legal equality between the sexes was guaranteed and the emancipation of women was promoted, at least officially. Since the 1990s, several externally conceived campaigns, government programs, and new legislation have combated gender inequality and discrimination against women.