Slavery & Freedom
Historian and Writer
1st February 2017 is a special public holiday when the struggle for freedom, the achievements and contributions of the Mauritian slaves in the making of our great country is honoured. This celebration also reminds the Mauritian nation of the long and bloody resistance of the Mauritian maroons or the first freedom fighters on Mauritian soil against the inhumanity of slavery and European colonialism.
By their struggle for freedom and acts of resistance, the Mauritian maroons had a direct impact on the colonization of Mauritius and the shaping of colonial society. The constant fear of maroon attacks greatly altered colonial laws, colonial architecture, and the lifestyle of the colonists. During the entire period that maroonage existed in colonial Mauritius, or between 1641 and 1839, it was common for maroons or fugitive slaves to organise themselves into either small or large bands.
These maroon bands lived in the forests, mountains, ravines, and near the rivers of the island from where they attacked colonial troops, the homes, settlements and the estates of the colonists. Maroonage and freedom fighting formed an integral part of colonial slavery in Mauritius ever since the early years of the French colonization of Mauritius. This truly marked the genesis of maroonage and the freedom sruggle of the slaves and maroons during the Mauritian colonial era.
The first condemnations
In December 1721, the first French colonists landed in Port Louis from Reunion Island then known as Bourbon. They arrived on the island with some of their African and Malagasy slaves and this marked the genesis of slavery during the French colonial period. Barely a year later, on 8th December 1722, Le Rubis arrived with a cargo which included 65 slaves.
Within a few days, these newly landed African slaves took to the woods where they most likely joined the maroons left behind by the Dutch. The temerity of the fugitive slaves during the first months of the French administration of Mr de Nyon made the task of governing the new colony very arduous, despite the small size of the population.
The first condemnation of maroons in Ile de France took place on 12 November 1723. The Provincial Council gave a judgment condemning three slaves convicted of maroonage for the third time to draw lots in order to decide who among them was to be hanged. During the rest of the 1720s, much of the attention to the local French colonial officials was devoted to dealing with the growing problem of maroonage.
On 2 June 1726, the Provincial Council promulgated a decree concerning maroons and detachments or armed maroon catching units were sent in their pursuit. It was enacted that maroons who were captured alive became the property of the detachments, with the exception of two or three of the most dangerous to be executed to teach a lesson to the others.
For a maroon killed during an encounter, a sum of one hundred livres was paid on the presentation of his left hand. This decree was motivated by the need for the administration to exterminate the maroons who were the cause of much disorder and were preventing, by their frequent raids and pillaging, the cultivation of the soil for a colony suffering from frequent food shortages. This clearly indicates the serious nature of the threat posed by the maroons to this fledgling colony.
The organized attacks
In spite of the severity of the punishments meted out to the maroons as well as the numerous captures made by the detachments which were sent after them, the fact remained that organized maroonage kept on increasing. During the 1720s and 1730s, in the course of their attacks on the colonists, the Mauritian maroons were able to acquire firearms and ammunitions.
In the some of the most inaccessible parts of the island, they established their camps, created well organised as well as armed groups and planned their next attack. They spread out in bands, pillaging, setting fire and spreading death and destruction in their wake. There are two important and spectacular maroon attacks which took place during the early history of Ile de France, in 1724 and 1732.
On 24 March 1724, an armed maroon band took by force a military post in the district of Savanne and forced the soldiers to beat a hasty retreat. Saint Elme le Duc, a French historian, explained that these French colonial troops “were soldiers only in name as they were confused by drunkenness and debauchery”. One can sense in these lines penned by a French scholar who refused to admit that the French soldiers were no match for the maroons who had themselves been valiant warriors in their native lands in Madagascar and West Africa before they were enslaved. The military prowess of slaves from West Africa is a well known fact in the history of slavery in the Caribbean, specifically in Jamaica and Suriname.
In 1732, another armed band of maroons attacked a garrison as well as a French settlement at Poste de Flacq. After a bitter skirmish, they forced the French troops and the colonists to flee. The French troops lost ten men, several colonists were killed and only one maroon perished. Many years later, Governor Labourdonnais wrote: “In 1732, maroons attacked the quarter of Flacq and forced the whites to abandon.”
Furthermore, almost a century later, Adrien d’Epinay, the leader of the Franco-Mauritian slave-owners during the 1830s, saw in this incident “a threat to civilisation”. Indeed, the great maroon attacks of 1724 and 1732 clearly showed that the Mauritian maroons were true guerrilleros of freedom. In fact, the French were only able to turn back the tide against them during the late 1730s and early 1740s, under the governorship Mahé Labourdonnais.
The maroon legacy
For several decades, the Mauritian maroons waged a protracted and valiant campaign against slavery and colonialism in Mauritius. Through their actions, they helped shape colonial policy and struck fear in the hearts and minds of colonial officials and the slave-owners. Thus, to a certain extent, they were the makers as well as shapers of their own history.
Their constant struggle against their oppressors and their personal or individual battles to reclaim their humanity shielded them from the terrible dehumanizing effects of slavery. Therefore, on each 1st February, their long and valiant struggle for freedom must be remembered by the Mauritian nation.