A corvette drops anchor near a small island, lost in the Indian Ocean, on November 29, 1776. The island seems completely deserted, a stretch of white sand with a few palm trees. Yet the sailors discover a baby and seven 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 November 17, 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 specters 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 ¹.
Abandoned, forgotten, finally rescued
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 the Sauterelle to the rescue, but it failed in its attempt to approach the little coral island, surrounded by waters 4000 meters 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 three male survivors then built a raft. The four men, with three 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 November 29 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 seven women and the little boy.
This historical research is one of three dimensions of the “Forgotten Slaves” programme launched by the GRAN, as part of the International Year for the Commemoration of the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition (2004), and of UNESCO’s Slave Route Programme. (http://www.unesco.org/culture/dialogue/slave). Inspired by the story of the Utile, “Forgotten Slaves” aims to conduct historical and archaeological research to elucidate every aspect of this terrible event, representative of the slave trade. It will also serve as part of an information campaign targeting the media, the general public and schools, to raise awareness of issues surrounding slavery. Software called “I-maj”, recently launched on GRAN’s website (http://www.archeonavale.org/) allows partners to write, edit and post texts approved by the project’s supervisors.
A group of 17 children from a primary school in Brittany (France) are the first partners in this category. The school is not far from the Tromelin family manor, and the pupils are focusing on the Chevalier’s life. Guérout looks forward to extending the network of schools to Reunion Island, Polynesia and Martinique and to forming partnerships with UNESCO’s Associated Schools Project Network and the 90 schools in SEED (Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development Programme) in New York.
Finally, an exceptional adventure will begin in 2006 with the archeological phase of the “Forgotten Slaves” project. A dozen archeologists, divers, scientists and doctors are off to Tromelin Island for a 25-day land and underwater survey.
“It’s a complicated operation,” says Guérout. “Tromelin is not a tourist destination. There are no flights and access by sea is particularly risky because of whirlpools, currents and breakers.
” Where there’s a will, there’s a way. On the island, the GRAN will try to locate the old camps, the forge, the well and the only permanent building dating back that far, a shelter for the fire. “There’s a theory that they kept the fire going for 15 years,” says Guérout. “That does not seem very likely, given the trade winds and the frequent hurricanes.” The doctor looking after the team will also do physical anthropology research should they find burial places.
Underwater, the team will explore the wreck, and also vast sedimentary basins, which according to Guérout “are a sort of receptacle at a depth of six or seven meters, into which objects may have fallen”. Pieces of ceramic have already been found washed up on the shore. Each little fragment is significant to recreate the history of the forgotten slaves, who are now being rescued from oblivion.
¹ The island is still today home to a large colony of sea turtles, and has been listed as a natural reserve. Its “green turtle” is an endangered species and protected since 1981 by
Photo © MERCIER Thierry/Méteo-France: This Indian Ocean island is named Tromelin, after the survivors’ rescuer.
Author(s) Jasmina Sopova
Periodical Name the new Courier
© UNESCO 1995-2007 – ID: 26887