Owned by Madagascar, Maritius and/or France


60 Slaves Abandoned for 15 Years on a Desert Islet of the Indian Ocean

I don't believe in fate or destiny. I believe in various degrees of hatred, paranoia, and abandonment.
However much of that gets heaped upon you doesn't matter - it's only a matter of how much you can take and what it does to you.

- Henry Rollins

After leaving Bayonne on November 17th 1760, l’Utile, ship of the East Indies French Company, sank on 31 July 1761on the "Sandy Island" (today Tromelin island), a square kilometre and desert islet.  She carried Madagascan slaves bought fraudulently to be sold on the Island of France (today Mauritius Island).  The crew sailed to Madagascar on a craft leaving 60 slaves on the island with food for 3 months and promising them to come back soon.  They didn’t keep their promise.

A long time later - 29 November 1776 - the chevalier of Tromelin, commanding the ship La Dauphine, saved the 8 surviving slaves: 7 women and one 8-month-old baby.

After spending a month on Tromelin Island, the 10 members of the submarine and terrestrial archaeological mission have just come back to Reunion.  Since the trade wind almost never abated, the submarine site was explored and measured in difficult conditions.  This work required 120 diving sessions, that is, about 150 hours.  The site is exposed to strong seas raised by cyclones; it contains the anchors, artillery, iron and stone ballast of the ship - usually discovered in the furrows made by the sea perpendicular to the shore.  Numerous rigging pieces are jammed in the coral.  Several objects, including two fragments of the ship's bell, are there as well.  As we expected, some objects of the wreck were found on the island in the area where the slaves lived.

Archaeologists were not disappointed with what they found, including the oven used to make biscuit, the only food on the makeshift boat used for the journey to Madagascar.  However, archaeologists were unsuccessful in the search for the graves of the sailors and slaves who drowned when the ship wrecked, but they did discover the pathway used by the castaways to go from the beach to the inside of the island.

Pinpointing the location of the slaves’ house on the upper part in the northern island was the most significant result of the mission.  A part of one of its walls was cleared.  Unfortunately, the area had been disturbed by the more modern buildings of the weather station.  The original soil revealed information about the occupation, their diet (which seemed to be mainly turtles and birds) and the use of fire (which they kept going until the end, often using wood from the framework of the wreck especially at the beginning).  The most significant finding was a series of six copper containers of different sizes marked by the Malagasy slaves’ fingerprints.  Some of them had been repaired several times by rivets and showed how determined the survivors were to use the raw materials supplied by the wreck - and also symbolised the ravages of time on objects and men.

Found in the slaves’ house area, these objects are rare witnesses of the slaves' lives.  Indeed, very few relics have been preserved of any kind have been preserved in the museums in that domain.  Three members of a Reunion association, the "Confrérie des gens de la mer" (Brotherhood of Seafarers) took part in the search under the authority of the TAAF prefect (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises – Austral and Antarctic French Lands), in charge of administering the scattered islands of the Indian Ocean, in collaboration with UNESCO and its programme called "the slave route".  It was funded by the Banque Populaire corporate foundation, the local governments (Regional and General Councils) and the Reunion Regional Service for Cultural Affairs.  It was also helped by the Defence Department (commander-in-chief of the Armies in the southern Indian Ocean) and The Reunion Meteo France which brought logistical support.

Many institutions and associations also supported and contributed to the project, including the Mixed Research Team (UMS), History and Maritime Archaeology (National Center for Scientific Research-Sorbonne-Marine Museum), the Société Française d’Histoire Maritime (Maritime History French Society), the association called "les anneaux de la Mémoire" ("The memory rings") based in Nantes, the Institut National de Recherche Archéologique Préventive (Preventive Archaeology Research National Institute), the National Education Department and especially the Reunion academies, the association called "la confrérie des gens de la mer" ("brotherhood of seafarers") based in the Reunion, the Association Réunionnaise Culture and Communication (The Reunion Culture and Communication Association), the Genealogy and History of Families of the Basque Country and Maritime Adour and the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes (India Company Museum) based in Lorient.

Source: archeonavale.org photo © MERCIER Thierry/Méteo-France

Shipwrecked and Abandoned: the Story of the Slave Crusoes

by John Lichfield

Shipwrecked on a tiny Indian Ocean island, a group of slaves survived for 15 years before being rescued by the French navy.  Now archaeologists have uncovered the shameful history of their extraordinary ordeal.

In 1776, 57 years after Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, 8 people were rescued from a tiny, treeless island in the Indian Ocean.  Seven of them, all women, had survived on the island for 15 years.  The 8th, a baby boy, was born there.  The women were the remnants of a group of 60 people who were shipwrecked and then marooned on the scrap of coral and sand in 1761.  They were abandoned, and then forgotten, 300 miles from the nearest land, for a simple, brutal reason.  They were slaves.

Now, 230 years later, a team of French archaeologists has spent a month searching the wreck of the ship and excavating the flat, shelterless island.  They have uncovered some of the secrets of how the castaways clung to life - and developed an elaborate community - on a fragment of near barren land, frequently swept clean by typhoons.  The archaeological investigation, sponsored by UNESCO as part of its year commemorating the struggle against slavery, set out last October and November to uncover an almost-forgotten story of man's inhumanity to man.  It discovered an extraordinary tale of human tenacity, determination to survive and capacity to organise in the face of adversity.

A French ship, carrying an illicit cargo of slaves, foundered near the island of Tromelin, east of Madagascar, in July 1761.  At least 20 sailors drowned.  So did 70, or more, of the slaves, trapped below deck because the hatches had been closed or nailed down.  After 6 months on the island, the remaining sailors completed a makeshift craft and escaped.  They promised to return for the surviving slaves, but did not.

The castaways never gave up hope.  They kept the same fire going for 15 years, with driftwood and wood from the wreck.  They built houses from blocks of coral and impacted sand (the remains of which have been uncovered by the archaeologists).  They built a communal oven.  They survived on a diet of turtles, seabirds and shellfish.

Max Guérout, a marine archaeologist and former French naval officer, who led the expedition, said: "These were not people who were overwhelmed by their fate.  They were people who worked together successfully in an orderly way.  We have found evidence of where they lived and what they ate.  We have found copper cooking utensils, repaired, over and over again, which must originally have come from the wreck of the ship.  It is a very human story, a story of the ingenuity and instinct for survival of people who were abandoned because they were regarded by some of their fellow human beings as less than human."

Much remains to be found and Guérout hopes to lead a new expedition to Tromelin - once known as L'Ile du Sable, or Sand Island - next year.  Guérout has also followed a paper trail through the French and British archives of the period.  He discovered, among other things, the log book of the Utile (Useful), the French ship which was wrecked on the island in 1761 with at least 150 illicit slaves aboard.

The island, claimed by both Madagascar and Mauritius, has been the site of a French meteorological station since 1953.  In 1761, it was just an uncharted speck in the Indian Ocean.  In November of the previous year, the Utile, a former French warship, belonging to the French East India company, set sail from Bayonne in south-west France bound for the "Ile de France", now Mauritius.  France was fighting the Seven Years' War with Britain at the time.  The governor of Ile de France was expecting an attack from India.  He had banned the import of slaves, fearing they would be further mouths to feed during a siege.

The captain of the Utile dropped anchor at Madagascar nonetheless and bought at least 150 Malagasy slaves.  When the ship resumed its journey eastwards, it was caught in a violent storm and ran aground on the submerged coral reef which breaks surface as the island of Tromelin.  A terse, dramatic account of the shipwreck, written by the ship's official log keeper, Hilarion Dubuisson de Keraudic, was discovered by Guérout in the maritime archives at Lorient in Brittany.  "The coming of day and the sight of land, which diminished our terrors, reduced none of the furies of the sea.  Several people threw themselves into the water with a line to try to reach the land, to no end.  A few reached the shore ...  We had to haul some others back over the debris, where they drowned.  We were terrified all the while because the [shattered] stern of the ship, on which we were standing, opened and closed at each moment, cutting more than one person in two."

Eventually, the ship turned its stern towards the shore, allowing the sailors to establish a rope-way to the island.  "All the remaining Gentlemen and crew were saved.  Our losses were only 20 white men, and (two gentlemen) and many blacks, the hatches being closed or nailed down."  The log book goes on to imply that almost 1/3 of the 88 slaves originally rescued died because the sailors kept the meagre water supplies to themselves.  "We made a big tent with the main sail and some flags and we (that is the gentlemen) lived there with all the supplies.  The crew were placed in small tents.  We started to feel very strongly the shortage of water.  A number of blacks died, not being given any."

After a couple of weeks, the 122 "gentlemen and sailors" managed to dig a well.  At the end of 6 months, they constructed a small sailing craft from the wreckage of their ship.  The makeshift boat was big enough for the gentlemen and sailors but not for the 60 remaining slaves.  They left the captives with some food and promised to return.  The Frenchmen reached Ile de France and tried to keep their promise, according to the log book and other French records found by Guérout.  But the governor of the island, an official of the French East India company, refused to risk the loss of another ship for a group of unwanted and illicit slaves.  There was a brief, public controversy in Ile de France.  Several local dignitaries tried to persuade the governor to change his mind.  He refused.  The slaves were forgotten for 15 years.

How did they survive in such an inhospitable place?  They had water from the well dug by the sailors.  They had some basic cooking implements.  The island is, to this day, a breeding ground for turtles and seabirds.  Guérout, creator of the Groupe de Recherche en Archéologie Navale, was, however, determined to find out more.  Colleagues warned him that little was likely to remain in the thin soil, or sand, of a flat island which lies in the path of the annual cyclones which sweep westwards across the Indian Ocean.  Tromelin is almost literally a "desert island", with a few low bushes but no trees.  Guérout insisted that much must remain. He found intriguing references to visits to the island by Royal Navy vessels during the 19th century.  The British sailors recorded seeing the remnants of "stone" houses and neatly arranged graves.

A team of 10 French archaeologists and divers lived on the island from 10 October to 9 November last year.  Their findings have just been published.  Dives on the wreck of the Utile produced many interesting objects but nothing to advance the story.  Digging in the shallow sand and coral of the island produced significant finds.   Guérout and his team uncovered the walls of elaborate dwellings, constructed from blocks of coral and from cement-like blocks of compacted sand.  They found a large oven.  They found remains of the turtles, birds and shellfish eaten by the castaways.  They found copper cooking utensils which had been repaired over and over by the marooned slaves, one of them at least 8 times.  "They mended them with other pieces of copper, using hand-made copper rivets, forged in the fire of the oven.  We even found some of the rivets," Guérout said.

The archaeologists failed, to their disappointment, to find the graves mentioned in the Royal Navy records.  "They are certainly still there," Guérout said.  "When we return next year, we will bring better digging equipment and we will find them.  Apart from anything else, the island provides us with a unique opportunity to study how a small group of people survived when plucked from their surroundings and left in hostile conditions.  Mankind has always been a migrant creature and the island can help us to study the human capacity for adaptation which makes migration possible."

But what happened to the 8 known survivors of Slave Island?  Actually, there were at least 14 survivors and maybe more.  Guérout found French records of the official "debriefing" of the women removed from the island in 1776.  They told their French rescuers that, at some point, a group of 18 of the Malagasy castaways made a raft or small sailing boat and left the island.  It is not known whether they reached their home island 300 miles to the west or were lost at sea.  In 1776, a French sailor was shipwrecked on the island after spotting the slaves and trying to reach them in a small boat.  He helped them to construct a raft and escaped to Mauritius with 6 people, 3 men and 3 women.  Soon afterwards, a rescue ship arrived, captained by a nobleman called Tromelin.  He gave his name to the island and removed the final group of 8 survivors, including a family group of grandmother, mother and child.

By then, a new, more humane governor in Ile de France, appointed by the King of France, not the French East India Company.  He insisted that the slaves were not slaves but free people, since they had been bought illegally.  He adopted the family of 3 and gave the baby boy the name Jacques Moise.  "Jacques" was the governor's own Christian name.  "Moise" is the French form of Moses - a baby rescued from water.

What happened to little Jacques Moise and the others after that?  Guérout has searched the records in France and Mauritius without success.  He believes that the two groups of known survivors from "sand island" - 14 in all - must have merged into the community of freed slaves in Mauritius.  Their descendants are probably living there to this day.

Source: news.independent.co.uk  5 February 2007

For more information, see the Tromelin dig website: archeonavale.org

The Iles Eparses, or scattered islands, are a group of five French entities - Bassas da India, Europa Island, Glorioso Islands, Juan de Nova Island, and Tromelin Island - which on 1 April 1960 came under the authority of the Minister in charge of overseas possessions.  On 19 September 1960 by decree, the islands were transferred to the charge of the Prefet of Reunion where they remained until 3 January 2005 when they were transferred by another decree to the Senior Administrator of the Territory of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF).

Bassas da India: A French possession since 1897, this atoll is a volcanic seamount surrounded by reefs and awash at high tide.

Europa Island: A French possession since 1897, the island is heavily wooded; it is the site of a small military garrison that staffs a weather station.

Glorioso Islands: A French possession since 1892, the Glorioso Islands are composed of two lushly vegetated coral islands (Ile Glorieuse and Ile du Lys) and three rock islets.  A military garrison operates a weather and radio station on Ile Glorieuse.

Juan de Nova Island: Named after a famous 15th century Spanish navigator and explorer, the island has been a French possession since 1897.  It has been exploited for its guano and phosphate.  Presently a small military garrison oversees a meteorological station.

Tromelin Island: First explored by the French in 1776.  The island came under the jurisdiction of Reunion in 1814.  At present, it serves as a sea turtle sanctuary and is the site of an important meteorological station.

Source: some facts taken from the CIA Factbook

The Shipwrecked Memory of the L'Utile Slaves

by Jasmina Sopova

A corvette drops anchor near a small island, lost in the Indian Ocean, on 29 November 1776.  The island seems completely deserted, a stretch of white sand with a few palm trees.  Yet the sailors discover a baby and 7 women, all former slaves from Madagascar.  Dressed in tunics of woven feathers, they are the only survivors of a shipwreck 15 years earlier.  They survived by eating birds, turtles and shellfish.

Max Guérout, former French navy officer and vice-president of France’s marine archaeology research group, GRAN, tells the story: "L’Utile left Bayonne in southwest France for the Mascarene Islands on 17 November 1760.  It called at Madagascar to replenish food supplies, and the captain, Commander La Fargue, decided to take aboard 60 slaves, against the governor’s orders.  He set sail for the Ile de France, now Mauritius.  Blown off course by the bad weather, the ship was wrecked on the reefs of a small island, one kilometer square, which now bears the name of the man who saved the last few survivors: Tromelin."

A "relation", one of the gazettes sold on the street in those days, gave details of the shipwreck: "Traversing a host of dangers, most of the crew finally succeeded in reaching the island.  Almost all were injured, maimed and covered in bruises; they were spectres rather than men."  At the beginning of their exile, the survivors salvaged wood from the wreck as well as tools and supplies: "a few kegs of brandy and a few barrels of flour."  They built a forge and dug two wells, "the thick white milky liquid" from the first proving to be toxic.  In spite of the hostile environment, food was not a major problem.  All they needed to do was catch one of the 500-kilo sea turtles that lived on the island.

Just two months after the wreck, the survivors managed to build a boat.  "Preparations were made for an imminent departure on the night of the 26th to the 27th of September," according to the gazette.  "All hands worked feverishly... they were able to move the boat along rollers, despite several accidents and unrelenting terror...  Finally it was launched, held by an anchor salvaged from the wreck."  But not all the shipwreck victims were invited aboard the Providence, name given to the vessel.  "The 122 French sailors boarded hopefully, arms around each other so they could all fit, with a small amount of food.  The blacks, whom they were forced to leave behind, maintained an oppressive silence."

About 60 men and women stayed on the island, with a "writ testifying to their services" and the promise that the sailors would return to rescue them.  As for the French sailors, they reached Madagascar a few days later, and continued to Mauritius where they made a report on the shipwreck and the slaves.  "The governor of the Ile de France was so angry at the late captain La Fargue for having disobeyed his orders by taking slaves aboard the Utile that he refused to send a ship to get them," says Max Guérout.  "On the day the crew arrived, he wrote, ‘Today the Utile survivors arrived.  The captain has died.  Good for him.’"  Yet it was the slaves who paid for his transgression.

After waiting in vain for two years, the desperate survivors built a raft and 18 of them sailed for home.  We do not know if they made it.  We do know is that the second attempt at escape, 10 years later, failed.  A French sailor was on the second raft, and had they succeeded, he would have produced a written account.

In 1773 or 1774, when the Utile shipwreck victims were long forgotten, a passing ship spotted signs of life on the Ile de Sable.  The new governor dispatched the vessel Sauterelle to the rescue, but it failed in its attempt to approach the little coral island, surrounded by waters 4000 metres deep.  Two sailors headed for shore in a canoe, but smashed up against a reef.  One sailor managed to swim back to the ship, the other was left on the island.  According to the women who were finally rescued, the sailor and the last 3 male survivors then built a raft.  The 4 men, with 3 of the women, sailed away from the island.  They were never seen again.

Another two expeditions failed before the corvette La Dauphine finally arrived, on 29 November 1776.  The Chevalier de Tromelin, a royal navy officer, was its captain.  What happened when he met the last survivors, and where is his report?  Hard to say, because "It’s mentioned in the archives, but I can’t get my hands on it," says Max Guérout, who is trying to trace the officer’s descendants in Lorient, in southern Brittany.  So far, much of the historical research linked to these events has been fruitful, due largely to UNESCO’s financial support.  More than 100 documents have been examined in several cities in France, notably Bayonne, where the ship was commissioned.  Genealogical research has begun to find descendants of the Utile sailors; more is planned on Mauritius, where Tromelin took the 7 women and the little boy.

Source: portal0.unesco.org

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