I wrote the first draft of this article within the confine of Réunion Island in our little hideaway cabin up the hills where my youngest daughter and I spent our week of quarantine (called septaine here as it only lasts 7 days). The year 2020-2021 would be remembered as the year of lock-down, confinement, curfew, quarantine. Never in our modern history has our freedom of movement been so restrained, albeit justified for public health reasons.
This is not an article about the pros and cons of restrictions imposed for public health reasons, it is an article about the concept of freedom, more precisely the lack of freedom; looking at how some brave souls from Réunion Island fought to free themselves from their shackles. This article is also the perfect excuse for me to introduce you to Réunion Island, where I was born and where my family lives.
Réunion island, or in French ‘Ile de la Réunion’, is a smallish island situated east of Madagascar and about 175km southwest of Mauritius. It’s a volcanic island, like Hawaii, with a mountainous interior and a population of about 1 million people. If you haven't heard of it, that’s not unusual, it’s typically only known by sailors and stamp collectors. The island is famous for a number of things including the first Euro Transaction, occasional – but very heavy rain, and one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
First Euro transaction
Réunion Island is a French Department and because of its geographical position is the most easterly part of the eurozone. The Island was the first European territory to handle the Euro currency when it was introduced in 2002. The mayor of St Denis (the Capital city) purchased a kilo of lychees after a brief barter with a local stallholder.
Rainfall in Réunion
For the most part, Réunion Island has a mild tropical climate, but it is in the hurricane belt (here it’s called, cyclone belt) and when it rains, oh boy, it rains. Réunion has set a number of records for the highest rainfall measured including the official 24-hour rainfall record (1,825 mm or 71.85”) during a tropical storm in 1952 and the 48-hour rainfall record (2,467 mm, or 97.13”) at Cilaos, which has sadly – or happily- now been beaten. Have you ever wonder what is the difference between hurricanes and cyclones? It is just a question of geography. A tropical storm system is called a hurricane in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific and is called a cyclone in the Northern Indian Ocean.
Piton de la Fournaise, or Furnace Peak in English, is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, along with Kilauea in the Hawaiian Islands, Stromboli, and Etna in Italy, and Mount Erebus in Antarctica. The volcano is a major tourist attraction and offers some excellent hiking and scenery. Since 2010, the Piton de la Fournaise has been a member of a very exclusive club as one of the natural assets listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their outstanding universal value. It is an honor that it shares with the island’s other volcano, the Piton des Neiges which culminates at 3070 meters and which is a dormant volcano. For the past 10 years, the Piton de la Fournaise has erupted on average every 9 months, fortunately without endangering the islanders. Not many volcanoes can boast such exuberant activity.
The latest eruption of the Piton de la Fournaise started on 9th April 2021 and is still going on as I speak. I went for a hike with some of my local friends to the volcano site to have a closer look. We saw the fumes coming out of some craters, we couldn’t see the flow of lava from our viewpoint but we were told that there was a tunnel of lava still running underneath. The whole volcano site is surreal, very out of this world kind of scenery.
A story about freedom
Coming back to the main topic of this article, slavery was used widely in the French colonies in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. The French slave trade began in the 15th century, not for use within mainland France, although France’s northern ports were heavily used to trade and ship slaves, but in the French colonies, where sugar accounted for 80% of exports. Slaves from Africa were brought into the colonies to cultivate sugar cane.
Regulatory measures constantly governed the supervision of slaves, the control of their labor, their movements, any possible activities by them outside the plantations, and events in their personal lives. These regulations allowed extensive freedom to plantation owners regarding the range of punishment they could administer to their slaves. Slaves were subjected to physical and emotional abuse on a daily basis.
The phenomenon of resistance on the part of the slaves, individually or collectively, has been the focus of relatively little research. Yet, slaves in the French colonies resisted their plight in the most varied and admirable ways. They attempted to escape on a regular basis (a phenomenon known in French as “marronnage” escaping the plantations in coastal areas to find refuge in the mountains where they remained hidden in the hope that the plantation owner would eventually give up looking for them. The word “marron” originates from the Spanish word “cimarron” which means “to escape.”
On Réunion Island, historical accounts reveal stories of the Black- Marrons taking great risks to escape to the mountains, preferring to live as free men in precarious conditions rather than staying at the plantation under the bondage of a brutal plantation owner. Those who successfully escaped established semi-permanent camps in the mountains. Once a small group of trusted companions had settled and had organized themselves, they conducted regular raids on the plantations to steal weapons, tools, food, seeds, and farm animals (chickens); they also brought back with them their women and children. Eventually, the Black-Marrons successfully managed to grow their own food, raise farm animals and create a new community of free men, women, and children up in the mountains.
The plantation owners were terrified of these raids which were becoming more and more frequent. They started manhunts for the Black-Marrons and offered hunters 30 Livres per “catch” dead or alive. Hunters had to bring as proof of a “catch” (in order to claim their prize) the severed left-hand of the Black-Marron they had just killed. Hunters were free to capture or kill men, women, and children alike. Despite this brutal repression against the Black-Marrons not all of them were captured or killed and the most resilient managed to keep living as free men and women in the mountains until slavery was abolished.
The Black-Marrons became legends in their own right; nowadays, if you go hiking on Réunion Island, you will come across several mountain peaks that are named after them, amongst them, Dimitile, Cimendef, Mafate, and Anchaing. One of the most notorious of those Black-Marrons was a slave known by the name of Cimendef. After his escape to the mountains, Cimendef created a new identity for himself. Originally from Madagascar, he created a name from the words “tsi” meaning “non” in Malagasy and “mandevi” meaning “slave” – so, Cimendef means “non-slave.” Through his new name, he wanted to show everyone his will to live as a free man. Slavery was abolished in France and its former colonies in 1848.
There is a policy of organized forgetfulness of the past that suits the agenda of the rulers, the people in power. History is written from the perspective of the victors and not the oppressed, whose role in their own liberation is often forgotten or downplayed. Historical accounts have found a way of denying centuries of resistance by slaves and the role they played in resisting oppression and pursuing their freedom. Historical accounts tend to attribute the happy resolution of a very shameful episode in history to a particular government or piece of legislation; while forgetting the acts of resistance that were carried out by the slaves themselves and the oppressed, who fought bravely for their inalienable right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is worth pointing out here that despite what most people believe slavery should not be automatically associated with ethnicity. Slavery has existed since the beginning of time; the color of someone’s skin was not a key factor to determine whether that person could find himself in the unfortunate position of being a slave. Those who became slaves were chosen because of their vulnerability compared to another dominant group and not because of the color of their skin. Since the beginning of times, Europeans enslaved other Europeans, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other Africans and Arabs enslaved other Arabs. A slave is a person who is the chattel or property of another. The etymology of the word “slave” finds its origin in the medieval Latin word “sclavus,” originally “Slav” because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering people.
Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist, historian, and philosopher points out that:
Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery, the most astonishing to an American today is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century. People of every race and color were enslaved and enslaved others. White people were still being bought and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire, decades after American blacks were freed. The region of West Africa was one of the great slave-trading regions of the continent before, during, and after the white man arrived. It was the Africans who enslaved their fellow Africans, selling some of these slaves to Europeans or to Arabs and keeping others for themselves. In East Africa, Arabs were the leading slave raiders, ranging over an area larger than all of Europe; slavery is often and wrongly associated with ethnicity and skin color. This practice was an accepted fact of the society of the time on the basis that the strongest has the right of appropriation over the weakest.
This article is dedicated to all the people who have been oppressed and have suffered injustice and who have found the courage to resist oppression and somehow free themselves from their shackles.