On this 1st of February, we’re commemorating the 186th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery. Pamplemousses, has also been a witness to the painful memories of slavery on the island. The village bears honour to the French Governor, Mahé de Labourdonnais, which considerably developed the area during the French period. The reason being for the fertile land it offered for the cultivation of crops and its proximity with the capital. It is to be noted that the village was home to many French families and included famous people like the intendent Pierre Poivre as well as the famous French novelist, Bernardin de St Pierre, inspired by the environment wrote his famous novel of Paul and Virginie. However, to stick to the dreadful past of slaves, we will take you on a visual trip to discover the different remains, which only serves to reinforce their presence along the landscape of the village.
The ‘Bassin et Marché des Esclaves’
‘Le Bassin des Esclaves’, is one among the most enigmatic structures which might be link to slavery in Mauritius. Situated next to the Village’s district council, it looks a big pool, constructed with lime and dressed basaltic rock. According to some inhabitants, slaves were brought on the spot, bathed and prepared to be sold to diverse owners. Interestingly, not far to this place is a slab, which according to oral histories, is the place where they were grouped, bargained and sold like cattle. While other oral historians and inhabitants view the place as an ideal spot for slaves to refresh themselves and rest after a long day of labour.
However, most historians did not confirm the historical attributes of the place. Firstly because of lack of documentation and information on the subject, the reason for choosing Pamplemousses as a suitable area for the selling of slaves and the absence of a system to evacuate water from the pool. Somehow, many attached faith that those structures are tangible remnants that played a role in the mistreatment of slaves during the colonial era and much activities were organised by NGO’S, the Ministry of culture and NHF around the idea of its preservation and inclusion in the slave route project.
Life around the Church of the Pamplemousses
The St François D’Assise Church situated beside the entrance of the Botanical garden is one of the third oldest Roman Catholic Church built under the French power, after the Cathedral of St Louis in the Capital and the Notre Dame de la Grande Pouvoir at Grand Port. The history of the church is very interesting as it first existed in the House of Mr Boucher, which is now a presbytery. Hence, to make space for the increasing number of parishioners, construction of the new church was undertaken in 1753 to 1756. Perhaps, it is one of the most important proof of slave’s existence around the area, as the structures of the church itself were built from well cut and dressed basalt rocks, which at that time required special skills and strength.
According to many historians, like Nagapen, slaves were surely involved in the process, as let’s remember that stone cutters, artisans and carpenters, many of them being slaves (including free labour) were brought to the island from India and parts of Africa as from 1735 to revamp the capital as a strategic port. So the church, is one of the main centre of the area to have witness this tragic form of servitude. Also, the church was also involved in their baptism as inscribed in the Code Noir, they needed to be civilised and had to abandon their names and culture and embrace the one of their colonial masters. Interestingly, not many slaves in the area were baptised and the ones that did, formed little groups of families, which were regularly instructed by Lazarists Priests to Catechism which subsequently allowed them to mix to the process of ‘metissage’.
The Church also regulated the work of the slaves in the field. Like in most sugar estates at that time, temples and shrines were normally situated in the middle of the plantation. Alike the church is situated in the middle of the Pamplemousses village. The clock today found on the front tower announces the different time of the day, thus regulated the working pace of the slaves and the right time to attend mass offices.
An important aspect of it still impregnates the walls of the church, as witnessed on this massive pillar. According to oral sayings, the holes and marks on it were left following to the removal of iron fences which were fixed there to distinctly segregate the colonists and slaves that came to assist the mass. As per tradition they were parked there and sometimes even retained by chains, while assisting the different religious functions. The iron bars as per sayings, formed part of the main gate in front of the church.
Le Cimetière des Noir
Going towards the north east direction taking from the main gates of the church, a silent road leads toward a cemetery, known as the ‘Cimetière des Noirs’. This space according to traditions and oral documentations, was where slaves were buried after their death or mistreatment.
Today the cemetery also authorises the burial of people from the present population with an identity, which really disturb the idea that such a place used to be a burial site for slaves. It is important to note that slaves during this period were buried without identity and the place of their burial was not even marked with crosses or slab including their names. That is why the entrance of the cemetery has a monument that includes no writing but only a figure of a slave, just to allow people to reflect on how slaves did not have a say at that time and even not an identity.
If today Mauritius has a culture, traditions, built heritage that makes us so proud, it is surely due to their sacrifices, including immigrants who came much later at the dawn of abolition. Thus, today ‘breaking the silence’, a theme adopted for the exhibition of the Intercontinental Slavery Museum project, is what needs to echo in the depth of our mind. In light with reports that the Truth and Justice Commissions issued, it is important to reconcile the past with the present and in addition to that bring justice to their descendants.
Author: Soobhen Kumaressen