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Castaways

Illegally enslaved and then marooned on remote Tromelin Island for fifteen years, with only archaeology to tell their story

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tromelin-Island-Indian-OceanTromelin Island, 300 miles east of Madgascar in the Indian Ocean, is home to a meteorological station, an airstrip, and little else. In 1761, a French merchant ship with a hold full of Malagasy slaves wrecked there.

 

On the night of July 31, 1761, Jean de Lafargue, captain of the French East India Company ship L’Utile (“Useful”), was likely thinking of riches. In the ship’s hold were approximately 160 slaves purchased in Madagascar just days before and bound for Île de France, known today as Mauritius. It had been 80 years since the dodo had gone extinct on that Indian Ocean island, and the thriving French colony had a plantation economy in need of labor. However, though slavery was legal at the time, de Lafargue was not authorized by colonial authorities to trade in slaves.

 

According to the detailed account of the ship’s écrivain, or purser, as L’Utile approached the vicinity of an islet then called Île des Sables, or Sandy Island, winds kicked up to 15 or 20 knots. The ship’s two maps did not agree on the small island’s precise location, and a more prudent captain probably would have slowed and waited for daylight. But de Lafargue was in a hurry to reap his bounty. That night L’Utile struck the reef off the islet’s north end, shattering the hull. Most of the slaves, trapped in the cargo holds, drowned, though some escaped as the ship broke apart. The next morning, 123 of the 140 members of the French crew and somewhere between 60 and 80 Malagasy slaves found themselves stranded on Île des Sables—shaken and injured, but alive.

 

De Lafargue had some kind of nervous breakdown, according to the écrivain. First officer Barthélémy Castellan du Vernet took over, and rallied the crew to salvage food, tools, and timber from the wreck and build separate camps for the crew and the slaves. Under the first officer’s guidance, a well was dug, an oven and furnace built, and work on a new boat begun. Within two months, the makeshift vessel La Providence emerged from the remains of L’Utile. Du Vernet, before he sailed away with the crew, promised the Malagasy people that a ship would return for them. And so they waited. The few that survived waited a very long time.

 

 

Indian-Ocean-Map-TromelinThe islet, today called Tromelin Island, lies 300 miles east of Madagascar and 350 miles north of Mauritius. Shaped like a sunflower seed, it is just one-third of a square mile of sand and scrub. Today it hosts an unpaved runway, a staffed weather station, and a wildlife preserve. Hermit crabs swarm across the island in packs at night, and each year hundreds of sea turtles and countless birds arrive to lay their eggs.

 

Diaries, letters, and the écrivain’s account document the wreck and the two months that the French crew stayed on the island, but the Malagasy castaways left no written records. Their story would have remained almost completely untold but for Max Guérout, a former French navy officer. Guérout had captained an underwater research vessel in the late 1970s, and upon his retirement in the early 1980s founded the Naval Archaeology Research Group (known by its French acronym, GRAN), which has since studied dozens of postmedieval shipwrecks. He heard the Tromelin story from a colleague and, with support from UNESCO, began two years of archival research in 2004. “The history was so interesting that we decided to make an archaeological survey,” he says. Guérout built a team, which included experts from GRAN, the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), and the administration of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, to travel to the isolated islet four times—2006, 2008, 2010, and 2013—for six weeks at a stretch to examine the wreck site, excavate, and learn something about the lives of the Malagasy castaways, lives undocumented by history.

 

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