News of the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was not received at the Isle de France until January 31, 1790 when the ship “Paquebot No 4”, under the command of Gabriel de Coriolis de Limaye, dropped anchor in the Port Louis harbour. The downfall of the monarchy was welcomed by the French colonists amidst frantic cheers and triggered an aura of effervescence in the island. So supportive were the colonists of the revolutionary cause that in their exultation they went so far as to erect a guillotine at the Place d’Armes in Port Louis and placarded tricolour posters throughout the town.
But then, what became a matter of serious concern was the degeneration into chaos of the law and order situation, as successive Governors from the Comte de Conway to David Charpentier de Cossigny, to the Comte de Malartic, opted for keeping a very low profile. That was so, most probably, because they were seized with panic. Perhaps, the spectre of the guillotine kept flashing in their minds. They imagined they could end up on the guillotine like in France where during the ‘Reign of Terror’, under orders of Maximilien Robespierre thousands of “enemies of the Revolution” were executed by guillotine. Robespierre himself falling in disgrace on account of his excesses was not spared either. His head was cut off.
But the manifestation of that revolutionary fervour instigated by ‘La Chaumière’, an imitation of France’s ‘Jacobin’ club was of short duration. Two events dampened the ardour of the overzealous colonists.
One was the news received in the island about the strings of slaves’ uprisings hitting the Caribbean Colonies, in particular, the French Colony of St Domingue where a freed slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture, plotted a bloody coup overthrowing the French Governor and forcing almost one thousand whites to flee the place for their lives. That worrying news was enough to send a warning signal that a slave revolt of that magnitude was possible at the Isle de France, given that the slave population outstripped the “free citizens” by five times (50,000 slaves against 10,000 whites). That thought sent a cold shiver running down the spine of the French community.
The second event that triggered much alarm and nervousness was the least expected by the Colonists. The landing at the Port Louis harbour on 18 June 1796 of two Commissioners of the French Directoire, Baco de la Chapelle and Pierre Burnel, despatched by the revolutionary government, to announce the abolition of slavery in French Colonies that included the Colony of Isle de France. The abolition of slavery followed a decree voted by the National Convention on February 4, 1794.
The same day, Baco and Burnel met Malartic at Government House to inform him about the power vested upon them to see to it that the decree was promulgated. But in the course of the first meeting, they threatened the Governor with death by hanging in front of Government House if he refused to comply with instructions.
As the news about the Commissioners’ arrival spread across the island, the French Colonists began converging on town adopting at first a wait and see attitude pending confirmation of the Commisioners’ mission.
Already the French slaveholders were determined to foil any attempt at getting the abolition decree passed, even if that required freeing the island from the tutelage of France. Some members of the Colonial Assembly voiced out their sentiments that they would not hesitate to do so because it was argued the Isle de France was economically “self-supporting”. As Professor Northcote Parkinson writes in his book ‘Wars in the Eastern Seas (1793-1815)’, “the inhabitants of Isle of France made it clear that they would sever all connections with France rather than with their slaves”. Was it then the first time that the independence of the island from Colonial rule was evoked?
Though resistance against the abolition decree went escalating, the plan of a physical elimination of Baco and Burnel was concocted. The assassination plan was to be carried out in the course of a banquet held in their honour at Government House. The Commissioners, perhaps smelling a rat, did not turn up although the banquet kept going all through the night.
But the next day on 21 June 1796, an angry mob overpowered by hysteria wanted to break open the gates of Government House where Baco and Burnel were having discussions with a nine-member committee in the presence of Governor Malartic. It was officially announced then that slavery was to be abolished immediately without payment of any compensation to the slaveholders. That announcement reached the people waiting outside. In frenzy, they all barged into the meeting room. Another group laid the Line Barracks in a state of siege, not allowing a single soldier out.
In the ensuing chaotic situation when shouts of “Embarque ! Embarque !” reverberated all around demanding that Baco and Burnel be at once ordered to leave the island, a man by the name of Poilvert fired a shot at Baco but the bullet missed its target. Poilvert was attempting a second shot when Baco’s hand had already reached for his sword. The Governor and some members interposed themselves between the two men to stop a bloodshed.
Again, Governor Malartic did nothing to ensure the protection of the Commissioners. Rather, he succumbed to the pressure of the white Colons by signing in the presence of a hostile and unruly mob a deportation order whereupon the Commissioners were taken by force to board “Le Moineau” sailing to the Philippines but the ship’s Captain changed course to Madagascar from where Baco and Burnel took a ship back to France.
René Gaston Baco de la Chapelle (1751-1800) was a radical republican. He was member of the French National Assembly and mayor for Nantes in 1792-1793 before he was given the mission to Isle de France. His companion Pierre Burnel (1762-1835) was on his second visit to the Isle de France. A journalist and lawyer, he was not an unknown figure in the island, having been the founder-Editor of the newspaper, ‘Le Journal Politique et Littéraire’ that ran for eighteen months in the island from January 1, 1791.
As for Governor Malartic, he was made a hero by the slaveholders for having helped torpedo the Slavery Abolition Act. Yet he sought premature retirement, like his predecessor de Conway, on the grounds that “sa mémoire se perdait sensiblement et que sa vue s’affaiblissait de jour en jour”.