The BASSIN DES ESCLAVES : Slavery and memorialisation

In the context of the 180th Anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery, the Nelson Mandela Centre for African Culture Trust Fund and the District Council of Pamplemousses have unveiled Commemorative plaques at the ‘lieux dit’ Bassin des Esclaves and Marché des Esclaves in Pamplemousses. This initiative is another step towards reconstructing slave history through oral history to restore the lost slave heritage. The intangible heritage of the slave population deserves to be preserved and given its due place in Mauritian history.

Most of the Mauritian population’s history is not written down, but is found in what can be termed as the collective memory and popular memory of a people. The lifestories of individuals or a specific group of people is a unique historical source. Until the mid-20th century, Mauritius was a mostly non-literate island society and news, songs, and stories traveled mostly by word of mouth. For many years now anthropologists have been collecting and using oral based evidence and it is now that historians have started using it to study traditions and customs but also consciousness. New facts came to light which complement or counter existing historical writings. New approaches and interpretations of history become possible.

Pamplemousses was one of the most important villages in 18th Century Mauritius. It had a large slave population due to the number of activities in the village, the most important being the Pamplemousses Garden where many slaves worked.

There was a ‘Camp des Noirs de Commune’ where slaves working in public works were housed and a slave cemetery (Cimetière des Noirs). A large number of slaves lived in the village of Pamplemousses and in the Camp des Noirs. Many of them were attached to the Garden.

Apart from Slaves working for the garden, there was also ‘Noirs de Commune’. These were slaves working for the Government. Some were donated by individuals who were required by the law to provide slaves for public works. In the late 18th century, the Noirs de Commune lived in where today are public buildings. The work of the Noirs de Commune consisted of construction of roads, bridges and public buildings. One of their first projects was the road linking Port Louis to Pamplemousses, built under the Governor Labourdonnais and the canal that fed the Botanical Gardens and which draws its water from the Pamplemousses River (canal de Villebague). In 1799, there were some 21 slaves belonging to private individuals but working for the Commune and used in various public works projects. The public buildings maintained by the Noirs de Commune included: the Loge de la Justice de la Paix, La Maison Commune, Maison d’arrêt and Le Bloc.

Today, the presence of the slaves is still felt in the village. The local folklore is rich with memories of people who remember stories passed down from their forefathers and which are kept alive over successive generations. One of the most enduring has been that surrounding the Bassin des Esclaves.

From Oral history, we have learnt that the Bassin des Esclaves was a site where slaves were brought in batches of 200 or 300 (Malagasy, Indians, Africans), bathed before being taken and sold on the Marché des Esclaves, place located in front of what is today the District Coucil. It would seem that the structures were demolished during the construction of the new infrastructures.

As oral traditions are sometimes prone to the subjectivities of memory research work is ongoing in archival repositories. However, the recognition of these two sites as ‘lieux de mémoire’ linked to slavery is one of the memory initiatives implemented by the Nelson Mandela Centre. This memorialisation fits alongside other mechanisms in line with the recommendations of the Truth and Justice Commission.