The Maroon Legend of Le Morne Mountain in Mauritius
This article explores the story of an important Maroon legend that took place on Le Morne Mountain in the South-West of the main island of Mauritius. Two hundred years ago, Mauritius became known as an important “stopover” in the eastern slave trade, due to the bravery of a large group of maroons who managed to escape slavery from the base of Le Morne Mountain. Their heroic actions of resistance became known around the world as “The Maroon Republic,” which inspired similar maroon movements in other countries and regions. Le Morne Mountain, which is also home to an incredible biodiversity, was able to provide shelter to these maroons during the early 19th Century. Le Morne Mountain was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, for its role in maroonage.
Through this article you’ll learn about the unofficial version of this Maroon Legend, and why we propose it was a massacre, and not a mass-suicide. I’ll also share with you about my own role in the protection of this legacy, and what it means to connect with the Maroon archetype for our world in transformation.
Note to the reader: This article may be longer than the usual Medium articles. I hope, however, that you’ll make the time to read it till the very end (and if you appreciate it, share it further!
Historical Context of Maroonage in Mauritius
Mauritius is a small tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, often called the pearl of the Indian Ocean. Mauritius does not inhabit indigenous people. Everyone who came to live here came here either by force, circumstance, or choice.
The first slaves that were brought to Mauritius were indigenous people from Indonesia, captured by Dutch colonisers around 1598, and brought here as slaves to work the land for growing sugarcane. Dutch colonisation of Mauritius started officially in 1638. However, this experiment was short lived due to the resistance by maroons who outnumbered the Dutch. We could say that maroonage on the Island of Mauritius started in the Dutch period of occupation, which is confirmed by the archives of Mauritius. The Dutch left the Island in 1710, when the situation with the maroons became unmanageable, after which the former slaves and maroons who stayed behind could live in relative ‘freedom’ for a couple of years.
The French officially colonised Mauritius in September 1715, and took many indigenous people from Madagascar, mainland Africa, India, and South-east Asia to work as slaves in Mauritius. This was done under the command of Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel ‘en route’ to India. He named the island “Isle de France.”
The French lost “Isle de France” to the British in 1810, which became official by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Although the British officially abolished slavery in 1833 (which came into effect in 1834), it still continued illegally for about 30 or more years in Mauritius. This violence has left deep scars on Mauritian society, similar to other colonised places around the world.
The Maroon Legend of Le Morne Mountain
In 2007, I learned of an important Maroon Legend linked to Le Morne Mountain. This came to my attention shortly after I moved to Mauritius from Australia, and went to live in a small village near Le Morne Mountain. When people learned of my expertise in law, they asked me to explain the specifics of a draft Management Plan by the authorities for the inscription of Le Morne Cultural Landscape as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site. The public was provided a short period for public input.
Mr. Karl Lamarque, founder of Platform Patriotik Pou Sov Le Morne, and one of the maroon heritage keepers, asked for me help and told me of his concerns about this draft Management Plan. In particular, how it failed to protect and ‘manage’ the cultural heritage of the maroon and slave descendants of Mauritius. Especially from corporate interests seeking to develop the cultural heritage landscape through private properties, golf courses, IRS villas, hotels, and resorts. He further explained how the mention of key archeological sites, including three former slave villages, as well as the oral knowledge of an important Maroon Legend, were missing in this draft Management Plan.
Since the French colonisation of the island, slaves had been brought to Mauritius to work the sugarcane lands, inherited from the former Dutch occupiers. Women, men, and children were tortured into submission. The area surrounding Le Morne Mountain was particularly notorious for this violence, where many slaves lived in ‘slave villages’ or ‘slave camps.’
Slaves were forbidden to speak their indigenous languages and practice their cultural and spiritual customs, punishable by death and torture. Through our interviews with the slave and maroon descendants, we learned of practices involving the torture of pregnant slave women who were buried alive with their bellies cut open, and their babies removed. As well as stories of slaves who were crucified and hanged to dry on the beach of Le Morne, as shark meat, to deter anyone who sought to fight against the slave owners.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, a large group of maroons near Le Morne Mountain managed to escape by climbing up the mountain, and finding refuge in caves and other hiding places near the top. To make it safely to the top, they would have had to cross an almost impossible gap, at risk of their lives. This gap as shown in the photo below was later was called the V-gap — the cleavage between two sections of the mountain.
Around 1850, a massacre took place on the top of Le Morne Mountain, which became the source of legends long after. It is still contested whether this was a massacre or a mass-suicide. The following story shared in the first-person of the character of a ‘Maroon Queen’, attempts to bring together the various elements of what we learned through our interviews with the maroon and slave descendant from Le Morne Mountain, Cotteau Raffin and La Gaulette.
The Maroon Queen and the Massacre
My heart is pounding with fear. We are trapped. I can sense that death is eminent. Danger is closing in on us. The air is thickening. It’s so hard to breathe. Why does it have to end like this, after all we’ve fought for? Will any of us survive this? How about our children? We were so close to regaining our freedom.
Why could he not just accept that I am not his woman to take as wife. Jealousy and betrayal, does it ever stop? I am a queen for our people. We fought hard for our freedom. We’re the last ones here, living in the caves on the mountain. I sent him away when he tried to force himself on me. Yet he insisted, and then threatened, “There will be consequences!”
He was one of us. How could he do this to us, his own people? And for what? Or were it those living at the base who betrayed us? Was it because of the fires at night, or the robes we had sent down to collect food from the slave villages below? Don’t they know that if we lose the fight on top, so will they below?
We are trapped now, betrayed by our own. But it’s not his fault. He too was tortured. If only he was less ambitious. He must have told them the path to our Free Place. “Clang’, more gun shots. The screaming voices of terror and pain pierce through my heart.
They are closing in on us. Who did they kill? How can we protect our children? These innocent souls, they’ve already endured so much.
I can hear the voices of the gunmen. Shouting angrily with hatred and contempt. Some even dare to laugh at us, as if taking pleasure in it all. They are shouting victory, knowing we’re trapped with no way out, like prey for the hunt. For years they’ve tried to break our resistance. We know who we are, and we will not be owned by anyone. This is the Maroon Republic. They cannot break our spirits.
I can hear their footsteps, they’re really close now. More gunshots, more screams. I am sheltering here with the other mothers to protect our children. We’re all silent and numb, waiting in shock. Terrified. We know death is imminent, nobody says a word. Our eyes speak directly from our souls as we look at each other intensely, dreading what is about to happen. Our men try to fight the gunmen. They are brave, but outnumbered. Our weapons are no match to their guns. When does this nightmare stop?
I can hear the voice of the betrayer nearing. He shouts my name, then laughs. Shouting to our people that it was all my fault. That because of me, they will now be punished by death. That I should have accepted him as our rightful leader, instead of the man I love. When does this pattern stop?
Death now takes us one by one, our final refugee from this tortured life. The promise of freedom we fought so hard for, taken once again by brutal force. May one day our story be known by the children of this place. May they know the truth of what we fought for, and who we are.
“No please, not the children, not our children, they are innocent.” Mothers scream. Pleading desperately with the gunmen, while most of our husbands are already dead. Killed without means of defence, in the brutal act of revenge. And for what crime? Escaping slavery and torture? Some are nailed to a make-shift cross on top of the mountain, many more are laying lifeless at the bottom of the mountain. The gunmen do not listen, their brutality has no limits.
As I watch over the cliff, I can see their bodies and those of our children, broken at the bottom of the mountain. Thrown off as if our lives and bravery meant nothing. Their souls now gone from this life.
I am the last one standing. They kept me here by force so I would have to watch it all. To experience the full terror of this massacre. Having to watch the rest of my tribe jump, with my mouth covered by their hands of domination, and my arms chained once again. Don’t they get it? They can’t chain my spirit, or who I am.
“Jump, or we’ll kill you,” they shouted. What story will these men tell when they have to explain the hundreds of dead bodies at the base of the mountain? How many more lies will they spin to protect their cruelty? That it where the good old English soldiers coming up to tell us slavery is over? And we jumped because we didn’t believe them?
It’s my time now. The white-winged bird with her long graceful tail flies near me. They let me choose my death, or so they say. I jump to my ancestors. I am flying. Free, finally. My ancestors await me on the other side. I promise to return. The promise of a maroon never dies.
Two conflicting Versions of the Maroon Legend
When I started to work with Mr. Lamarque in 2007, I did so to help protect the legacy of the maroons in Mauritius, and ensure that their version of what happened may finally be known by the world. The official version about the cause of death of the maroons of Le Morne Mountain is told as a mass suicide, and not a massacre. Children in Mauritius still learn this version at school. The difference is vital, and I’ll explain shortly why.
The official story of the Maroon Legend tells of English soldiers climbing to the top of the mountain, after slavery was abolished. Apparently, to share the ‘good news’ with the maroons, letting them know it’s safe to come out of hiding. It is said that when the maroons spotted the soldiers, they mass suicided by jumping to their death, out of fear of being captured again.
What we learned from our research, however is that it were not the English soldiers who went up on the day of the massacre, but the former French ‘slave owners.’ These men had taken ownership of the base of the mountain, and had long searched for a way to capture the looting maroons.
Several slave and maroon descendants we spoke with told us about an act of betrayal by one of the maroons, involving a dispute over a woman. Apparently, the betrayer had told the French slave owners the trail to the hiding places of the maroons, who were then given the sadistic choice of death by torture, or death by jumping. Many jumped, we were told, and the rest were killed off. Reference to this act of betrayal was quoted from Le Mauricien of 18 February 1853, by Karl Bakker and Prof. Francois Odendaal in their article:
“It is at the top of the mountain, on a sloping plateau where the maroons are believed to have stayed in small dwellings or caves, where they survived by raiding livestock and produce from colonial farms below and drinking from rivulets above, and from where some may also have escaped in small crafts by exiting the coral reef through two strategic gaps, in this manner hoping to reach Madagascar and Africa (‘home’ to some) beyond. In the literature there is reference to the so called ‘maroon republic’ on Le Morne Mountain that provided the runaway slaves with a place where they were out of bondage and where they formed a new communality. Over time, once the secret of the passage was betrayed, confrontations occurred on the summit between maroons and masters, as well as colonial militia — various accounts tell how trapped maroons would hurl themselves from the cliffs of Le Morne rather than being recaptured, in the desperate but heroic act of escape from oppression to obtain ‘freedom’.” (Bakker & Odendaal, 2008, p. 229). The authors also mention the version of the English soldiers, and do not draw conclusions about which version is correct.
Furthermore, the maroons were known to have been in contact with the slaves at the base of the mountain. They knew the reality on the ground, which makes the version of the English soldiers highly unrealistic. We wonder whether the official suicide version of the Maroon Legend was fabricated by former authorities to hide the following:
- Illegal slavery was still going on for at least 30 more years in Mauritius, after it had been abolished officially;
- To hide the extent to which French colonisers and former slave owners were still the ones holding the power in Mauritius.
By creating a cover story of a mass suicide (instead of a massacre), the English were portrayed as the ‘good guys’, and the acts of continuous illegal slavery that included the French landowners in Mauritius, remained concealed.
Mr. Lamarque and I informed the Mauritian government in 2008 about the inconsistencies between these two different versions regarding the cause of death of the maroons. We urged the authorities to at least begin by telling people both versions of this legend. Especially, if the version of the English soldiers is known not to be true. Our requests have not yet been honoured.
Several slave descendants confided in us that had they known that this was a massacre and not a mass suicide, it would have made a vital difference to their lives. Especially to realise how they descend from men and women who did not fear the ‘white’ people, and fought for their freedom until the very end.
Honouring the Maroon Legacy
During the public input period for the completion of the draft Le Morne Management Plan 2007, I compiled all our research into an official input report, signed by Mr. Lamarque and local stakeholders, which he then submitted to the authorities.
Mr. Lamarque and I also worked ‘unofficially’ with Prof. Francois Odendaal during this period. Prof. Odendaal and his team had been assigned the task of preparing the official inscription file, with an updated updated Management Plan for Le Morne Cultural Landscape, which they submitted to UNESCO in 2008. As part of this work, we also showed the archeologists (who had to collect evidence for the inscription case), where to find remnants of the former slave villages. We knew of these locations based on our interviews with local slave and maroon descendants, who were born in those former villages and grew up there. The evidence collected became critical for the inscription of Le Morne as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, which had been missing at earlier attempts of inscription.
Descendants of the slaves continued to live in the former slave villages around Le Morne Mountain until mid-1900. Their ancestors had been given rights to this land for living there after slavery was abolished. Several of the elders who were born and grew up in these former slaves villages, explained to us about their forceful removal from this land mid-1900, by the actions of the descendants of the former French colonisers. In other words, although slavery was officially abolished in 1835, the treatment of ongoing forced displacement was not. Formal healing and reconciliation still needs to take place in Mauritius to address and heal these deeply seated issues of injustice.
I continued my pro bono work in support of the maroon heritage until mid-2016. This included the documentation of the oral history of the Maroon Legend, in accordance with the knowledge of the slave and maroon descendants, advocacy for resolving key land ownership issues that impacted the cultural heritage protection of important slave villages that form part of Le Morne Cultural Landscape, as well as advocacy for the promised opening of the slave heritage trails.
UNESCO World Heritage Listing for Le Morne Cultural Landscape
In July 2008, Le Morne Cultural Landscape became officially enlisted as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the website of UNESCO it is mentioned that:
“Le Morne Cultural Landscape is an exceptional testimony to maroonage or resistance to slavery in terms of the mountain being used as a fortress to shelter escaped slaves, with physical and oral evidence to support that use. Le Morne represents maroonage and its impact, which existed in many places around the world, but which was demonstrated so effectively on Le Morne mountain. It is a symbol of slaves’ fight for freedom, their suffering, and their sacrifice, all of which have relevance beyond its geographical location, to the countries from which the slaves came — in particular the African mainland, Madagascar, India, and South-east Asia- and represented by the Creole people of Mauritius and their shared memories and oral traditions.”
Le Morne Cultural Landscape is today one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites on Maroonage and the resistance to slavery and oppression. Thanks to the tremendous courage, bravery, strategy and skilfulness of the maroons who fought against slavery and oppression, since the early days of colonisation.
Opening of the Public Slave Heritage Trails
After the inscription of Le Morne as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the public was promised that important heritage trails would be opened for the public, connecting the base and the top of the mountain. These trails had been blocked since the onset of slavery in Mauritius. When Mr. Lamarque and I learned how the promised opening of the slave heritage trails were undermined by private ownership interests, we decided to raise public awareness (once again).
Public access for walking the slave heritage trails from the base to the top of the mountain is an essential component of the healing and remembrance of the slave and maroon legacies. It took nine more years of campaigning, petitioning, and coalition building to get this issue resolved.
The main private land owner at the base of Le Morne Mountain claimed that one of the slave trails crossed his land. Meanwhile, the authorities had not (yet) used a small portion of State land closely situated near the slave village Trou Chenilles, for public access that could open the trail. Even though this portion of State land was indicated on the second State Conservation report of February 2016, which could enable the required public access for opening the slave heritage trails.
We informed the authorities of this first in 2015 via a petition with signatures of 200 people, after which several letters were sent via our coalition to the press to inform the public of the issues at hand when matters were still not resolved. The authorities finally decided to use this State land access to open the heritage trails in July 2016. The symbolic reconnection between the base of the mountain and the top, is essential for the collective healing of all that took place here.
What happened in Mauritius serves as a reminder that the deeper transformations of the underlying slave-mastery archetypes, and the archetypal patterns domination, are not yet resolved in our world and cultures today. This work has to be taken up by each new generation, for the human world to finally become is a place of freedom for all.
The Archetype of the Maroon for Our World Today
The flower in this photo is called Trochetia boutoniana (‘Boucle d’Oreille’) because of its bell-shaped look. It is the national flower of Mauritius since 1992, and was named after the French botanist Louis Bouton. The particular strand of this endemic flower lives on the slopes and top of Le Morne mountain. I was told by a botanist that this flower can only grow in the wild on Le Morne mountain. Whenever it is captured to be replanted or reproduced, it dies.
To co-create a world of peace, a world in which all of us can thrive together, we need to become conscious of the ways we create inner and outer captivity for ourselves and others (including non-human life). The Maroons remind us that freedom cannot be realised through patterns of domination, betrayal, and separation. We each come into this world born free. Our freedom is innate, and yet we often act contrary to it.
The maroon legacy continues today, by standing up for what is unjust and harmful. To honour the sacrifice that the maroons of Le Morne made in the name of freedom. It is now up to us heal the wounds of those earlier times, and transform the patterns of violence and domination from our lives and world.
The archetype of the Maroon is like a code for shifting the patterns of enslavement and oppression. Within the Maroon we find strength and understanding of our innate freedom. The knowing that nothing and nobody can change who and what we fundamentally are, and our birthright of life.
The Maroon Republic reminds us of the courage we can each find in our hearts and actions for ending the patterns of domination and divisions in our world. As well as the end of the master-slave dynamics. To become free not just in our body, but even more importantly in our minds. To enslave the body to our mind, is yet another continuation of this master-slave pattern.
Thank you for having made the time to read and learn about this important Maroon Legacy. To support this legacy please share this article further, and give a “clap of hands” if you appreciate it.
My sincere gratitude and acknowledgement to Mr. Karl Lamarque, and the other maroon and slave descendants in Mauritius who have kept this heritage safe, and in line with the values it represents, as well as Prof. Francois Odendaal for all this important work that led to Le Morne Cultural Landscape becoming an UNESCO World Heritage Site. My acknowledgement and sincere thanks also to Dr. Kurt Barnes for his contributions to an earlier version of this article, and for all his work for the Maroon heritage.
The original article, on which this article is based, was written in 2016 by Anneloes Smitsman and Kurt Barnes, as “The Fall and the Maroon Queen,” which has since been updated under the current title.
- Bakker, K.A. and Odendaal, F. (2008). Managing heritage in a contested space: the case of Le Morne Cultural Landscape in Mauritius. SAJAH, 23, pp. 225–244.
- De l’Estrac, J.C. (2004). Mauriciens — Enfants de Mille Races au temps de l’île de France. Mauritius.
- Le Morne Heritage Trust Fund (LMHTF) & Ministry of Arts and Culture. (2014). Le Morne Cultural Landscape Management Plan. 1. Integrated Management Plan 2014–2019.
- Mauritian Archeology. Stanford University. Source: https://sites.stanford.edu/MauritianArchaeology/history
- Peerthum, S. (2006). The historical significance of Le Morne. L’Express, 31 January 2006.
- UNESCO. World Heritage List — Le Morne Cultural Landscape. Source: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1259