Resistance to slavery

In the night of slavery, the bright light of escape


In the night of slavery, the bright light of escape

Just 355 years have passed between the first settlement of Bourbon-Reunion island and this year 2018, the 170th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Over half of that short history – 185 years – concerns the period of slavery, thus also that of ‘maronage’  (the phenomenon of fugitive slaves), that went hand in hand with slavery.

Qualified as ‘short-term’ or ‘long-term’, depending on the duration of the absence, escaping represented the liberation of the slave himself, through revolt, without awaiting possible freedom to be granted by the master.

The phenomenon of escaped slaves, particularly ‘large-scale’, was one that remained very vague for a long time. Yet it left deep marks on the society of Reunion island, both through the myths it created, a source of fertile collective imagination, as well as the through the toponomy of certain places in the territory, landmarks of the spaces occupied by fugitive slaves. These toponyms, attached to remarkable places on the island, such as Anchain, the name of a peak, or Dimitile in the south, celebrate fugitives who made an important contribution to the history of Bourbon-Reunion. Today, following recent studies carried out by the Regional Inventory Department, the phenomenon of ‘large-scale’ fugitives gives us an important insight into an important aspect of the history of slavery: the conquest of dignity by men and women initially condemned to be reduced to nothing.

The phenomenon of fugitives existed on Bourbon-Reunion island as from the arrival of the first Madagascans in November 1663. Ten ‘servants’, or more exactly slaves, were brought in with two French settlers, Louis Payen et Pierre Pau (or Paul Cauzan?), to live on Bourbon island and form the first core of a permanent population.
At the very start, a conflict broke out. The following is an account recorded by Urbain Souchu de Rennefort , Secretary of State for Oriental France:

The island was inhabited by two Frenchmen and ten Africans, seven men and three women brought in from the island of Madagascar, who rebelled against the French and went to live in the mountains, where they could not get caught and were rarely seen. They accused the Frenchmen of having killed their fathers and, after a failed plot to exterminate the two Frenchmen, they removed themselves to where they could not be seen and were out of range of their guns. Six soldiers were sent to look for them, but their troubles were in vain, since they had retired to inaccessible places.

Souchu de Rennefort obtained this information from Payen himself, who sailed with him on the ship la Vierge du Bon Port en 1666.

The revolt led the Madagascans to retire into the mountains as the island’s first fugitives. They came back only much later, after the arrival of Etienne Regnault in 1665, who promised they would not be punished. The word ‘they’, used to refer to the members of the group of first settlers, greatly lacks precision, since there exists no document identifying the members of the group that returned, and above all those that did not return. This is all the more remarkable as, with the exception of the three women, whose family names, first names and approximate ages were indicated, no information was recorded concerning the seven men, who apparently were of no great interest to anyone. This detail is an important one if we are to understand what ensued, as well as the creation of the enigmatic interior fugitive kingdom, based in the cirque of Salazie and more precisely around the peak of Piton d’Anchain. A large number of elements converge to indicate that one of the men, known on Bourbon by the name of Anchain, remained a fugitive and laid down the bases of solid socio-political organisation, enabling the fugitives to offer effective resistance.

The socio-economic decision to set up slavery as the means of production in the new colony took on its full meaning with the decree issued on 28th August 1670. At the request of the minister Colbert, the French State Council officialised the practice of slavery in France and extended it. Even though slavery was already accepted and practised on Bourbon, this recognition by the French State gave the white settlers the means to intensify the slave trade.

At the same time, slaves started to increasingly contest their condition in various ways, for example by escaping. This was the most developed form of revolt against slavery, both regarding the number of persons involved and the duration. The phenomenon continued throughout the slave-trade and despite the repression, that took on crueller and crueller forms. While initially fugitives were punished by whipping, being marked by the fleur de lys or or the letter ‘M’, amputation of ears or one foot were later used to punish repeated attempts to escape. On his third attempt to escape, the long-term fugitive , when caught, was condemned to death. However, this did not discourage later attempts, by both men and women, who accepted to pay the price in the name of liberty and dignity.

Two types of escape are to be differentiated. The first was episodic and in a sense spontaneous. The slave revolting against his or her condition would leave the plantation for a certain time and then return of his or her own accord, due to the difficulties of improvised survival in the mountains. This type of departure was generally triggered by a particular event, often a serious form of mistreatment: a particularly unjust or cruel punishment or fear of one, serious malnutrition, death threats or tasks impossible to be carried out. These fugitives were referred to as ‘renards’ (foxes) and stayed absent without any organisation, and, not having anywhere else to go, sometimes remained in the vicinity of the plantation. At times they would return to the estate of their own accord, due to the difficulties they encountered.

The second type of departure, qualified as ‘long-term’ was carefully considered, prepared a long time in advance and often in a group, or at least with the help of a group. This was a structural form of departure and concerned persons who, from the start, would categorically refuse the system of slavery and attempt to escape from it however they could and whatever the price to pay. In this paper, we will focus on long-term fugitives, whose existence is attested by historical facts, through research as it stands today.

Long-term escape represented a quest for autonomy, the construction of a free world, as opposed to slavery. On Bourbon island, the project of fugitive slaves was a political and social revolution, aimed at the creation of a free state: the interior kingdom, as opposed to the government in power along the coast and elsewhere on the island.

The founding act of this realm does indeed seem to be linked to Anchain, who had taken refuge on his peak and who welcomed, organised and coordinated groups of fugitives, as described by Eugène Dayot :

The tip of the peak was an observatory from where agreed signals were sent to warn of approaching whites… Often, when bandits and their troops hunting for wild goats were taken by a large detachment, the warning signal was also sent from the peak.

Salazie, Piton d’Enchaine. Hippolyte Charles Napoléon Mortier de Trévise. 1861.
Departmental archives of Reunion

The phenomenon of fugitives became long-term and permanent on the island through the emblematic person of Anchain. He was one of the first ten Madagascans to escape and when most of the other members of the group returned to the coast, he chose to remain up in the mountains, possibly with two or three companions, about whom, at present, we have no information. Anchain, or rather Saina, his original name (Anchain means ‘at Saina’s’), was the first important fugitive chief on Bourbon-Reunion island. The existence of this famous fugitive kingdom in the mountains, originally refuted by the island’s administration, was later constantly referred to, with the aim of justifying the intensification of the struggle against fugitive slaves, by settlers afraid of raids and pillage. With more and more concessions granted to settlers, fugitives were now pushed into ever smaller areas.

While slaves fled from the estates to escape from servitude, the aim was not simply to settle in the mountains, but also to take up the struggle towards building a free world, more favourable to the ideals of these men and women, who never surrendered their dignity and humanity, all the more so as we now know that they had ancestral models of escape, dating back to the Arab-Muslim slave trade in Madagascar, going back at least as far as the 8th century. Exemplary models of resistance were developed. The Bemihimpa, escaped slaves in Madagascar, had constructed independent societies, both politically and economically. We have proof of this process through the agreements they made with the neighbouring kingdoms, aimed at striking up alliances or defending themselves through centuries of coexistence.

If on Bourbon island the long-term fugitives did not succeed in constructing a recognised and respected structure as a free and independent people, as was the case in larger and more favourable regions, with the Maronis in Guyana, or, closer to Reunion, the Bemihimpa in Tampoketsa in Madagascar, or the Betsiriry, again in Madagascar, it was because conditions were not favourable. It was difficult to share such a small-sized territory, with the population increasing each century, even though all the premises were there.

The very existence of the fugitive kingdom – hypothetical or real – weighed heavily and created tensions within the colonial administration, who justified preventive and repressive policies concerning fugitive slaves, which varied according to the period concerned. In actual fact, the settlers would just hear echoes of a large secret organisation existing inside the cirques, and interpreted elements they gleaned, such as the presence of kings and queens, but avoided penetrating into these terrifying domains, which were actually well protected. However, they were always aware of the serious threats of long-term fugitive organisations.

In 1705, when Pitsana, a young fugitive chief, (the king Pitre, successor to Anchain in the novel written by Dayot…and in real life!), was condemned to amputation of his right foot, for his judges, the charges were very clear: “…after taking up arms, coming to assassinate the governor in his house, and anyone else present, with the aim of becoming Masters of the island.

The number of fugitive slaves increased more and more as in 1714, the island had 534 slaves for a population of 623. The slaves thus felt they were in a position of power. Later on, the obligation to grow coffee again increased the number of slaves, necessary labour for extending the surface devoted to the new crop. Between 1730 and 1734, 349 slaves became fugitives In Saint-Paul alone.

The groups of fugitives included men and women, as well as children. What would the fugitive chiefs have been without their women? Anchain without Héva  ? Manzak without Reine Fouche, Massaky  (Massack) without Rahariane, Grégoire without Soa (Soya), Zélindor without Kala, Laverdure without Sarlava (Sarlave), Fanga without Marianne ? And so many other runaway mothers and women warriors?

The women who were caught had were sentenced just like the men. On 20th December 1711, a group of slaves of various origins were sentenced for having stolen a rowing-boat in an attempt to sail to Madagascar. Five women and one man, considered to be the leaders, were sentenced: two had a foot amputated and three other men were sentenced to 200 lashes of the whip. Marie, one of the insurgents, “a first-line accomplice”, aged about 30, was sentenced to 100 lashes of the whip and had her nose and ears cut off. There were also many women fugitives who, hounded by slave hunters besieging their camp at the edge of a deep ravine, would throw themselves off the cliff with their child in their arms in a gesture of defiance.

Basically, women conferred meaning to the existence the fugitives, by giving birth to children who belonged to their parents and not to the masters. Future fugitives, they were referred to as ‘créoles des bois’: forest Creoles. The children gave a ‘normal’ character to the fugitives’ lives, contributing to the creation of family life, in a private, protected and free space: the fugitive camps. All these elements, that appear so normal, were refused to the slaves living on the masters’ estates.

In addition, the women would remain in the camp while the men went to fight and carried out forays. When the men failed to come back from an expedition, it was the women who naturally took over running the camp and, of course, looking after the children. They thus guaranteed the long-term survival of the camp, as long as it had not been discovered and destroyed by slave-hunters.

In 1751, for example, at Îlet à Corde in the cirque of Cilaos, the slave-hunters were stupefied to discover a long-standing camp where three generations of fugitives, including several children, were living. The hunter Edme Cerveau “killed an old African woman called Bonne, whose daughter, called Zavelle in Madagascan, was the mother of Mangalle ».

In March 1739, the administration of La Bourdonnais organised an extended ‘hunt’, simultaneously covering all the places on the territory sheltering fugitives, with the aim of ‘eradicating fugitives’. This unprecedented operation mobilised practically all the island’s detachments of slave-hunters at the same time.
The extended campaign had terrible consequences for the communities of fugitives, but did not eliminate them and those remaining continued the struggle.

Isle Dauphine. Guillaume Sanson. 1741.
De Villèle historical museum

From the start, organised fugitive camps were set up mainly by slaves from Madagascar. In fact, in a number of historical documents, the term ‘Madagascarins’ generally refers to the fugitive slaves of Bourbon. They did have an unbridled desire for justice and liberty (the case of all slaves, whether Indian, African, Chinese or Malay!), but there were other factors inciting them, not shared by other, non-Madagascan, groups of slaves. First or second-generation, Madagascans, or even more (the term ‘Creole’ occults the person’s ethnic origin), formed the great majority of long-tem fugitives. There were two main reasons for this.

The first reason was the large numbers of persons of Madagascan origin during the first years of the colony, contributing to a strong cohesion between them

It was only much later on in the settlement of the island that the ethnic origin of the slaves became greatly diversified. Originally, the main source of the slave-trade was Madagascar, as well as India, though to a lesser extent. In addition, the linguistic unity solely enjoyed by the Madagascan arrivals enabled efficient and spontaneous communication. One element reflecting this is the number of slaves who fled immediately on disembarking, without even setting foot on the plantation: a good example is Tsimanandia  (Simanandé) and her son Tsifanoro (Tsifaron), surprised in the mountains by Lislet Geoffroy. She explained to him that she did not know who her ‘master’ was, that she had never seen him and had only ever lived on the island as a fugitive. On arrival, she was immediately integrated into a fugitive camp. Certain slaves escaped shortly after arriving on the island, too soon for their master to get to know them.

The master Morel faced a similar situation, on 29th July 1773 declaring the flight of Rasiva, one of his Madagascan slaves: “a new arrival from Madagascar”, whose new French name he did not know. The same year, many slaves working for the French East India Company also escaped, a short time after arriving on Bourbon.
The use of the Madagascan language during the entire period of slavery, certainly with regional variations, but in any case perfectly comprehensible by anyone from Madagascar, enabled mutual understanding and complicity between them. This may well have contributed to reinforcing the interior kingdom, through communication between the fugitives and the slaves who remained on the estates. A number of cases have been recorded of slaves actively supporting long-term fugitives.

As an example, Captain Dimitile was responsible for gathering information in the group of the king Laverdure and among the slaves there were agents who would constantly go from house to house gathering information. Jean, a slave belonging to Desforges, who for a long time had remained a fugitive, would provide information about the intended movements of slave-hunters and determine the strategy of the group, advising them that they ‘should not set up camps, but always keep on the move’ during the months of active slave-hunting. There certainly existed other similar cases in their organisation.

The second reason was the proximity of Madagascar

– 800 km by sea – providing hope of escaping by boat at any time and giving a strategic meaning to possible escape. We know that at times, such projects were successful, not very often, but enough to give hope to slaves who, in any case, would have made the attempt. It must be borne in mind that slaves who refused to become resigned to their condition had nothing to lose. A small boat taking the slave back to his or her homeland or providing a coffin for him to die at sea offered an irresistible attraction for a person who, in any case, would not be given the honours of a true funeral: a dugout is one of the ritual forms of coffin in Madagascar. We know that each time the opportunity to obtain a boat presented itself, there were always slaves ready to take advantage of it. There was even the case of fugitive slaves disembarking from the Ile de France (Mauritius) in transit for Madagascar, such as a woman named Starige, arriving in a dugout on 22nd February 1759 . Once more, we can note the importance of the use of the Madagascan language, enabling a connection between the servile populations of the two islands. This also demonstrates the possible existence and efficiency of a central organisation, a ‘kingdom’ favouring such links between the two islands.

The interior fugitive kingdom greatly benefitted from this important initial presence, furthermore continuous, of slaves from Madagascar, later reinforced by arrivals from India, then Mozambique.

The organisational principles of the ‘interior kingdom’

Ein grosser Herr von Madagascar = Great man of Madagascar. 1683.
De Villèle historical museum

The kingdom was principally characterised by a hierarchal social structure, based on the ancestral model of the original societies.

The titles of ‘king’, ‘queen’ and ‘captain’, translated from the Madagascan language, seem derisory in the absence of any consideration of an armed political struggle, implemented over a period of many years and creating link between generations of warriors. When a chief was killed, he was immediately replaced by a lieutenant, as demonstrated by the systematic replacement without delay of the ‘kings’ occupying key positions of command.

For example Laverdure, recognised by his group as being ‘the king of all fugitives’ and killed at Bras de La Plaine in 1752  was replaced by the appropriately named Manzak, Madagascan word for ‘king’ , already designated as such on 12th August 1754 and killed by the slave hunter Dugain in 1758 .

Documents reveal interesting details. A virtually military strategy and discipline were applied by the groups of fighters.

For example, it came as no surprise to be informed by Henry, a young slave, that slaves from one of the plantations would gather on the shore at night to train for war.

The second important element of the kingdom was the capitalisation of structures and long-term logistical construction

Based on an awareness the precarious nature of their situation and the necessity to continue the struggle with persons who might, an any moment, disappear, priority was given to transmitting the knowledge and techniques acquired by the fugitives and capitalisation of the latter from generation to generation of fugitives.

The camps and hiding places were occupied by different groups. For example, the camp set up in the place called Berceau de Pitsana (Pitre), was occupied by one group, then by another, 47 years apart. After Pitsana, a great chief who, as a repeat offender was sentenced in February 1705 to amputation of a foot, after which he disappeared, Laverdure and his group were were chased from the site by Mussard in August 1752.

It was a similar process for the archaeological site of the ‘secret valley’ in Cilaos, which, unbeknownst to slave hunters, was occupied by successive groups of fugitives.

A minimal infrastructure of paths, discreet but efficient, linked up the different points of the kingdom and facilitated communication. Amongst other examples, it was fugitives who laid down the first footpath between Saint-Benoît and Saint-Pierre, across les Plaines in the centre of the island. The path, enlarged in 1752, later became an official right of way.

The toponymy of the space occupied by the fugitives is important proof and support of the notion of capitalisation of knowledge and techniques, accumulated during the long years of fugitive occupation and offers a rich inventory of resources, both for replenishment and for war logistics to support the survival of the fighters. The hundreds of names conserved trace out a true physical, moral and spiritual geography, made available to successive groups and generations.

What remains to be discovered are the practical means of transmission: a codified language? Deposits in secret places to which only the great chiefs had access?
The phenomenon of long-term fugitives still retains many secrets.


The phenomenon of long-term fugitives was the bitter response of men and women who were hunted like wild animals, whose severed right hand would be brought back as a hunting trophy and which would be nailed to a tree in the town’s public square.

Remarkable survival strategies were applied to counter the system of slavery on Bourbon island by men and women fugitives who, unable to escape by sea, set up a sustainable space of liberty in the mountains: the interior kingdom. The latter developed little by little as slaves from all over Madagascar, and even sometimes from île de France (Mauritius) were brought in.

Owing their survival to total discretion and leaving the least possible signs of their occupation of the space on the environment, the fugitives developed techniques for growing crops and other resources that could well be useful today for the preservation of the natural environment, amongst other ecological techniques.
In addition to the lesson of courage and determination in their struggle for liberty, today we only have a glimpse of the other aspects of the rich material and immaterial heritage left by the island’s long-term fugitives, a heritage which remains to be explored further.

[1] ‘Maron’ (fugtive), is also spelt ‘marron’, as well as the feminine ‘marone’, the verb ‘maroner’ (escaping) or the phenomenon of ‘maronage’. The choice of spelling depends first of all on a partimonial attitude, as the term is thus transcribed in historical documents of the period. In French, it is important to differentiate it from the fruit (‘marron’: chestnut) and the colour (brown) and to use all the connected elements: noun (masculine and feminine), adjective and verb.

[2] Urbain Souchu de Rennefort (1668) Relation du premier voyage de la Cie des Indes Orientales en l isle de Madagascar ou Dauphine, ed. Pierre Aubouin, Cour du Palais, Paris. Addressed to Monseigneur Colbert, published in 1668.

[3] When we talk about ‘fugitives’, particularly ‘long-term’, we refer to slaves who have freed themselves. Should they still be referred to as ‘slaves’? The vocabulary is important and in this text is based on a respect for the change of status: the fugitive is no longer a slave. In any case, it seems to me that we need a change of language, describing on the one hand slavery and on the other hand the phenomenon of fugitives, which has, up till now, remained marked by the vision of the settlers.

[4] Current research has not yet proved the existence of Héva, but there is no doubt about the presence of a woman alongside Anchain.

[5] The former – erroneous – interpretation of the name, the confusion between ‘f’ and ‘s’ has resulted in the confusion between the mythical character of Mafate and Massaky (Massack), a fugitive killed at the same time as his wife Rahariane.

[6] Tsimanandia is a given name : ‘the wanderer’ in Madagascan, as well as the name of her son Tsifanoro: “the one not shown”.

[7] ADR, C° 1065. Declaration of a fugitive slave on île de France

[8] ADR. C0 995. Declaration made by Mussard on 28th December 1752. The abbreviation ADR refers to Archives Départementales de la Réunion (Departmental Archives of Reunion).

[9] ADR, C°1000, Declaration made by Dugain 24th August 1758

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