‘The estate (‘habitation’) was a rural property and the landowner (‘habitant’) was the person it belonged to.’
His father, Jacques Brunet, had arrived on Bourbon island from Périgueux a few years before, to take charge of an estate in Saint-André. The estate belonged to the Rochetin family and Jacques Brunet married one of the daughters, Jeannne Rochetin, a Creole. They had several children, one of whom was Sully Brunet, who was born in Saint-Denis in 1794 and grew up on the estate.
In 1811, Sully and his elder brother refused to swear allegiance to the British, who had taken over the island an as a result, he had to leave the colony. He went to Paris to study law, before returning to Bourbon in 1817, to take up the post of magistrate. Compromised in the Furcy affair, he then worked as a lawyer. His practice being very successful, he was able to purchase property, and even took charge of running some of his estates.
In 1830, he left Bourbon for health reasons and settled in Paris, where he became an unofficial Member of Parliament for the colony. During this stay in the capital, he apparently did not occupy a salaried post, most probably because his estates brought in sufficient income. In 1833, he came back to Bourbon for a few months, bringing with him in the new law, passed on 24th April 1833, which, notably, created an elected council for the colony. He became a member of this local government body, then was appointed by his peers to represent the interests of the colony in Paris. He sailed back to mainland France in 1834 and apparently never returned to his native island.
In his memoirs, a document written in the mid-19th century for his son Eugène, Sully Brunet evokes the notion of the estate, specific to the context of Bourbon .
‘What linked the community of settlers was their honour, each person’s law consisted in respecting what did not belong to him; each estate was a separate colony, with its absolute master and its slave workers.’
What we learn from reading his memoirs is that the estate was a unit, the essential component of Bourbon’s colonial society. It was both the family unit (which included the slaves living on it) and the economic unit (the means of production).
‘The estate (…) is the generic expression that qualifies the rural property, which either consists of just a smallholding, with a modest house; or it can be of grandiose proportions, like those estates with their sugar factories producing millions of kilograms; or those coffee plantations, yielding several hundred quintals, that used to cover the island before the introduction of sugarcane.
In the distant past, the property I am depicting formed a sort of small state, with its own separate government: justice in accordance with the legal codes was not applied there, with the exception of a few important affairs that so much marked the society. The police, administrative in character, was unknown there. The master was ubiquitous, at the same time sovereign, magistrate and physician and despite this absolute authority, he lived peacefully and happily surrounded by his family, for whom he often played the role of schoolteacher, and among the slaves that he would treat with paternal benevolence.’
According to him, the estate fashioned and actually defined Bourbon: a rustic and rural way of life, but also a specific topography (its relief and its deep gullies), which isolated the inhabitants and favoured their independence to the point of turning the landowners into absolute masters, sometimes to the detriment of French laws, which actually at times led to a deviation from domestic justice regarding the slaves, which certain masters, replacing common-law justice, considered was justified.
‘The authority of the governor was not respected; it was even annihilated by the character of the colons, from the point of view of the administrative and repressive police. The settlers, withdrawn on their estates in the countryside, hard-working, sober, masters of land that was fertile, rugged and with few facilities enabling communication with the island’s main town, were separated from each other by the torrential waters and appeared independent of and resistant to authority, raising protest on several occasions.’
This rustic aspect, independence of character and propensity to act autonomously were characteristics that Sully Brunet recognised as representing the estate owners, but also the colony as a whole, with the exception of the slaves.
‘We formed a separate civilisation, lit up by our keen intelligence and developed education, but overlain with rustic elements: in certain respects haunted by a primitive society with its rough edges, independence, ignorance of the laws and a passion for duels.’
Sully Brunet describes the estates he lived and worked on during the periods of the French Revolution and the Empire, then evokes the estates he actually owned, all located in the north-east of the island, between Sainte-Marie and Sainte-Rose. The estates of his childhood reflect the image of the traditional estate, that of the 18th century, not yet transformed by the sugar industry. The landowners then abandoned coffee and food crops to replace them by sugar-cane. Sully made most of his fortune from sugar-cane, which explains his interest in tariffs, one of the most important issues facing the settlers . His relations in Paris, his familiarity with the topic and his personal commitment to the issue made him the ideal person to represent his compatriots in mainland France.
Although his birth had been recorded in the registers of Saint-Denis, Sully Brunet always declared that he had been born on the estate of Bras des Chevrettes, in Saint-André, an estate that his father had started to manage a short time before.
‘The estate of Bras des Chevrettes (which owes its name to a species of shallow-water marine shrimp, commonly referred to as ‘cheverette’ on the island) … I can see it in my mind’s eye. I can draw out the divisions of the estate, the path crossing it, the slopes, the streams, the waterfall, the trees. It is almost adjacent to the original forest, with its huge proportions and secular, impenetrable trees. This estate was like a basin with mountains on either side, the façade looking out over a wall of mountains and the far end marked by a torrent, broken and irregular with its waters crashing down. The estate was surrounded by virgin territory, and crossed by a large number of streams. Its wealth came from a young coffee plantation producing an abundant crop: higher up, dominating the greenery of its shrubs, could be seen orange trees, fruit-producing plants growing naturally. This earth, rich in humus, received the seeds, nourished the plant, needing no fertiliser and no work other than hoeing to remove the weeds. Hunting was productive and the waters full of fish; everything flourished here and multiplied prodigiously in a way that is difficult to imagine. The physiognomy of the estate, akin to a village, with its large mansion, consisted of: a vast main house, two smaller houses for visitors, large storehouses for the products and a separate kitchen, all constructed in timber. There was a slave-camp of 30 or so huts (each housing two persons) with their thatched roofs, stables and a number of outbuildings for the animals: this was what that magnificent agricultural estate consisted of.’
Jacques Brunet was made manager of the estate of la Rivières des Roches in 1815, taking over from Patu de Rosemont who left for mainland France. His son Aristide took over as director in 1828. Having serious financial difficulties, he only managed to save his estate thanks to his marriage with Élise Féry d’Esclands, and buying it from his spouse’s rich family with the money of the dowry.
‘La Rivière des Roches was a model estate, constructed following plans, in a perfectly selected location, delimited by a fast-flowing river, the waters of which were clear and full of fish, its course irregular and interrupted by piles of metallic rocks, separated by several basins. Two kilometres from the manor, a stunning 200-meter-high waterfall comes crashing down among trees which, growing all around, appear to have given birth to it. The waves of the ocean break at the mouth of this torrent. This charming estate, three quarters of a league from the town of St Benoît and one league from the Rivière des Roches, was my prison, with its bounds.’
Following his marriage with Catherine Boussu in 1821, Sully Brunet received as the dowry an estate in Sainte-Rose. She was the window of the Marquis of Saint-Belin, and the estate was at the time called the estate of Saint-Belin. He became the owner and entrusted its management to a relative.
‘On the lower side of the property, along the main road, I turned my horse off into a long alley lined with two rows of clove trees. On either side could be seen a rough, rocky, volcanic terrain, with lush vegetation growing out of it. This estate, half of which was newly built, was 3 hectometres in length. At its far end it sloped up to a mountain covered in secular trees and the summit of which was a volcanic crater.
I arrived at the platform of the property, where stood a small house, storerooms and a group of 60 or so huts for the blacks. (…) From a distance, Madame de St-Belin had been informed of the arrival of a person on horseback (…); it was the period of the clove harvest and she was supported by just one white person, her steward, living one kilometre away.’
The following year, he bought another estate, this time further north, close to Sainte-Marie, thanks to the income from the property contributed by his wife, but also income from his lawyer’s practice.
‘In 1822, I purchased Lilibase […], certainly the island’s the most beautiful villa. This twelve-hectare estate, with its modest manor, occupies a stunning position: located in the district of Sainte-Marie, eight kilometres from Saint−Denis. It is a 40-minute carriage ride along the main road, which, to the south of Lilibase, runs along the entire seven hundred rods of its length. A line of tall trees indicates the line. Running parallel to the north, also along its entire length, the ocean waves break at the foot of a steep rock rising up from 60 to 100 feet. Lilibase forms the upper plateau, like a white ribbon of greenery with its different tints.. This compact property, marked out and isolated, is remarkable for its exceptional situation. The river of rivière Sainte-Marie flows along its eastern boundary.
The productive agricultural land lies along its eastern and western edges. In its centre stands the house surrounded by four hectares of trees and shrubs. The concentration of these gives an impression of shade, of a planned space, a rough terrain and irregular viewpoints. The paths running through the gleaming orchard are thoughtfully laid out but enriched with cool waters, flowing irregularly, and rays of light of great beauty, impossible for man to create.
These trees and shrubs consist of: coffee plants, orange trees, breadfruit, lemon trees, lychees, clove trees, palm trees and coconut palms, many of which exude sweet fragrance when in blossom.
The façade of the manor opens out onto an elegent alley formed by three rows of mango trees on either side, with in its centre and across the entire width, from the steps leading up to the house down to the gateway opening out onto the main road, a green lawn , wide enough for two carriages on both sides.
On the other side of the house, to the north, the dining room opens out to the view, beneath the dome created by of an alley of ebony trees, the far end of which slopes down a steep rock face. The view is out over ocean, frequently crossed by ships sailing to Saint-Denis.’
After selling Lilibase for a good price, with his friend Leguidec, he acquired the estate of Justamond that they renamed La Félicité. Leguidec, in charge of running the estate, did not manage to make sufficient profits, but Sully was too busy with other activities and did not have enough experience of sugar production. He did not manage to sell it – at a great loss – until he came back to the colony in 1833.
In 1828, he acquired the estate Bruguier, adjacent to that of his brother-in-law Boussu in Sainte-Marie, which he also bought. He turned the two estates into a single one that he named La Réserve, then added to it ‘a steam pump, black workers and all the equipment necessary to set up a sugar factory.’
Using funding from various sources, he bought then sold several estates. He admitted, not without a degree of humility, that, at least for a time, the estate was for him a symbol of social success:
‘In the colony, becoming a landowner of considerable importance, constructing a sugar factory on one’s estate, means being an important lord locally. I will admit that this was what I wished to become.’
Other estates also had an importance for Sully Brunet. We can first of all mention his uncle’s estate, named la Ravine des Chèvres in Sainte-Suzanne, that Sully considered to be one of the most beautiful on the island, or the estate of Monsieur Diris, where he went to school.
‘I will have the opportunity to compare slavery during that period with the slavery that had existed for 30 years or so.’
These three decades correspond to when he came back to the colony after 1817 and to the start of industrialisation on the estates, a consequence of the development of the monoculture of sugarcane.
The estate was automatically associated with slavery, since the slaves worked and lived on the estate. Sully Brunet always had an ambiguous attitude to slavery, an institution that he qualified as being ‘an annoying necessity’ .In 1817, suspected of being too liberal with the slaves, he defended himself by declaring: “He [the general commissioner Philippe Desbassayns de Richemont] is fearful of my relations with the blacks and keeps me away from directly surveying them, exiling me to a place where I have only friends and where my family is highly esteemed, on an estate where I have a hundred slaves at my disposal” .Implicitly, he defended him as a landowner, but also as a representative of the island’s settlers in Paris. Nevertheless, he conceded that it was necessary to consider abolition (without showing a real interest in the question), before others came to do it unilaterally. His project to abolish slavery over 19 years led to his being rejected by his fellow members of the local colonial elite.
Sully Brunet gives the reader the impression that on his family estates, the slaves were well treated, perhaps better than elsewhere. His younger brother Auguste seems to have had a rather less ambiguous attitude to slavery. According to his biography, written by his son Dufour Brunet (1827-1923), he was a true proponent of abolition. In general, Sully Brunet always adopted a paternalistic attitude to the slaves, often a kind of benevolence tinted with a certain disdain and a feeling of superiority.
Sully Brunet has left us with precious information and descriptions of estates. It is difficult to find traces of some of these, such as Lilibase. But beyond these factual descriptions, he mainly communicates an atmosphere, which he considered had been lost. The idealised society of his childhood, as yet untouched by industrialisation, a less dehumanised society (independently of the issue of slavery), where people still related to each other.
‘Here, as I have seen elsewhere on the island, I am afraid that speculation has replaced those lovely orchards by rows of sugarcane, the appearance of which is gloomy, monotonous and gives a vision of a yellowish ocean of reeds, totally lacking in variety and with no trees to break the monotony.’
Sully Brunet communicates to us the nostalgia he felt for that period, but also his pride at being a Creole from Bourbon, since he believed living on the estate had developed a number of his qualities and formed his character (living healthily in the open air, contact with nature, developing physical strength etc.).
With hindsight, considering the period but also the person in question, far more complex than he wished to admit, Sully Brunet leads us to ask ourselves a number of questions. He certainly projects an over-idealised image of the estate, magnifying it, since the island no longer exists as he describes it. He has left us with an image of estates from the late 19th century until his departure in 1834. He already deplores the changes that have been imposed on the estate of his childhood, as well as its industrialisation. He also gives us precise details of the speculation around transfer of estates and reminds us of the necessity for the landowners to apply principles of good management, as well as the precarious character of monoculture in the event of poor harvest. Did he, in fact, still consider himself to be a landowner once he had settled in mainland France, since he no longer managed his estates himself, simply taking advantage of some of the income from them?
This idealised image ultimately leads us above all to ask ourselves questions about the living conditions of the slaves, which, according to Sully Brunet, were almost pleasant – a somewhat puzzling attitude. While slavery was an institution which had to disappear, it was treated by the author more as simply one element of the estate in general, but virtually never in a precise manner, notably as regards the daily lives of the slaves and the very hard tasks they had to carry out, as well as the punishments meted out to them, punishments that he was of course aware of but that he never recorded in his memoirs.