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Tromelin: The island of forgotten slaves

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The minuscule sandbank of Tromelin, one of the rare relics of the French colonial empire, didn’t exist until 1763, when the contemporaries of Voltaire and Rousseau heard about the adventures of sailors who had survived one of the most high-profile shipwrecks in history. And the ordeal of the slaves they abandoned. One French sailor sought justice for them through four archaeological digs.


The roar of the waves against the reef, the sound of the mallets hammering in the nails drowning out the screams of the slaves being “locked” into the hold. On 31 July 1761, the frigate L’Utile crashed onto reefs hiding beneath the foaming surface. Captain Lafargue was in too much of a rush to deliver his cargo of unregistered “ebony”: 158 Malagasy slaves who had been taken on board at Foulpointe – a port in Madagascar which served as a trading post for Louis XV’s naval officers on route to the Indies. There weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone and Lafargue decided to offload some of his human cargo: the wreck would be their grave. Some other slaves managed as best they could to hang on to the lifeboats.

Present during the expedition in November 2008, which lasted nearly 40 days, the illustrator Sylvain Savoia captured the story of the Forgotten Slaves of Tromelin in the graphic novel that bears the same name.

56 days later ...

An unbelievable raft arrived in Foulpointe. Under the incredulous gaze of the squadron leader who was preparing to raise anchor to chase the English, 73 bedraggled sailors disembarked from the improvised, 12-metre-long raft on which they had been packed like sardines, after four days of dead reckoning navigation. And not a single Malagasy among them! They had been abandoned with what remained of the supplies on the Island of Sands, along with those who had survived the wreck and had managed to swim to the sandbar. A well, dug into the sand, provided them with a cloudy liquid: filthy water. Lieutenant Castellan, the only hero in this affair, who had constructed the raft, had promised them he’d come back for them. But the Governor of Île de France (which later became Mauritius), refused. The slaves didn’t “exist” because they hadn’t been “declared”. Fifteen years later, in an incredible feat, the Breton sailor Jacques Marie Boudin de Tromelin de La Nuguy, captain of La Dauphine, landed at the quay in Port Louis, offloading seven Malagasy women and an eight-month-old baby he had rescued from the Island of Sands.

Two hundred years later...

On 12 June 1972, a young lieutenant from a French vessel attempted to unload barrels of fuel to supply the little power plant which supplied the meteorological station established in 1954. Max Guérout, second-in-command of the Provençal, decided to swim the containers to shore, as the tide was so strong, no boats could berth on the island. Equipped with flippers and a diving mask, he threw himself into the backwash, pushing a barrel in front of him as a bumper. The life of the young lieutenant would be changed by this experience. Thirty-four years later, he returned to the island with a team of archaeologists. With time on his hands after an exemplary career, he decided to find out more about the story of these slaves who had been forgotten on a sandbank which barely covered a coral reef, no bigger than the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris (1.3km by 300m), swept with each passing typhoon by winds of up to 240km/h. Between 2006 and 2013, he led four archaeological excavations to try to find signs of life and to understand how the 88 enslaved Robinson Crusoes were able to survive by eating turtle eggs and roasted gannets. Passionate about history, the officer rescued their memories from oblivion, saying: “this is the story of a speck of coral lost among the waves: a minuscule seed of memory, like an elementary particle of historical matter.”

L’Utile, the slave ship, crashed onto the coral reefs around the tiny atoll, lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The fresco by Sylvain Savoia


Max Guérout is a naval commander with a strong sense of team spirit: due to a lack of space, only ten specialists accompany him on each mission. The most unlikely among these sand and coral mariners is Sylvain Savoia, who offers us a “film” of this drama we can browse through at will and which is bound to seduce film producers. Passionate about human stories, he tells this tale of criminal injustice, giving the floor to the archaeologists, of course, to Louis XV’s sailors and, above all, to the slaves themselves. The illustrations are sensitively captioned. The “seed of memory” planted by Max Guérout became a beautiful tree of remembrance. To ensure that they are never forgotten.

Sylvain Savoia at work on the sandbar at the north of the island!


By François Pédron
Illustrations Sylvain Savoia