The Slaves of Tromelin Island

Sep 12, 2022 0 comments

On the night of July 31, 1761, a frigate of the French East India Company named Utile, captained by Jean de La Fargue, and carrying a contraband of African slaves ran aground on a small, flat island located about 500 km north of Réunion and about 450 km east of Madagascar.

The ship was carrying on its hold some 160 slaves consisting of men, women and children, bound for Mauritius where the slaves would have been sold to plantation owners. Although slavery was legal at the time, de Lafargue was not authorized by colonial authorities to trade in slaves. In addition, the ship was also carrying a French crew of 140 men.

Tromelin Island, formerly “Île des Sables”. Photo: Richard Bouet

The inaccuracy of the maps combined with the stubbornness of the captain drove the ship onto the reefs off the islet’s north end. The impact shattered the hull and the ship began to take in water. Most of the slaves, who were trapped in the cargo hold, drowned, but some managed to escape as the ship broke apart. The next morning, 122 of the 140 members of the crew and somewhere between 60 and 80 Malagasy slaves found themselves stranded on Île des Sables (Island of Sand).

Captain Jean de Lafargue suffered some kind of a nervous breakdown as a result of the wreck, so first officer Barthélémy Castellan du Vernet took over. He rallied the crew to salvage food, tools, and timber from the wreck and build separate camps for the crew and the slaves. They dug a well 5 meters deep, built an oven and a furnace, and work began on a new boat. Within two months Providence emerged from the remains of Utile.

On 27 September 1761, the 122 surviving French sailors boarded Providence and set sail for Madagascar, promising the Malagasy slaves that a ship would return for them.

After four days of sailing, Providence arrived in Madagascar, and the crew was transferred back to Réunion Island and Mauritius. During the transit, many men died of tropical diseases. Among them was Captain Jean de Lafargue, leaving Castellan du Vernet to face the wrath of the governor of Mauritius, who was furious for violating his prohibition on bringing slaves to his island. Du Vernet requested to have a ship sent back to the islet, but the governor denied. News of the castaway slaves even reached Paris and caused a brief stir, but there were bigger issues to worry about, like the Seven Years' War and the looming bankruptcy of the French East India Company. The slaves were soon forgotten, but not by Castellan du Vernet.

In 1772—eleven years after the slaves were stranded on the island—in response to another request from Castellan du Vernet, the minister of marine affairs agreed to send a ship, but it would be another three years before La Sauterelle would arrive at Île des Sables. On reaching the island, a small boat carrying two men were dispatched to make contact with the stranded islanders. But the boat dashed on the reef. One man swam back to the ship, and the other swam to the island. Because of bad weather and dangerous reefs, no further attempts at landing were made and the ship decided to sail back. Two more ships followed La Sauterelle, but neither was able to make landfall. Finally, on 29 November 1776, 15 years after the sinking, La Dauphine, a corvette captained by Jacques Marie Boudin de la Nuguy de Tromelin, managed to land on the island and rescue the survivors. Only seven women and an eight-month-old boy remained.

Upon arriving there, Tromelin-Lanuguy discovered that the survivors were dressed in clothes made from plaited feathers they obtained from sea birds that they killed for sustenance. The islanders also fed on fish, tortoises and birds’ eggs. According to Tromelin-Lanuguy, the islanders had somehow managed to keep a fire going all these years, although it was more likely that flint stones were used. They built huts from blocks of coral, a meter and a half thick, to shelter themselves from the cyclones, and had a communal oven. Unfortunately, the testimony of the seven remaining women and the records of La Dauphine have been lost, so there is no written account of what could be one of the greatest stories of human perseverance.

Excavated homes on Tromelin Island. Photo: Jean-François Rebeyrotte

A kitchen. Photo: Jean-François Rebeyrotte

In order to learn more about how the islanders managed to survive 15 years on a tiny wind ravaged island, in 2006, Max Guérout, a former French naval officer and director of operations of the Naval Archeology Research Group, led an archeological expedition to the island.

Guérout believes that most of the 60 to 80 slaves that landed on the island, died within the first couple of years. Not long after they were abandoned, a group of 18 departed the island on a makeshift raft but it is unknown whether they ever reached Madagascar. Within five years, their population was reduced to 15 survivors and remained so over the next decade. Just months before the rescue, the French sailor stranded from La Sauterelle, had left the islet on a raft with a sail of woven feathers, along with three men and three women. They were never heard from again.

Guérout and his team discovered copper utensils that were salvaged from the wreck and then hammered into new shapes. More remarkable was how they had been repaired—some up to eight times—over the course of 15 years. The castaways had to cut pieces of copper from other objects for patches, drill holes through both patches and plates, and then use small rolled pieces of copper as rivets, which they then hammered into place. Excavation yielded about 45 domestic objects including iron tripods to hold cooking vessels, and big lead bowls probably made from lead sheets kept on Utile to patch holes at sea. They even found pieces of copper jewelry, such as rings, a couple of bracelets, pendants, and a comb.

“One does not have the impression that these people were crushed by their condition. They tried to survive with order and method,” Guérout said of the castaway slaves. “It’s a very human story, a story of instinct and survival of people who were abandoned because they were regarded by some of their fellow human beings as less human.”

Much of their settlement was destroyed when French authorities built a weather station there in 1954. the station was destroyed by a cyclone two years later and then rebuilt. It is still in operation today and consists of a few buildings, cisterns, and concrete footings. There is also 1,200-feet airstrip that provides the only connection to the outside world.

Since 1885, the island has been called Tromelin Island after Captain Tromelin de La Nuguy, who rescued the forgotten islanders.

# Samir S. Patel, Castaways,
# Joëlle Weeks, The Shipwrecked Slaves of Tromelin Island: A Crime of Lese-Humanity, Angles


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