Le Morne Cultural Landscape in Mauritius is one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites on Maroonage and the resistance to slavery and oppression, due to what took place by the tremendous courage, bravery, strategy and skilfulness of the maroons who fought against slavery and oppression since the early days of colonisation. The first slaves on the Island could have been those who were brought by the Dutch around 1598. The maroons referred here are the people who managed to escape the hands of their oppressors (colonisers) and sought refuge in the caves and other hiding places that Le Morne Mountain provided them.
We have been supporting this important World Heritage and the healing from slavery for several decades. Part of this work included the request for the agreed heritage trails between the base and the top of the mountain to be opened for public access as per the official guidelines of the Le Morne Management Plans. After nine years of writing to and dialoguing with the authorities to raise awareness about this, we are grateful that the trails are finally opening. We will share more about this in part 3 of our trilogy.
With the opening of the most important heritage trail to the general public, we feel it is time to come forth with some of the oral history that has been kept from the people. These stories are very important for the healing that still needs to occur in Mauritius as well as the deeper transformation of the underlying slave-mastery archetypes and dynamics. What is happening in Mauritius serves as an example for similar processes in other places in the world that were impacted by the same patterns. Before we share with you more background information regarding this unique World Heritage Site, we like to first take you on a journey.
Around 1850, or just before, a massacre took place on top of Le Morne Mountain that became the source of legends long after. Nobody knows exactly what happened and why, but this story, here written in the first-person of the ‘Maroon Queen’, is inspired by the interviews we conducted with the descendants of the maroons and slaves who were living in the Cultural Landscape of Le Morne.
THE FALL & THE MAROON QUEEN
“My heart is pounding, my fear intensifies, I feel trapped, I sense death is eminent …danger surrounding us, the air is thickening and closing in. I can hardly breathe. I pray, but I know that what is about to happen cannot be avoided… it is too late. Can we still survive this, who will survive this…why now? We were so close to our full freedom.
I explained to him, I cannot give my body to you, I made a promise to our Leader, I am his Woman. I am their Queen, the Queen of the free People; the last ones here. I cannot break this promise, or else all respect for him and what I am to him will be lost forever. They look up to me, they see in me the old values still standing. He kept insisting, and threatening that there will be consequences if I refuse him, how could I explain what is at stake.
No matter what I do, I am trapped. There is no way out of this trap, we are all trapped in this. Why? This is so unfair, so cruel. WHY? If I give my body, I will break my promise to the leader of our people, if I don’t, this man may betray us. Now I am held responsible for the death of my people, because of me they died. He took his revenge; he did not accept my ‘NO’. He betrayed us all. This was his way of punishing me for not giving myself to him, the worst punishment any human being can endure. What have I done? What could I have done to prevent this? Why did they all have to die? Because he could not have me? WHY? Was there another way? What would have happened if the people realized their Queen gave up? I did not know he was actually going to do it. That he would be so revengeful to betray all of us and all that we sacrificed for so long for the freedom of all.
I sensed the coming of these men a few hours ahead, the clouds darkened, nature silenced. A terrible apprehension thickened the air. I knew then he had done it. He told them the path. He gave them the map and showed them the way to our Free Place. They came in a small group of people. Shouting nervously, angrily, while laughing with the sound of hatred and revenge. They knew we could hear them and they rejoiced in our fear. They shouted victory. Their long awaited revenge for our resistance not to be owned and controlled by them.
What gives them the right to brutally take our life? My heart starts beating faster. I can hear their footsteps now; I know they are near. The first gunshots, the first screams. There are mothers with small children among us. The men have gone ahead. The sounds of terror are deafening, numbing. We want this to be over but it takes eternity.
Time seems to stand still. We are trapped now. There is no way to go. There is nowhere to hide. They know we are here. I hear his voice, the voice of the betrayer. He shouts my name to my people telling them this is my fault. That because of me they will die now. He shouts that I should have listened to him, that he would have been their right leader; that my pride stood in the way. This is his way of teaching me that he is boss, to show me who is ruler in this world, who controls life and death. He forces me to watch, as they die one by one. I see the terror in their eyes. Each time another soul leaves their pain enters my body and with this my guilt and horror grows thicker. He knows this; he takes pleasure in this. This is his ultimate revenge for not giving myself to him. He wants me to feel all of it. The greater the torture, the greater is his satisfaction. I pray and pray for this to end. What can I do? I stand by hopelessly. I do not have the power to save their life. I do not have the power to stop these beasts. I feel completely helpless.
I continue praying, but there is no way out other than death. I pray for the souls of my people. The promise of freedom that we all fought so hard for is now taken from us in this brutal act. I am last. Around me there is blood everywhere. The children are staring at me with their spiritless eyes, their bodies numb. All has gone silent now. There is not a sound in the sky. Even the animals are silent. I scream “NOOOOOO”. He walks up to me, with evil all over his face and whispers in my ears: “this is all because of you, stupid woman.” I fall down on my knees, I want him to kill me, but he won’t. He tells the white men with the gun “don’t kill her, let her see it all, let her take the blame for it all, let her die in guilt and remorse, this is her punishment”.
Above me the Angel bird with her White Wings flies, I jump with her, my body down, my spirit up. I fly away, to the land of my Spirit Ancestors. My heart is broken. What does the freedom that we fought so hard for mean when our life is taken from us in this act of revenge?”
The promise of true freedom that these maroons fought for, and for which they died, continues today. This promise will only find fulfilment by the actions that we as the next generations are taking to heal the wounds, close the divides between people, and transform the underlying patterns and archetypes that gave rise to so much suffering. The archetype of the Maroon is the code by which the encoding of enslavement and oppression shifts. Within the Maroon we find the true understanding of Freedom, the deep knowing that this is intrinsic and that nothing and nobody can change who and what we truly are and that which is our birthright.
SOME ASPECTS OF THE HISTORY OF MAROONAGE IN MAURITIUS
The archives of Mauritius show testimony of Maroonage as early as 1700s, and even before when the Dutch brought the first slaves to the Island. Dutch colonization of Mauritius started in 1638. The Dutch finally left the Island in 1710 after which time the slaves brought by the Dutch became free for a short period. The French colonised Mauritius in September 1715 by the actions of Guillaume Dufresne d’Arsel ‘en route’ to India. He then 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 on 1 February 1835, it still continued illegally for about 30 or more years in Mauritius.
The oral history concerning the maroons who lived on Le Morne Mountain has many different versions, depending on who told the story and the agenda for the telling of that story. The official version goes that English soldiers went up to the top of the Mountain after slavery was abolished to share the good news with the maroons telling them it is safe to come out of their hiding places. It is said that the maroons saw the soldiers approach; that they felt entrapped and feared to be recaptured, and thus jumped to their death. We question, however, whether this is what really happened. The maroons where looting the surrounding colonisers and would have been aware that slavery was about to be definitely abolished. The maroons were also in touch with those living and held as slaves at the base of the Mountain. They knew the reality on the ground.
Our own research with descendants of maroons and slaves from Le Morne Mountain, Cotteau Raffin and La Gaulette revealed that it were not the English soldiers who went up on the day of the mass suicide, but the French ‘slave’ owners who had been looking for the path up to the hiding places of the maroons for a very long time. We were told that there was an act of betrayal by one of the ex-maroons, after a dispute over a woman. Apparently he told the French slave owners the trail to the hiding places of the maroons in the caves and on the top of the Mountain. And we were told that when the maroons on the top of Le Morne were given the sadistic choice of death by torture or death by jumping, many jumped and the rest were killed off. Reference to this act of betrayal was quoted from Le Mauricien of 18 February 1853, by Bakker and 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 going up and do not draw conclusions as to which version is the correct one.
We postulate that concerning the story of the English soldiers going up, to tell the so called ‘good’ news, that this was fabricated to hide the following: 1) illegal slavery was still going on for 30 or so more years in Mauritius after it had been abolished officially; and 2) to hide the extent to which the French colonisers or slave owners were still the ones in real power. Hence, it was probably more in the interest of the ruling politicians and landowners of that time to create a cover story that made the English look like the ‘good guys’, and the French seeking revenge from the looters as non-existent in that story.
We informed the authorities in 2008 about the inconsistencies between these two different versions in the telling of what caused this massacre. Unfortunately, we were told to remain silent about the version we had come to know that an act of betrayal caused this massacre to happen. We were told it is just oral history; a story that people identify with that does not need to be exactly correct. We did not agree and tried to warn that if the story about the English soldiers is not true then people deserve to know the truth about this. We also learned from the descendants of those impacted by slavery that had they known the truth and realised that they descend from men and women who did not fear the ‘white’ people, their life would have been very different. Instead they were brought up to fear and look up to the white people who then embodied the dominant socio-economic and spiritual archetype.
HOW TO HONOUR THE LEGACY OF THE MAROONS
It is our understanding as therapists and transformational catalysts that the collective wounding and their impacts do not heal properly unless people are liberated from the lies that gave rise to this wounding. These wounds are passed on to the next generation via our collective psyche and the archetypes scenarios that are being re-enacted between people in society.² Much of this re-enacting of earlier patterns goes on unconsciously. This is why it is essential for people to become aware of these archetypes in them and to know how to become a maroon of their own life in the refusal to succumb to our collective pathologies. Read this article from Dr Kurt Barnes here for more information about the psychological impacts.
We find it necessary, therefore, to share the stories that have been kept from mainstream society. All of us are part of this heritage in one way or another, since the story of what happened is being repeated across humanity in different ways. The official story of the English soldiers going up is still the only story told to the children of Mauritius in their educational books. It is time for this to change. Based on our interviews with the descendants of the slaves and maroons it is our understanding that the colonisers attacked the so called “Maroon Republic” for revenge and to ingrain in them; whether free or not, the perpetual fear of ‘the master’ to those about to be free and their descent.¹ Free in the body yet subjugated in the mind. Some might recall that in the school books in Mauritius a story had found its way about the subjugation of a slave with an axe about to strike, by the simple look of the master!
To continue: A Trilogy – 2. Lost in Paradise, the Maroon Quest
Our sincere gratitude and acknowledgement to Karl Lamarque et al. for holding and keeping safe the oral transmissions and ensuring the continuity of this important heritage in line with the values that represent it.
Citation: Smitsman, A. & Barnes, K. (2016). A Trilogy – 1. The Fall & the Maroon Queen. EARTHwise Centre. Source: https://earthwisecentre.org/blog/trilogie-1-la-chute-et-la-reine-des-marrons
N.B. For the French version click here.
Picture credit of feature image: This beautiful picture of the areal view on Le Morne was created by Axel Ruhomaully. We acknowledge and thank him for giving us his permission to share his picture in this article. For more information about his work click here.
- The terminology “Maroon Republic” was probably used by scholars and those describing the maroonage movements in Mauritius. We raise the question as to whether or not the maroons themselves named their activities as a “Maroon Republic”. Especially when considering that these maroons were mostly from African descent where the traditional governance structure was based on Kings and Queen. For reference to the “Maroon Republic” one may also see the website of UNESCO where it is mentioned:”..Mauritius, an important stopover in the eastern slave trade, also came to be known as the “Maroon republic” because of the large number of escaped slaves who lived on Le Morne Mountain.” Source: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1259
- Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play – The Basic Hand Book of Transactional Analysis. New York: Ballantine Books.
- 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.
- Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play – The Basic Hand Book of Transactional Analysis. New York: Ballantine Books.
- 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