“Daughters of Bondage”: The Struggle of the Mauritian Maroon Women during the Early 19th Century

History & Commemoration

On 1st February 2014, the Mauritian nation and the Government of Mauritius will be commemorating the 179th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in our country.

It is a day of deep reflection on the sacrifices, toils, sufferings, triumph, and resistance of the Mauritian slaves. Until recently, Mauritian and foreign historians have focused largely on the role of male slaves in the struggle and acts of resistance against slavery, while largely ignoring the important role which was played by female slaves and maroon women.

During the early 19th century, the Mauritian maroon women played a key role in slave resistance and in maroon activities which undermined the authority and power of their owners and of the local colonial authorities. It was also a strategy of survival for them in order to carve out a space of freedom in a highly stratified, racist, and patriarchal slave society.

The Prominence of Maroon Women

Between the 1810s and the early 1830s, hundreds of women and young girls were captured each year as maroons and some even as ‘Grand Maroon’ (or those who escaped for more 30 days). Furthermore, during the same period, they made up between 10 % to 20% of all maroons who were captured by the detachment or the armed-maroon catching units. These maroon women were frequently imprisoned in the Bagne Prison near Port Louis harbour and, on some rare occasions, they were also caught with their children.

During the early 1810s, or during the early years of British rule in Mauritius, several female maroons were reported each year as having escaped from their owners. This practice by female slaves was mentioned on a regularl basis in the local government-controlled newspapers. There are several interesting case studies which shed light on this specific aspect of the long and complex history of marronage in colonial Mauritius. The cases obtained from the local colonial newspapers between January and December 1813 clearly make this point.

Case-Studies of Maroon Women

In February 1813, Henriette d’Arzac published a notice in one of the local newspapers. which stated that Marie, her slave of Malay origin, had marooned for a period of around three months. Henriette had purchased her female slave from Mr Perisse and she was described as being a well-built individual who was physically strong and had recently cut her hair. There are some maroon cases, in the records of the Mauritius National Archives, which hint at the fact that it was a common practice among slave women to cut their hair just before they ran away, which helped to conceal their identity.

Several months later during the same year, Adele, a 21-year-old Malagasy slave of Hova origin, escaped with her eight-year old child from the house of Mr de Romieu, her master and an influential slave owner in Port Louis. She claimed to be the slave of Madame Claire Gerville, a free coloured woman, who resided in Mont Blanc Street in the Camp des Creoles, Port Louis. Mr de Romieu placed a notice in one of the local newspapers and offered a reward of ten dollars for the capture of Adele. He also gave a stern warning that anyone who gave her shelter and employment would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

In May 1813, Marcelin Barry, a white slave owner in the district of Flacq, reported that Melanie, his female Indian slave, whom he had bought from Mr Chauveau Jr, had run away. However, even more amazing was the fact that he went on to mention that she had been a maroon for a period of two and a half years. Mr Barry suspected that Melanie was working and living in Grand Port district and he was determined to track her down.

Two months later, Madame Bourgine reported that Agathe, his female Indian slave, had run away and taken a large bundle of merchandise which belonged to her. Mrs Bourgine, who was a resident of Rempart Street in Port Louis, also mentioned that her slave had been sighted on the road to Pamplemousses. Agathe was described as being short, lean and tattooed with a flower on her forehead and arm. She had marooned for several days and Mrs Bourgine was determined to recover her slave as well as her bundle of merchandise. Obviously, she suspected that Agathe was going to sell her goods in order to obtain money which would help her to survive as a fugitive slave for several weeks near Port Louis.

The Case Study of Agathe

During the course of that same year, Roseline, a slave belonging to Mr Ulcoq, a resident of Port Louis, was captured by a detachment or a maroon-catching unit on the outskirts of Port Louis. She was sent to the Bagne Prison where it was discovered that she was 8 months pregnant. Within two days of her capture, she gave birth to a male baby with the help of a mid-wife. Three days later, she escaped with her newborn child at night. She managed to unbolt one of the heavy windows of the Bagne and jumped through it.

Even more amazing was the fact that she managed to climb and jump over one of the high walls of the Bagne Prison, which were more than three meters high, while her baby was with her. It should be noted that the area around the Bagne at night was not well lit and it was difficult to see the movements of individuals in the dark. Around a year later, Mr Ulcoq put a notice in the local press where he mentioned that he was still looking for Roseline and he believed that she was living somewhere in one of the colony’s rural districts. This case study clearly illustrates the sheer determination of Roseline to be free of her master’s control and her refusal to continue to stay in the Bagne Prison which was constructed to imprison and punish maroons.

Between the 1810s and the 1830s, there are hundreds such cases concerning the Mauritian maroon women in the records of the Mauritius National Archives. They highlight the fact that these brave maroon women were capable of subaltern human agency. They exercised some control over their lives, and rejected their enslaved condition and treatment as property.

They escaped from their owners and started a new life as free individuals, despite being considered to be maroons or fugitive slaves by their slave owners, the local colonial authorities, and the laws of the colony. Indeed, they had already started the long and arduous task of shattering their shackles of forced servitude because they were determined to be free. It is precisely the constant and unrelenting struggle of the Mauritian maroon women for their freedom, human rights, and dignity which should also be commemorated and honored each 1st of February.

 

– Dr Satteeanund Peerthum, Senior Historian, & Satyendra Peerthum, Historian & Writer

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