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Slavery in Paradise

Coen van Wyk

Posted on September 8, 2018 14:14

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A tropical paradise, Mauritius hides a history of slavery that speaks to each of us today. Our lives today are as a paradise compared to what our ancestors experienced. Yet we should celebrate the freedom we have in the face of economies, algorithms, regimes that seek anew to enslave us.

Mauritius is a favorite destination for honeymooners, people who need a break, those who just want to luxuriate in the sun and the sea.

Idillic tropics, dark memories


Its wealth was hard won by breaking its lava shell, wresting sugar from the grudging volcanic soil, sweating under the tropical sun. Slaves did the hard work. Dutch Opperhoofd Adriaan van der Stel, with 37 men and two women, had to prepare food and ebony to fill the Dutch Return fleets that stopped here in the early 1600s.

He gained permission to buy 120 slaves out of war-wracked Madagascar. Of course most of them ran into the forests as soon as they landed, what was he thinking?

Slaves escaped into these valleys

Some ‘marrons’ remained in the forests when the Dutch gave up in 1710, and were enslaved anew when the French took the island in 1715. Tragic stories are told, of a woman forced to carry the head of her man who died protecting her from dogs as they were being recaptured, of an escaped slave who sprang into a cataract rather than being caught again, of Madame “Victoire” who was decorated by the King of France for recapturing escaped slaves.

The 'cave of women', a lava tube where escaped slaves hid. 


I find most poignant the story of a slave, bought as a Malagasy prisoner of a civil war. Set to fishing, he sailed a tiny pirogue back towards Madagascar, but ended up in Isle de la Reunion, 250 miles to the west. Recaptured, sent back to Mauritius, punished, he stole another pirogue, and vanished. Did he ever regain his homeland. Was he killed on arrival? Did he find freedom and happiness?

Amidst the sugar fields, a hiding place


Escaped slaves hid in the verdant valleys in the interior, but also in tunnels, lava pipes in the sugar fields, probably with help from slaves working nearby. A few of these are tourist attractions, others are not.