How an 18th-Century Shipwreck Changed France’s Conversation About Race

When a captain took on an illegal cargo of slaves, he couldn’t foresee the ramifications

How an 18th-Century Shipwreck Changed France’s Conversation About Race
An aerial view of Tromelin Island. (Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images)

A sudden jolt awakens the captives, followed by screams and the sound of running feet. They peer through the cracks in the hatches. The ship lurches upward, then tilts to one side. Sailors are hurrying past; rats scurry out of the storage rooms. There is no such escape for the 210 enslaved individuals trapped in the hold behind nailed-up planks.

Wooden beams rain down from the ceiling. The hull of the ship has burst open; water pours in. A moment of terror, then of relief: the captives can now make their way out. On the surface, they see the devastation: the massive ship cracked in two, surrounded by wreckage — a floating mountain, reduced to flotsam.

In the dawn light, they see the island that has been the ship’s downfall. Little do they know, as they fight their way ashore through the waves and the rubble, that this will be their home for the next 15 years.

This is the tale of the shipwreck of L’Utile in 1761, when enslaved individuals from Madagascar were marooned on an island with French sailors. The sailors managed to get away on a raft but left the Malagasy behind. The events shine a light on the deep-seated racism prevalent in French society at that time.

But there was also an outcry from both the general public and prominent intellectuals over the fate of the enslaved individuals. This reaction marked a turning point in views of slavery in France, as philosophers of the Enlightenment openly denounced the treatment of the Black slaves by the white sailors. In recent years, evidence from the first archaeological dig on the island, when taken together with the ship’s logbook and an official government report based on the sailors’ testimonies, has allowed the retelling of this story of slavery and racism in a way that goes beyond the view of any 18th-century observer.

By 1761, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was well underway. Colonial powers were forcibly transporting individuals from Africa to the Americas to work on plantations. European states had established vast empires across the Americas, Africa and Asia. They were competing against each other for territorial and economic dominance, in particular France and Britain. From 1756, the two imperial nations were engaged in the Seven Years’ War — which would have significant repercussions for the global balance of power.

The war also had a big effect on daily life in France’s island territories. Blockades by the British navy placed populations at risk of famine. The French East India Company banned slave trading in the region, so there wouldn’t be any extra mouths to feed. If the captain of L’Utile, Jean de Lafargue, had followed these rules, there wouldn’t have been any enslaved people on his ship. But this was his first mission on a brand-new vessel, and he was eager to make his fortune. During a supply stop in Madagascar, he smuggled 160 men, women and children into the ship’s underbelly. He planned to sell them in Ile de France, known today as Mauritius, located just 550 miles away.

Until then, L’Utile would have to fly under the radar. This is why Lafargue ordered the crew to take a less-frequented route past the mysterious Ile de Sable, or Sandy Island. This stretch of land had been discovered by the company four decades earlier, but no one had seen it since. Even the two maps on board disagreed on where it was. One of them showed that L’Utile would go right past it. According to the ship’s official log keeper, Hilarion Dubuisson de Keraudic, the captain stubbornly consulted the other map, even when he was warned of the risk of running aground. The pilot said he wouldn’t be able to sleep unless they changed course for the night, to which LaFargue reportedly responded by calling him ignorant, ordering him to continue onward. At 10:30 p.m. on July 31, 1761, Ile de Sable was discovered for the second time, as L’Utile unceremoniously crashed into it.

The events of that night are described in harrowing detail by Keraudic. He describes how crew members rushed out on deck when they heard a series of crashes and then watched the ship tilt terrifyingly, tearing its starboard side against the rocks. The captain was nowhere to be found. In his absence, the crew began to throw things overboard, desperately trying to right the ship. It was a long and agonizing night, echoing with whimpers of fear, chanted prayers, the sound of splintering wood and the incessant swell of the ocean.

“Every second made us suffer a thousand deaths; we could hardly breathe, so strong were the jolts of the furious waves,” Keraudic writes.

For hours, the crew fought to save L’Utile. It was no good. The deck began to crack under their feet. As the ship broke in two, the lifeboats smashed down into the hold, breaking apart. Then, a miracle: “Land!” someone cried as the morning light illuminated the Ile de Sable. Those who knew how to swim leaped into the water and began to fight their way to the beach. The Malagasy, who had been held captive in the hold, were already making their way there. The ones who had survived, that is. Over 70 were killed by falling beams or drowned as the ship filled with water, as noted in the ship’s log.

The shared catastrophe changed nothing of the white captors’ racism. In his logbook, Keraudic writes of how he grabbed on to a plank in the water to stay afloat. “At one point, a Black slave who was drowning also seized it, but I gave him two kicks, which took away his strength.” He describes the murder as casually as he describes the weather in his previous entries. Back on the ship, the remaining crew members managed to use ropes to make something secure to hold on to as they made their way to the shore. It saved the lives of most of the sailors. Even Lafargue was rescued — from his hiding place in the ship’s toilet. If it passed through the minds of the slaves to run for freedom once they reached the beach, the idea was short-lived. Ile de Sable consists of a third of a square mile of sand. On foot, you can cross it in 20 minutes. There was nowhere to go.

The islet, known today as Tromelin Island, is 300 miles east of Madagascar. The terrain is dry and sandy; only scrub grows there. It lies so low that ships can barely see it until they are on top of it, and visitors say it feels more like being on a raft than on land. With a permanent breeze and the crash of the waves, you can practically feel the ocean beneath your feet. It is a lonely and desolate place.

It was not so lonely on Aug. 1, 1761, when over 200 people stood upon this small patch of sand. Lafargue was there in body only; his mind had gone somewhere even harder to reach than the ship’s toilet. He couldn’t say a word. First Lt. Barthelemy Castellan du Vernet took charge of the situation. The first priority was finding water. Castellan instructed the head cannoneer to take some of the crew and begin digging. Others were charged with recuperating anything they could from the wreckage and building tents out of the ship’s sails. Those first, shadeless days were brutal. The French sailors survived on supplies salvaged from the water. They had rescued barrels of wine and “quite lousy” cider, according to Keraudic, as well as plenty of food. They didn’t give anything to their captives, his logbook confirms.

On the third day, two sailors were caught stealing a ham. They were sentenced to death. The crew members prepared a rifle and rolled dice to see who would pull the trigger. But at that moment, the head cannoneer returned. “Lieutenant! We found water!” He held a bowl of thick, milky white liquid. He asked the crew to pardon the two thieves: “For the grace God has given us of having found drinking water, without which we would all have died.” It was agreed, and the sailors rushed to the well to drink. The Malagasy were allowed water only once the French had finished. Many were so parched that they couldn’t make it to the well. Over those first days, 28 of the enslaved individuals died, while all the sailors survived, as recorded in the official report of the shipwreck.

Castellan turned his attention to getting off the island. He drew a blueprint for a raft, but he had a problem: The crew members were refusing to work. The scorching sun, the disorienting island and the despair in the hearts of many had robbed them of their motivation. Only two dozen sailors and officers agreed to help with the construction. Castellan turned to the Malagasy to ask for help. They swam out to the wreckage and brought back planks and beams to build the new boat. They created a forge to melt down and reshape metal. They dug an oven, where they cooked the remaining flour into biscuits for the onward journey. They started to build a boat.

It didn’t take long for Castellan to realize that they could not make a vessel big enough for everyone. That would need to be 45 feet long, and the biggest beam they could salvage was 33 feet. From that moment, Castellan knew that the enslaved people would not be joining them. In a quiet betrayal, he said nothing. He needed them to keep working. A routine set in. Keraudic’s logbook goes back to describing the weather. “There is wind today.” “The waves are big.” They completed the raft 26 days after the shipwreck. It was baptized La Providence.

“The sea is calm. The boat is completed,” Keraudic writes.

Did the Malagasy know that betrayal was coming? They certainly can’t have trusted the people they were stranded with. The ones who had purchased them at a market, who had pulled only white people from the wreckage, who had let their fellow slaves die as they hogged the ship’s supplies, who carried rifles and hadn’t waited a second to reinstate the old social order. Still, these people might be the oppressors and the enemy, but they were also the ones who had the supplies and the knowledge of how to build a sailboat. Whether or not the captives were fooled by Castellan’s promise, they had no choice. La Providence was their only hope of salvation. It must have come as a shock when, on Sept. 27, 1761, 58 days after the shipwreck, the 123 sailors boarded the ship, including around 100 who hadn’t lifted a hand for its construction. “We will come back,” promised Castellan, the last person to board La Providence. A ghastly silence fell as the 80 remaining castaways watched their last hope of escape leave the shore.

After four days “packed like sardines” in the raft, the sailors arrived in Foulpointe, a port in eastern Madagascar. Castellan immediately set out to find a boat and return to the island. The winds were favorable. It would have taken barely a week to bring the Malagasy safely back to their homeland, but Castellan was told that no boats could be spared. Once returned to safety, Castellan seemed to feel a humanitarian responsibility toward the enslaved individuals he had left behind. With the other crew members, he set sail for Ile de France, hoping that he would be able to persuade its governor, Antoine Marie Desforges-Boucher, who had commissioned the journey of L’Utile, to send a rescue mission.

Eleven of the sailors died of fever on the two-month trip, including Lafargue. A good thing, too, said Desforges-Boucher, who gave the crew an icy welcome in Port-Louis. He was furious at Lafargue for purchasing slaves against his orders. In a letter to the heads of the company, he wrote, “Sieur Lafargue died in this crossing, and he did well because it is only to his stubbornness and bad conduct that we must attribute the loss of this vessel.”

Desforges-Boucher categorically refused to send a rescue party to Ile de Sable. This caused a brief stir among the colonial administration, with many local dignitaries trying to persuade the governor to change his mind. Caught up in concerns over a potential war with the British and holding Lafargue to blame for the events, Desforges-Boucher did not shift his position. Castellan guiltily gave up and set sail for France. He continued to write letters to the company, urging them to organize a rescue mission, to no avail.

From a modern standpoint, the behavior of the sailors toward their fellow castaways appears contradictory, or even hypocritical. The archives show that Castellan exploited and abandoned the Malagasy, then spent over a decade campaigning for them to be rescued. Keraudic wrote casually about kicking a man to his death but also expressed his immense gratitude toward the Malagasy. “The help we received from the first moment to the last from these unfortunate slaves, whom we were forced to abandon to the shame of everyone, is beyond words,” he wrote.

The brutal abandonment, followed by haunting humanitarian concern toward the Malagasy, illustrates the watershed changes that were taking place in mentalities at this time. The slave trade was booming throughout the French colonies and outposts, and racism was ingrained and normalized throughout society. However, abolitionist movements were emerging, and Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau were spreading the idea that “all men are born equal and free.”

A pamphlet narrating the events, “Report of the Main Circumstances That Accompanied and Followed the Sinking of the L’Utile,” was printed in Bordeaux by Jean Chappuis and widely spread in France by hawkers, forcing French intellectual circles to face their contradictions. This turned the abandoned Malagasy into somewhat of a cause celebre, although they were soon forgotten because of the Seven Years’ War with Great Britain.

The story of L’Utile might have been buried entirely if it wasn’t for one of the French Revolution’s central figures, the philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet. In his treatise “Reflections on Negro Slavery,” published in 1781, he denounced the French administration’s abandonment of the Malagasy and argued that it was proof of “how far Europeans are from regarding Black people as their fellow human beings.” A few years later, Alexis-Marie de Rochon, known as the Abbe Rochon, an astronomer in the French navy, would be more direct in his criticism. “Any man with a sense of humanity shudders when he knows that these poor Black people have been left to perish miserably, without deigning to make any attempt to save them,” he wrote in “Journey to Madagascar and the East Indies.”

Decades later, the plight of the Malagasy found sympathy among the survivors of another shipwreck, La Meduse, famously depicted in Theodore Gericault’s 1819 painting, “Raft of the Medusa.” After La Meduse ran aground in 1810, all 147 survivors, Africans and Europeans, set out on a raft. The shift in mindsets following the shipwreck of L’Utile is evident — for the castaways of La Meduse, it was out of the question to leave anyone behind, regardless of their skin color. In their account of the ordeal, two La Meduse survivors criticized L’Utile’s crew: “It’s conceivable that the first moments of danger might cause you to lose reason and abandon ship, but failing to aid one’s own when out of danger is unimaginable,” they wrote.

Eleven years after L’Utile sank, the war with the British was over, the French East India Company had gone bankrupt, and France’s royalty had taken control of the colonies. Castellan hoped that the change in leadership might play in his favor. He wrote a final letter, begging the navy to “reconnoiter the island to see if there are any of these unfortunate Black people left.”

At long last, a rescue mission was dispatched. The ship managed to anchor up near Ile de Sable, and two sailors set off in a dinghy. The unforgiving swell threw them against the reef, tearing the boat to shreds. Only one of the sailors made it back to the ship. From the deck, the captain watched the other man swim to the island. Thirteen figures came out to greet him — proof that some of the marooned Malagasy had survived.

It took three more attempts and four more years before a boat could reach Ile de Sable. At the end of November 1776, La Dauphine, a ship commanded by Capt. Jacques-Marie Lanuguy de Tromelin, anchored up nearby and sent two rowboats to the beach. They found seven women and one baby — a surprise considering the absence of men. The women walked to the dinghy and climbed on without a word. They did not look back.

News of their epic survival spread fast, and a letter from the crew, sharing the little information they had gleaned from the women, was printed in newspapers in Paris, Geneva and Brussels. (In stark contrast to the detailed accounts of the shipwreck, there is very little information on the 15 years of survival on this barren island.)

The women said that many people died during the first few months on the island, from a combination of the harsh conditions and the hopelessness that came from being left behind. Those who remained managed to eke out a life against all odds. The well, built by the ship’s crew, never dried out. Food was plentiful: There were turtles on the island and birds so tame you could kill them with a stick. They wove clothes from feathers. The fire was kept burning for 15 years despite the absence of trees on the island. Bad weather hit them on a regular basis, and the survivors frequently feared being swallowed up by the water.

The sea did claim many victims — not on the island but during attempts to leave it. A few years after they arrived, 18 people boarded a makeshift boat and disappeared over the horizon. The second attempt was initiated by the French sailor who had been stranded after the first failed rescue mission. He left on a raft with the three remaining men and three women just three months before rescue came — which explained the baby.

For over a century, this was all that was known of the lives of the Malagasy survivors. Determined to dig their stories out of the silence of over two centuries, archaeologist Max Guerout spearheaded excavations on the island, which began in 2006.

Findings on the ground showed that the castaways had started off living in shelters made of wood and fabric, but the wind and rain brought them to the ground. They were left with no choice but to build houses of stone, which must have been an emotionally challenging decision, because in Malagasy culture at that time stone houses were reserved for the dead. It would have felt like sleeping in a coffin.

The weather continued to torment the survivors; the excavations revealed several phases of construction as each new home was destroyed by the winds. In the end, they were living in a hamlet of 10 buildings, nested into one another. The walls were 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. They were incredibly stable. Curiously, one of the stone rooms was completely sealed off.

From an archaeological perspective, it was an incredible site. The regular hurricanes that swept the island after the women were rescued covered their homes in a thick layer of sand, preserving everything as it was. This protected the site when a weather station was constructed in 1954. The archaeologists describe it as a “tiny Pompei of the Indian Ocean” — a moment frozen in time. Bowls and spoons lay abandoned on the ground, as though the women had been eating from them when they saw the boat, laid them down and walked away. No one had touched those objects again until the brush of the archaeologist brought them out of the sand.

Over the course of the digs, Guerout discovered an entire “micro-society” built by the survivors. It was not just a place of desperation but of ongoing culture and traditions. The number of decisions that were taken — from deciding to live in stone houses to sending the rafts out and deciding where to build — is a sign of a structured society, he argues. On top of that, the survivors used a forge to melt down metals and craft the things they needed: bowls and spoons, but also jewelry and amulets. Culture continued to thrive, even in the most difficult of times.

It is interesting to note that France’s social norms — and the sailors’ ability to leave the enslaved people for dead — resembled “Lord of the Flies” far more than the individuals fighting for survival, who organized and cooperated to an impressive degree. “The survivors used the few resources available to survive, then rebuilt a small society with determination, method, and a vital force that must be admired,” Guerout writes in his book “Tromelin: Memories of an Island.” “In the process, they reclaimed their dignity and humanity, almost in defiance of those who had denied them.”

After they were rescued, Tromelin took the women back to Ile de France, where they were greeted by the steward of the French Islands, Jacques Maillard. He declared them to be free individuals and offered them transport back to Madagascar. The women refused, saying that they would be returned to slavery. Instead, they lived out their lives on Ile de France.

Maillard was moved by the little baby boy and his mother, named Tsasiavo. He offered to take them into his home, along with Tsasiavo’s elderly mother, who was also among the survivors. He had the baby baptized Jacques Moise. Tsasiavo was christened Eve, and her mother Dauphine. Even as he gave them his charity and their freedom, Maillard stripped them of their names and their past.

This is even more tragic because Tsasiavo was the only one of the 200 enslaved people who stepped onto L’Utile whose name has survived in the history books. Meanwhile, the island came to be known as Tromelin Island, after the captain who led the rescue mission, not after its brave and tenacious inhabitants. Whether the survivors had given their new home a name remains a mystery.

Luckily, Max Guerout and his team of archaeologists are helping to uncover their memory from the sand. In 2012, the French government held a small ceremony on the island and erected a commemorative plaque for the abandoned Malagasy. Meanwhile, the rusting anchor of L’Utile, still poking out from the waves, reminds all visitors of the tragedy that happened there.

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