Historian, Writer, and Lecturer
On 1st February 2018, the Mauritian nation and the Government of Mauritius will be commemorating the 183rd anniversary marking the abolition of slavery in Mauritius. It is a day of remembrance and an opportunity for paying a garland of tribute to our slave, apprentice, and maroon ancestors who struggled for freedom. Over the past forty years, one of the largely overlooked and neglected sub-themes of Mauritian slave historiography has been the diet or the food that the slaves, the maroons in particular, consumed on a daily basis almost two centuries ago.
The Maroon Diet
During the early nineteenth century, more precisely between 1804 and 1827, the maroons in the rural districts of Mauritius lived mostly in the island’s forests, hills, ravines, and mountains where there was an extremely limited amount of food available for their survival. The process of gathering food proved to be an arduous, daily struggle for all the Mauritian maroons who either lived in maroon gangs or bands or by themselves. This was the activity, which consumed most of their time during the day apart from avoiding the maroon catching units. At the same time, one of the major reasons why many of these maroons escaped was because they were provided with inadequate and poor quality food, while they were expected to work hard from sunrise to sunset under the threat of the whip.
Between the early 1800s and the 1820s, the maroons ate mostly tendracs or tangs, snails, manioc, patates, du miel or honey, songe, mahis or maize, and the roots of various unidentified plants. Furthermore, they frequently consumed beef, rats, fish, monkeys, chicken, shrimps or crevettes, and wild fruits. The amount and quality of food the maroons consumed was barely enough for their daily survival. The dense Mauritian wilderness did not provide enough food to sustain even small maroon gangs.
In order to supplement their diet, maroon bands frequently resorted to raids on small and large plantations, which were owned by white and free coloured individuals, in order to procure additional food such as cattle/beef, chicken, maize, and manioc. An important conclusion which may be reached is that during the early nineteenth century, maroons who formed part of maroon bands or gangs were much better fed or had better access to food than maroons who lived by themselves in the forests and mountains of the island.
Fig 1.A Maroon Band raiding and burning a sugar plantation
during the 1820s at Bel Ombre Sugar Estate
(Source: Lithograph Collection, Carnegie Library)
Case-Studies of Maroon Nutrition
On 3rd November 1804, Pompée, a grand marron and 35-year old male Malagasy slave, who belonged to Madame Cailleau of Baie du Tombeau, was captured “dans les bois du Morne Brabant”. He was in the company of two other maroons who managed to escape from the maroon catchers. Pompée had marooned for a period of more than one year and spent most of that time in the woods around Le Morne Brabant. Today, it is well known as the Le Morne Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site.
When asked what he and his friends ate, Pompée responded that they stole “du manioc et du mahy” from a plantation of Mr. Ceré which was found close to Le Morne Brabant. Furthermore, he also mentioned that they frequently went fishing on the shores on the isthmus of Le Morne. Thus, on some rare occasions, fish formed part of the diet of these maroons of Le Morne Brabant.
On 17 January 1805, Toussaint, a grand marron and a 25-year-old male Mozambican slave belonging to Sieur Sorty fils was captured in the district of Grand Port by the detachment of Mr. Ollier. Toussaint was a skilled carpenter and he had marooned for more than a year and he lived in the Bois de la Grande Rivière du Grand Port. During his interrogation, he revealed that he lived by himself and he ate honey or “du miel, songe, couroupas, and tendracs”.
On 17 January 1805, Jouan, a grand marron and a creole male slave of Sieur Mottet had marooned for several years and lived in the woods of the Savanne. He was captured. During that entire period, he lived by himself and even ran away when he saw other maroons. He ate “songe, coeur de palmiste, crevrette, poisson” and he frequently killed monkeys.
…On Tuesday, 13 novembre 1805, Lundy, a 35-year-old male Mozambican slave belonging to Madame de Bouchet, was captured in the woods on the highlands of Black River by a detachment led by Mr. Bigaignon. He was a grand marron and had marooned for more than seven months. He spent most of his time on the wooded highlands of Black River and Plaines Wilhems and on the Corps de Garde Mountain. He and his companion ate “papayes, jacques, manioc”.
The Last Years of Slavery
More than 18 years later and more than a decade before the abolition of slavery, in March and April 1823, when questioned, Caëtane, a maroon chief, as well as Brutus and Berry, his principal lieutenants, and his followers repeatedly told their interrogators that during their marronage, they ate mostly “tangs, rats, maniocs, mahis, patates, and couroupas.” On some rare occasions, they consumed beef, chicken, and turkey which they obtained when they raided some of the plantations in Moka, Plaines Wilhems, and Flacq. It must be remembered that this band operated between Le Pouce mountain, the Trois Mamelles, and the forests of Flacq and each of them was a grand marron. Furthermore, most of them had marooned for a period of between one and three years.
Between June and August 1825, when cross-examined, Fritz, a maroon leader and government apprentice, as well as his five followers repeatedly told the police that they regularly ate “tangs, anguilles, crevettes, patates,” various unidentified plant roots which they found in the forest. On some rare occasions, they ate beef which they obtained from raids on plantations in the western part of Savanne. They were all grand marrons and had marooned for a period of between one and two and a half years.
The struggle for survival of the Mauritian maroons in the island’s wilderness not only entailed avoiding capture by the maroon catching units, but also in securing their food on a daily basis. Their trials and tribulations and the amount of time they spent in maintaining a humane diet, which they were denied by most of their owners, was part of their strategy of survival which must be remembered and honored each 1st February.