1st February 2021 marks the 186th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Republic of Mauritius. During most of the twentieth century, the history of slavery, the slave trade, the slaves, maroons, and their descendants were largely ignored by local and overseas historians, writers, scholars, and academics. It was only during the 1980s and the 1990s, that the social history and the struggle of the slaves and the maroons for their freedom and human dignity became major themes of research in modern Mauritian historiography.
The Mauritian Maroon Gangs
Between the 1640s and the 1830s, maroonage existed in colonial Mauritius. During that long period, it was common for runaway slaves to organise themselves into either small or large bands or gangs. These maroon bands lived in the forests, mountains, ravines, and near to the rivers of the island. They frequently carried out raids on both large and small plantations which were owned mostly by white and some free coloured individuals.
Between the 1790s and the 1820s, some of these gangs of fugitive slaves were well-organised and well-armed. In a harsh and mostly hostile environment and relentlessly pursued by colonial forces, which either sought their capture or destruction, some of the Mauritian maroons organised themselves into these small groups precisely as a mechanism of survival in the wilderness.
The firm objective of the maroon bands was to obtain strength in numbers, which permitted them to preserve their freedom and to fight the armed colonial detachments or maroon catching units. Some of these maroon gangs were led by maroon leaders or maroon band chiefs who were intelligent, skilled fighters, and resourceful individuals. These maroon chiefs were the pioneers in long and complex process of freedom fighting in colonial Mauritius during the French and early British periods. From the Mauritius National Archives records, the names and exploits of several long forgotten maroon leaders have been discovered, documented, and rescued from historical oblivion. During the early 1800s, some of these outstanding maroon chiefs were Bellaca, Roch, Panglose, Tatamaka and Caëtane.
Bellaca, the Maroon Chief of Le Morne
Between 1797 and 1802, a proclamation was issued by the Colonial Assembly “offering to liberate any slave and his family, who would arrest the banditti (or maroon chief), named Bellaca, who had taken possession of the Morne”. During the 1830s, the four children of Stalinas Cerf, or the slave who killed Bellaca, were still being detained as apprentices in the Black River district. In 1836, they attempted to secure their freedom based on this specific piece of information.
In 1831, they had made the same bid for freedom based on the same claim with Mr. Thomas, the Protector of Slaves, which turned out to be futile just like in 1836. There are two archival sources which mention that a maroon chief named Bellaca did take possession of Le Morne Brabant between 1797 and 1802. Furthermore, he posed such a threat that Governor Malartic issued a proclamation for his capture. Apparently, he was killed by Stalinas Cerf who resided in the Black River district and belonged to Mr. Le Normand, an important slave owner.
Roch, the Maroon Chief of Plaine des Roches
On 18th July 1801, the detachment of Citoyen Chateigner attacked a maroon camp near the caves of Plaine des Roches. One of the maroons who has killed was Roch, a Mozambican maroon who belonged to Citoyen Merven, was a maroon leader and a young man in his twenties. In all, around six male maroons were caught. His activities took place mostly in the southern part of Rivière du Rempart and north part of Flacq. Roch was put on trial, condemned, and executed.
Tatamaka, Maroon Leader in the Plaines Wilhems District
On 30th July 1804, the Commander of Plaines Wilhems district certified that Citoyen Dureau, chief of a detachment, presented him with the right hand of a maroon called Tatamaka. He was a Mozambican slave who belonged to Citoyen Duguilio. Tatamaka was an infamous maroon band leader and he had been a maroon for more than two years. One day earlier, Dureau and his men pursued Tatamaka and his band, which consisted of 9 fugitive slaves and were armed with large knives. The detachment caught up with Tatamaka and his group “au milieu des bois des gorges de la Rivière Noire” or in the middle of the woods of the Black River Gorges.
When ordered to stop, Tatamaka refused and while his men escaped, he attacked the maroon hunters with two large knives and he was shot twice and died. Tatamaka and his band had been responsible for a number of major thefts, kidnappings, and nocturnal raids on plantations in the districts of Black River, Plaines Wilhems, and Savanne. During the second half of 1803 and first half of 1804, they were active mostly in central and southern Black River district and southern Plaines Wilhems district and western Savanne district.
Panglose, Maroon Chief in Plaines Wilhems
On 20th April 1811, the anti-maroon detachment of Mr. Jacques Dureau of Plaines Wilhems attacked a maroon camp which was located on “la montagne de Cent Gaulettes dans le Quartier de Trois Ilots”. During the operation, one maroon wielded a large “sabre and tried to attack the maroon catchers”. He was shot and killed by one of the members of the detachment.
The victim was Panglose, a 35-year old Malagasy male slave who belonged to Mr. Hertel of Plaines Wilhems and was the gang leader. He measured 5 feet and 4 inches and he had a bag which contained several gris-gris on his person, which had a mystical and religious significance and function. No doubt, he tried to strike fear into his followers as it was believed that he was a type of sorcerer. As a result, he became leader as he earned their respect and allegiance. In all, eight male maroons were captured and later on executed.
Caëtane, the Maroon Leader in Moka District
During March 1823, Caëtane and his maroon band were arrested on the slopes of Le Pouce Mountain by a detachment. Caëtane was a 45-year-old Mozambican slave who belonged to Jean François, a free coloured landowner in Moka district. He marooned for a period of more than two years with his concubine Rosalie and spent most of their time on Le Pouce mountain. Caëtane was chosen as the maroon leader because he had detailed knowledge of the roads and paths of Moka and the other adjoining districts.
Caëtane was intelligent and strong and he was the one who organised the raids of the maroon gang. Caëtane and Brutus were the ones who shared the booty among the group members after each raid and robbery. Caëtane’s group consisted of 15 individuals: Brutus and Berry his right hand men and also Rosalie, Achille, Malin, Casimir, Jouan, Adonis, Sylvain, Marron, Baptiste, Leveillé, Marie, and Antigone. Interestingly enough, this band of maroons consisted of local-born Mauritian, Mozambican, Malagasy, and Indian fugitive slaves or a multi-ethnic group of maroons working together for their survival!
They operated over a very large area between Le Pouce mountain, the forests of Northern Flacq and les Trois Mamelles but with Le Pouce serving as their base of operation. Caëtane and his followers were always armed and they were accused of theft with violence and carried out several major raids on various plantations in the Flacq, Moka, and Plaines Wilhems district between January 1822 and February 1823. They ate beef, chicken, turkey, « tangs », rats, maniocs, « mahis », patates, « couroupas » etc. They also stole precious objects such as gold rings and jewelry as well as pieces of cloth etc.
In December 1822, a dispute arose between Brutus and Achille concerning their intimate relation with Marie. The band temporarily broke up into two separate groups, with Brutus taking Marie and four band members with him and Caëtane taking the others with him. However, when Brutus was captured, the other members returned to Caëtane’s group which concentrated its activities in the woods of Flacq shortly before their capture in early March 1823.
Casimir was captured during the last week of February and he was the one who led the detachment to the secret camp of the maroon on the slopes of Le Pouce. Between March and July 1823, Caëtane and his followers were questioned and put on trial for various crimes such as grand theft, theft with violence during their nocturnal raids on various plantations, and for grande maroonage. On 2nd August 1823, Caëtane, Brutus, and Berry were condemned to death and executed a few days later. The other maroons received sentences varying between 15 to 20 years in chain with hard labour. During the 1820s, Caetane was one of the maroon leaders who struck terror in the hearts of the white and free coloured residents of Moka, Plaines Wilhems, and Flacq.
The struggles of these maroon leaders show to what extent they were willing to go in order to survive and in the process fight an inhumane system which dehumanized and vilified them. Former slaves like Bellaca, Roch, Panglose, Tatamaka, Caëtane were strong and gifted leaders who led their maroon bands in such an organized and effective way that they terrified the slaveowners and caused a great deal of concern among colonial officials. Their unrelenting struggle for their freedom and human rights shows they were truly determined to be free even at the cost of their lives which must be honored every 1st February by all Mauritians.