Historian, Lecturer, & Writer
Le Morne Brabant Mountain, which forms the Core Zone of the Le Morne Cultural Landscape, is the symbolic epitome of the heroic and relentless struggle for freedom of the Mauritian maroons as well as of their ideals which still lives in the Mauritian national psyche. Le Morne serves as a proof of the existence of a slave/maroon consciousness which refused to accept colonial domination and life under the shackles of forced servitude.
This famous mountain in Black River district is the tangible embodiment of a long tradition of maroonage which has existed for almost two centuries in colonial Mauritius. Indeed, Le Morne Brabant forms the cornerstone of our Mauritian maroon heritage which we will be commemorating and celebrating on Friday, 1st February 2019 near the foot of that sacred promontory.
The Maroons of Le Morne
Between the 1730s and the early 1830s, Le Morne Mountain served as a refuge for some of the maroons or fugitive slaves of Mauritius. It is the most famous Mauritian slave site and forms an integral part of our national history. The documents of the Mauritius Archives clearly attest to this fact.
A rare letter from the OA 98 series in the Mauritius Archives provides indirect evidence of the presence of maroons on Le Morne Brabant mountain. At 3 o’clock on the afternoon of the 8th March, 1736, Le Ducd’Anjou, a ship of the French East India Company, commanded by Captain Chautard, met several kilometers to the south east of Cape Brabant, a black female and male maroon in a pirogue. After their capture and when questioned, they answered that they had escaped from their masters 9 days before and they had stolen a pirogue. Their objective was: “aller joindre les nègres marrons du côté du Cape Brabant.”
The historical maps from the Mauritius Archives, dating back to the 18th century, clearly show that part of the peninsula of Le Morne Brabant was also known as Cap Brabant. Thus, these two maroons had stolen a pirogue in order to join the maroons of Le Morne Brabant. Many years later, in November 1774, Vintour, a fugitive slave, was captured by a detachment at the ‘Pointe du Morne Brabant’. It is evident that between the 1730s and 1770s, Le Morne in the Black River district was already well known as a place where the Mauritian maroons sought refuge.
Bellaca the Maroon Leader
In May 1836, in an important letter to George F. Dick, the Colonial Secretary for onward transmission to Governor Nicolay, Special Magistrate Minchin of Black River requested that:
“His Excellency will do me the honor to direct me to be furnished with a copy of a Proclamation issued between 1797 and 1802, offering to liberate any slave, and his family who would arrest a Chief of Banditti, named Bellaca, who had taken possession of the Morne, as four children of the person, who killed this Chief, are now detained as apprentices, although during the lifetime of their father, they were considered free.”
Thus, between 1797 and 1802, the Colonial Assembly of Ile de France issued a proclamation through which, it offered to liberate any slave and his family who could arrest the famous Bellaca. The name of the slave who killed Bellaca was Stanislas Cerf of Black River who belonged to Mr. Le Normand, a wealthy Franco-Mauritian landowner. These documents clearly indicate that during the late 1790s and the first decade of the nineteenth century, Bellaca was the undisputed maroon leader or chief of Le Morne Mountain.
The Early 19th Century
Another rare archival document which shows that maroons were caught near Le Morne Brabant is found in one of the volumes of the Z2B series. On Saturday, 3rd November, 1804, Pompée, a 30 year-old male Malagasy slave and a grand marron, was captured by a detachment in the woods near the eastern slopes of the mountain. When questioned by the police authorities, Pompée revealed that he was from Pamplemousses district and had fled his master’s estate. At the same time, the colonial police noted “il a passé le temps de son marronnage dans les bois du Morne Brabant.”
In November 1814, three maroon slaves were arrested by a detachment near Le Morne Brabant mountain. Four years later, the Civil Commissioner of Black River District observed that the Le Morne Brabant mountain and its surroundings still served as places of refuge for maroons. This fact was not surprising because in December 1825, a slave residing on his master’s estate near Le Morne was found murdered and it was suspected that he had been attacked by a maroon who lived near the base of the famous mountain.
In July 1828 and in January 1835, two large armed detachments were sent to look for maroons near le Morne Brabant Mountain. Thus, even during the last years of colonial slavery in Mauritius, the local British colonial administrators deployed their forces in order to hunt down fugitive slaves in that part of Black River district. It is probably from these events that the common belief of the slaves throwing themselves from the summit of the mountain might have emerged.
In July 1828, among the maroons which the maroon catching units were looking for was a certain Pierrot Colas, a slave belonged to Abbé Charlot and a resident of Black River district:
Patrouille dirigée vers le Morne Brabant pour y rechercher des déserteurs
Quartier du Riviere Noire, le 31 Juillet 1828
Monsieur J Finnis Commissaire En Chef de la police
Informée depuis le 24 courant par M. le commissaire civil que le nommé Pierrot Colas, appartenant à M. L.Abbé Charlot habitant de mon quartier était parti marron du côté du Morne Brabant après avoir assassiné une négresse, j’ai aussitôt requis le chef de détachement de mon quartier d’aller à sa recherche pour parvenir à en faire l’arrestation s’il est encore dans le quartier, & d’après votre lettre du vingt huit qui contient le signalement de ce prévenu, je vais donner de nouveaux ordres pour qu’on en fasse le plus vite une recherche….
Le Morne’s Significance
Le Morne Brabant Mountain is a heritage site or lieu de mémoire where the Mauritian maroons tried to carve out a space of freedom for themselves, as far away as possible, from an inhumane and oppressive colonial society. It is clear that for many descendants of Mauritian slaves, this mountain stands as a cathedral of freedom which has a strong emotional and symbolical meaning.
After all, this mountain still lives in their popular imagination and culture. This is seen in their songs, stories, and social tradition/practice, and commemoration ceremonies which are held on 1st February each year specifically by Mauritian citizens of Afro-Malagasy descent such as the Rastafarians.
In 2002, two small caves were discovered close to the summit of Le Morne, on the western part of the mountain, which clearly showed that there was human activity, evidently remains of maroon activity, sometime between the late 1700s and early 1800s. It was a partial vindication of archival sources from between the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which mentioned maroon activity near Le Morne Brabant Mountain.
This was done largely through the Maroon Archaeology Investigation Project which was led by Associate Professor Dr. Vijaya Teelock of the University of Mauritius. Today, it is a National Heritage and a World Heritage Site, therefore it belongs not only to the Mauritian nation but to all of humanity. Therefore, it is only fitting that we commemorate the abolition of slavery near the foot of this hallowed site.