Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Castaways of Tromelin Island

The story of Tromelin Island is sad and fascinating in equal measure. The island is a sand bar with an area of about 240 acres (97 hectares), 275 miles (450 km) east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Until 1761 it was just another ocean islet where thousands of seabirds nested.

On the night of July 31, 1761, the French frigate L'Utile was sailing to Mauritius with a cargo of 160 slaves purchased illegally in Madagascar. Not that slavery was illegal in the French empire, but the trade was regulated, and Captain Jean de Lafargue had no license. This might explain why he insisted in sailing onward through complete darkness in gale force winds, even though his charts showed islands in the area. Around midnight the ship collided with a submerged sandbar near the island and was torn open. This was a large ship with a crew of 140, and 123 of them were able to escape in boats or clinging to wreckage. While saving themselves they abandoned their human cargo, but 60-80 Malagasys were able to swim to the island.

There the survivors set up two camps, one for the French sailors and one for the Malagasys. Captain Lafargue went mad, or so the ship's purser later testified, and first officer Barthélémy Castellan du Vernet took command. The Frenchmen dug a well, built shelters, and set about assembling a new ship from the ruins of the old. Within two months they built a marginally seaworthy vessel, which they dubbed La Providence. She was big enough for themselves, but not for the Malagasys. The Frenchmen sailed off, du Vernet solemnly promising the Malagasys that he would return for them. Captain Lafargue died on the voyage to Mauritius.

French frigate of the 1760s, similar to L'Utile

According to our written accounts, du Vernet fully intended to keep his promise, but the governor of Mauritius was furious about the whole disaster and refused to allow it. After all, the Seven Years War was raging, and France, he said, could not spare a ship to rescue survivors of this misbegotten criminal venture. Du Vernet appealed over the governor's head but in Paris the matter ended up being forgotten when the French East India Company went bankrupt and required a royal bailout. Eventually, in 1775, du Vernet persuaded a new governor to let a ship stop at the island. This was La Sauterelle, which was prevented from approaching the island by fierce surf. They  sent a small boat carrying two men to the island, but it was dashed on the reef. One man swam back to the ship, the other to the island. Two other ships that followed were also unable to make landfall. At last in 1776, fifteen years after the shipwreck, a certain Jacques Marie Boudin de la Nuguy de Tromelin found a safe anchorage for his ship, rescuing the survivors and not forgetting to name the island for himself. Only seven women and an eight-month-old boy remained. They were taken to Mauritius and freed by the new governor, an opponent of slavery; the child and his mother were taken into the governor's own household.

And that was pretty much the story until 2006, when archaeologists from the French group GRAN, led by Max Guérout, arrived at the island. Over the course of four six-week sessions they investigated the island, uncovering marvelous remains from the castaway period. 

The archaeologists were guided by a map drawn by the ship's pilot, which showed the locations of a furnace and an oven. Guérout's team first searched for the oven, finding bricks (salvaged from the wreck) and many nails, which suggests that boards from the ship were burned. 

The castaways eventually settled at the highest point on the island, which unfortunately was also the location of the buildings of a weather station. It was not therefore until the second session, in 2008, that these three stone building foundations were found.

One of these was probably a kitchen.

Among the finds were copper bowls like this one.
That year, the team also found six copper plates or bowls. These items had clearly been salvaged from the wreck, and then possibly hammered into new shapes. More remarkable was how they had been repaired—some up to eight times—over the course of 15 years. “To repair a copper plate is not so easy,” says Guérout. The castaways had to cut pieces of copper from other objects for patches, drill holes through both patches and plates, and then use small rolled pieces of copper as rivets, which they then hammered into place. The repairs are reflections of patience and industry, and reminders of the passage of time. 
Excavation in the kitchen produced 18,000 animal bones. Most of these were seabirds, especially sooty terns, which once nested at Tromelin in huge numbers. There were also fish bones – notably giant trevally, which were probably speared on the reefs – and a few turtle bones. 

And more domestic objects:
In this oval-shaped building with five-foot-thick walls, there was a stack of six more copper vessels, topped with a conch shell, and a deposit of 15 cleverly made spoons. These were cut from copper with small wings at the base that could be folded over a twig to make a handle. In total, 45 domestic objects were found there, and in another building were tools, iron tripods to hold cooking vessels, and big lead bowls—probably made from lead sheets kept on L’Utile to patch holes at sea. The archaeologists also found pieces of flint and the metal against which they were struck, which addresses how the castaways started and maintained fires. 
As to the fate of the castaways:
Guérout believes that most of the 60 to 80 slaves died within the first couple of years. A group of 18 had apparently departed the island not long after they were abandoned, but it is unknown whether they ever reached Madagascar. Some 15 survivors endured for the following 10 years or so. Just months before the rescue, three men and three women, as well as the French sailor stranded from La Sauterelle (who had witnessed two failed rescue attempts himself), had left the islet on a raft with a sail of woven feathers. They were never heard from again. The testimony of the seven remaining women and the records of La Dauphine have been lost. Only the archaeology that has been conducted on the island can reveal their story of abandonment, survival, and, ultimately, community-building. 
All the quotes here come from a long article at Archaeology Magazine  I first learned about Tromelin from Atlas Obscura. Wikipedia also has an article which notes that the Marquis de Condorcet made the fate of the Malagasys' marooned on Tromelin part of his indictment of slavery. Article by Geroux about how the castaways fed themselves, in French, available at academia here.

Incidentally it seems that the island's vegetation was once much lusher than it appears in these photographs, but it was decimated by the rats introduced to the island by French ships. Over time the rats also ravaged the nesting seabirds, eliminating seven of the eight species that nested there in 1761. But in 2005 the rats were successfully eradicated from the island, and since then both the vegetation and the birds have rebounded.


David said...

Very fine post. Sad and fascinating, as you say.

Shadow said...


Anonymous said...

But that frigate doesn’t look french...