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ISM MAURITIUS : Towards the creation of a database on slave trade and slavery

An exhibition on the first slaves introduced during French occupation.

In the context of the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on 23rd August last, the Intercontinental Slavery Museum (Mauritius) launched the project of UNESCO “Inventory of Materials on slave trade, slavery and other forms of unfree labour in the South-West Indian Ocean”. The project emanates from “Slavery in Africa Network” (SLAFNET), initiated by Dr Marie-Pierre Ballarin and funded by the European Commission.

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The objective of this long-term project is to create a website and a database to ease access to documents on slave trade, slavery and other forms of unfree labour which used to prevail in the South-West Indian Ocean. It is of note that the intercontinental slave trade (between Africa, America and Europe) concerned the Mascarenes as well where slaves were required to sustain the plantation economy.

Screenshot of the organizers and guests present at the opening of the exhibition
«1722 – 2022 : Commémoration du début de la traite française des personnes
mises en esclavage à Maurice» organized by ISM on 23rd August last

The interest of ISM Mauritius is quite relevant in the light of Dr Klara Boyer-Rossol’s study on the database on slavery in the world, which revealed that Africa was completely absent in that database. This unfortunate absence led the Mauritian authorities to react and seek for assistance to create a database for Mauritius. Thus the idea was presented to a group of French experts who were in Mauritius in October 2021.

Despite the absence of a database, several workshops have been held over the years with the participation of the University of Mauritius and other institutions in Europe in line with the Onusian project of SLAFNET. The workshop organized on 23 August last involved the University of Mauritius, SLAFNET and ISM Mauritius and was run by experts on slave trade in Mauritius and researchers knowledgeable in database on slavery and history in general.

For the Chairman of ISM Mauritius, Dr Jean Maxy Simonet, the involvement in the construction of the database on slave trade and slavery will help to increase the visibility of ISM Mauritius and to share the Mauritian contribution in this field with the world. The 23rd August workshop on the theme “Towards an intercontinental Slave Trade and Slavery Database for Mauritius and the region” is definitely a good start for ISM Mauritius.

An exhibition on the first slaves introduced under French colonial rule

On 23rd August last, the Minister of Arts and Cultural Heritage, Avinash Teeluck, launched an exhibition at the ISM on the theme: «1722 – 2022 : Commémoration du début de la traite française des personnes mises en esclavage à Maurice.» The story goes by that on December 7, 1722, Le Rubis, which the Compagnie des Indes had sent to the west coast of Madagascar to trade there, landed 65 slaves at Port Sud-Est (Grand Port). So 300 years have passed by since the Rubis brought back from Antongil Bay “27 ‘pièces d’Inde’, 18 medium and small boys, 20 women and girls” who represented the first contingent of slaves from the slave trade which was introduced to Isle de France.

Michael Paul Lafrance standing by the ship model of the Rubis, the
French slave ship that brought the fi rst Malagasy slaves during the French occupation of the island

The exhibition has been organized with a number of objectives in mind as indicated in a research paper authored by Father Alain Romaine and Dr Stéphanie Tamby Lai Kong Ling. The objectives were explained in these words by the latter:

“The main objective of this exhibition is to mark the tercentenary of the landing of these first slaves by providing a new look at the slave system and the slave trade in Isle de France from the point of view of slaves at the beginning of French colonization. Another objective is to bring out of anonymity and the bottom of the hold these “enslaved heroes” in order to put a face, pay homage, restore dignity, recognize the contribution and identify the origin of these few “blacks” (word found in archival documents to describe the slaves) transported to Mauritian soil. In addition, it is a question of demonstrating the resistance and bravery of these first slaves who had the thirst for freedom. Indeed, among the 65 slaves who came aboard the Rubis, “15 adult slaves and 4 negrillons (…) surrendered as Maroons”. They will be more than fifty to escape and even considered building a boat to return to their native land.”

The team that has worked on the exhibition consisted of Alain Romaine (Research and Concept), Stéphanie Tamby Lai Kong Ling (Research), Gabriella Batour (Research), Michael Paul Lafrance (ship model of the Rubis), Norbert Meunier (Graphic Design) and Joël Valerie (exhibition set-up). It is obvious that the data collected for the exhibition would be fed to the data base project referred to at the beginning of this article. Hopefully, in a few months, ISM (Mauritius) will be in a position to contribute its share to the intercontinental slavery documentation.

We would like to highlight two highly symbolical gestures that were proposed by ISM on the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. This is what Father Alain Romaine and Dr Stéphanie Tamby Lai Kong Ling told us about these noble gestures: “Last year, during its first year of existence, the ISM marked this special day with a very symbolic gesture, a throwing of flowers into the waters of the Caudan seafront, in memory of all the slaves who crossed the ocean to come to this island and especially those who died during the crossing and whose bodies were thrown into the sea. This year again, at the launch of the exhibition, guests were invited to make another symbolic gesture in memory of these slaves: to take off their shoes and go barefoot before observing a minute of silence to honour the memory of those who lost their lives to slavery and those who endured the horrors of the shameful traffic and fought for their freedom. Slaves were forced to live barefoot. It was the sign of their condition.”

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