Resistance to slavery

Maroonage on Bourbon island in the 18th century

Territorial heritage curator
Regional Inventory Department – Region  of Reunion Island

Maroonage on Bourbon island in the 18th century

While the history of slavery and of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean is now well documented thanks to research carried out by historians, maroonage –fugitive or runaway slaves – as an act of resistance to the abomination of slavery remains little known and relatively underdeveloped within the cultural structures of Reunion.

Today, there exists no centre entirely dedicated to interpreting, transmitting and disseminating the history of maroonage  and the existence of the Interior Kingdom, which lasted for almost 185 years and had a social organisation based on the chiefdoms in Madagascar.

The emergence of a field of research on the subject of maroonage

In Reunion the year 1998 marked the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Through an important topical exhibition entitled Regards croisés sur l’esclavage : La Réunion 1794-1848 (Comparative visions of slavery: Reunion 1794-1848), held at the Léon Dierx art gallery in Saint Denis, the commemoration was the occasion to take stock of existing facts and sources of knowledge on the history of slavery and the slave-trade in Reunion.

The event brought to light a number of historical sources. Alongside a range of texts, it focused on the existence of an iconography and map documents that to this day have not been fully exploited, notably those dating before 1794. In addition, the celebrations made it possible to carry out an analysis of the issue of places of memory around slavery. Very often, such analysis has been carried out through associative bodies. In March 2007, the cyclone Gamède, sweeping along the beach in Saint-Paul and destroying part of the wall surrounding the coastal cemetery unearthed the presence of human remains buried in the sand on the beach. The State authorities immediately brought in an archaeologist to carry out research. The archaeological analysis of the bones found revealed that they belonged to slaves, some of whom had been new arrivals, as was witnessed by an analysis of their teeth, which had been objects of ritual processes such as filing of incisors and canines into a point. Only the first enslaved persons arriving, originating in African populations living along the coast and further inland, bear such traces of ritual bodily alterations, which then disappeared in the context of the segregated slave-owning society of Bourbon with the first generation of slaves born on the island.

East Africa. Native of Mosabique (sic) coast. Nicolas Martin Petit, illustrator, Roger Barthémy, sculptor. [18..]. Engraving.
Collection of Reunion Departmental archives.
This chance discovery directed the focus on the slave as the core of research in Reunion, while at the same time removing certain preconceived ideas on the living conditions of the slaves on Bourbon island. The finding also revealed the need for archaeology to be used as an additional historical source to enrich and sometimes call into question our knowledge of the history of slavery and the slave trade in the Indian Ocean.

The two events, ten years apart, allowed us to put into perspective the topic of maroonage in the context of the history of slavery in the colony. Distinct approaches, separating ‘research’ and ‘the field’, have often been adopted in the recent past, when researchers and the civil society limit their processes to their respective fields of activity and do not communicate, or at least only do so to a limited degree. Today, we consider it necessary to combine the two approaches and also to refer to other fields of human science such as ethno-linguistics, onomastics, anthropology, archaeology, comparative literature, genealogy, as well as ancient and contemporary mapping, making it possible to add a more global dimension to the interpretation of our knowledge of the territory and its history.

The multi-disciplinary research carried out from 2013 to 2016 by the Service Régional de l’Inventaire (SRI) of the Regional Council of Reunion today provides answers to questions that remain unresolved, such as those of the day-to-day living conditions of maroons, their itinerary and settlement in the island’s interior, as well as their social organisation…

Documentation and historical landmarks

Any study of maroonage necessitates familiarity with the range of knowledge and findings around the issue. Such documentary and bibliographic research also involves a study of all the works of scientific research disseminated through academic networks, public structures such as archives, libraries, specialised documentation centres and private collections. We have also drawn up a list of works on the subject of maroonage through an exploration of fields of historical research, as well as artistic productions and novels. This approach makes it possible to analyse the current state of study around the topic, putting into perspective important notions such as common myths, when we take on a study of maroonage. We can thus note the porous character, or its absence, between research and literary production, as well as its presence in literary and artistic creation.

In Reunion, the places currently housing and conserving documents list approximately 600 titles, scientific articles, conference proceedings, theses, dissertations, as well as sound and video recordings. Only 15% of these directly focus on the topic of maroonage. Does this mean that maroonage is simply an epiphenomenon of slavery or that researchers have not found sufficient historical material to draw up their analysis? Does the topic involve a number of taboos that are best left alone?

Producing research and updating it regularly is an act of citizenship which enables the society to better define itself collectively in relation to its history and territory. However, such knowledge is not particularly useful if it remains confidential, which is why since 2016, the SRI has been presenting the exhibition ‘Maronages : Refuser l’esclavage à l’île Bourbon au XVIIIe siècle’ (Maroonage: Refusing slavery on Bourbon island in the 18th century) . The exhibition consists of a cultural outreach itinerary organised around five sequences.

Poster for exhibition ‘Maronages: refuser l’esclavage à l’île Bourbon au XVIIIe siècle’ (Maroonage: refusing slavery on Bourbon island in the 18th century) organised by the Service Régional de l’Inventaire, Regional Council, Saint-Paul, Espace culturel Sudel Fuma, September 2017-October 2020 .

In 2013, we started carrying out research on maroonage   based on reports submitted by ‘detachments’, documents stored in ‘section C’ of the Departmental Archives of Reunion (ADR). These reports were fairly irregular in terms of density of information and it appeared necessary to have both a critical vision of the documents in order to examine their level of reliability and at the same time create the necessary context for understanding them. Consequently, we decided to study the person of François Mussard, in order to situate him in his cultural, economic and political context. He is the person around whom the documents provide the most information. The aim was to study his social environment in order to integrate into the analysis other documents from section C that refer to him (localisation of requests made by estate-owners, enabling us to understand his methods of apprehending the territory, payments in the form of ‘pièce d’Inde’ – healthy male slaves – placed in the estates). Loran Hoarau, who developed the original approach, drew up the genealogy of each of the members of the detachments, tracing back to the original arrivals, notably through the Dictionnaire Généalogique de Bourbon. This process enabled him is to identify the religious and civic links between members of the same detachment, but which are not mentioned in the reports of each detachment. In addition, the civil status documents add details concerning the professions and careers of the members of each detachment. Loran Hoarau’s technique gives us a more precise vision of each detachment and the mechanisms that explain how it was composed, its hierarchical structure as well as its fearsome efficiency out in the field.

L’embuscade: The Ambush. Tauoh del. ; Félix [sc.]. Engraving.
In ‘Les Marrons’ / Louis Timagène Houat, Paris, Ebrard, 1844.
Collection of the Reunion Departmental library.
As regards the reports themselves, the ones we have cover a period of 26 years. Why were they written? Loran Hoarau quotes Albert Lougnon, who declared that “to stimulate the zeal of the population of Bourbon”, following discussions that took place on 7th September 1740, the higher Council promised to grant a ‘pièce d’Inde’ (healthy male slave slave) for each fugitive captured dead or alive. It was almost certainly this decision that was behind the the necessity to draw up reports which would serve as a basis for claiming the reward. The information was important because it enabled the French East India company to keep accounts of the number of slaves. The phenomenon thus generated the slave trade. The reports made it possible to draw up a second document summarising the number of slaves to be granted to members of the detachments as their reward. The first reports were drawn up in 1739 by Carron, to be followed in 1740 with the growing importance of François Mussard, who was granted the title of officer of the Bourgeoisie (or, depending on the documents, of the bourgeois militia).

Regarding the period of 1739-1765, the series of reports is coherent from the chronological point of view. There are certainly elements missing, but the documents give us a large amount of information and form a rich basis for study.

We learn that the beds of the island’s gullies were the points of entry to spaces occupied fugitive slaves. The different groups of maroons around the island mainly consisted of slaves traded in Madagascar. Despite the cultural and linguistic differences of the enslaved persons coming from different communities in Madagascar, they did share a common language which made it possible for them to construct the project of a maroon society, with political a political and military organisation that presented a threat to the colony. It was because the maroons exercised constant and violent military pressure, with the support of the feared Tafika Mainty (Black or secret army) that the governor during that period created the ‘detachments of slave hunters’, consisting of groups of settlers, since the colony lacked soldiers in sufficient numbers to be able to organise the defence.

[Rivière du Mât]. Jean-Joseph Patu de Rosemont]. [1813]. Watercolour.
Collection of Reunion Departmental archives.
This interior space, not explored by the settlers, was under the leadership of a king and queen, who reigned over villages coming under the authority of captains and lieutenants. Long-term maroonage was not simply a form of resistance. It was also a project set up with the aim of creating an autonomous and independent society on the margins of the colony and based on ancestral Madagascan models. On Bourbon island, the project was one of political and social revolution, organised with the aim of establishing a free State: the Interior Kingdom, by opposition to the official colonial power on the coast under the military pressure of the maroons. Consequently, the fugitives organised meticulously prepared raids, the aim being to instil terror within the coastal populations. They would pillage food, as well as tools and utensils they needed. They would also break up the machines, scattering the fragments and set fire to estates and crops in order to damage the island’s economy, the goal being to push the settlers out to sea and take possession of the island. It was a war that was generally not referred to as such, but that took on the form of constant guerrilla warfare. There was fear and violence on both sides.

Dimitile the watchman, Laverdure the king, Sarlave the queen. Details of commemorative stone at ‘Camp Dimitil’ – Entre-Deux. Ibrahim Mulin. 2018. Photograph.
All rights reserved.

As an example, the report submitted on 31st October 1751 following the return of François Mussard’s detachment mentions: In la Rivière Saint-Etienne, “the isolated plateau called Commencement L’islette à Corde (…) The above-mentioned Mussard asked the above-mentioned Grégoire, who was injured, if in the vicinity there were several other maroons and if they were the only ones of the group. He replied that there appeared to be two Camps on the other side of the plateau, one of which was precisely the one that the detachment had spotted and that they were heading for when they encountered the three blacks. There seemed to be 50 maroons, black men and women, as well as children and in the other camp, which was smaller and situated higher up, one league further away, there were 10 maroons, black men and women and children.(…) Mussard declared that in the camp in the question there appeared to be 30 huts made of logs, some of which appeared to house 3,4 or 6 blacks, as reported by Grégoire .(…) Following his long experience, Mussard, knowing that the maroons hide what they can of their spoils in caves and buried in the ground, had the camp and the surrounding area searched by the blacks following the detachment. They say that in a small cave, they found two guns in good condition and loaded with bullets and in the hollow of a tree a double-barrelled gun with bullets and about three handfuls of gunpowder in a case .
Detachment: François Grosset, Antoine Mussard, Gaspard Lautrec, Henry Hoareau, Sylvestre Grosset, Joseph Hoareau (father), Jacques Hoareau son of Noël, Louis Lauret, Antoine Cerveau, Claude Garnier.

N°10 – ‘Our ancestors the Gauls – Repression. Hervé Masson (1919-1990). 1972. Drawing.
Private collection of Hervé Masson (1919-1990). All rights reserved.

From reading these reports, drawn up after the return of the “hunt for long-term fugitives”, we learn that their villages were particularly well-organised. They housed a population of adults and children born free as maroons, referred to as “Créoles des bois” (wild Creoles), as well as a few old persons. Certain slaves preferring to commit suicide, “threw themselves off the cliff” to escape from their pursuers. The children were captured while their parents were killed during the fighting with the detachment. Some of these maroon camps sheltered a large number of individuals. They consisted of solidly constructed log huts, with tools, utensils for daily life, fields planted with maize, yams and other tubers, indicating settlement over a long-term. Some captives declared that they had been fugitives for about 20 years. Some had escaped from the Ile de France, lying 200 km off the coast of Bourbon island, in the hope of being able to sail to Madagascar more easily! They had set up camps they could retreat to in the event of attacks by militia.

The villages settled in the ‘ilets’, small sized plateaus resulting from erosion and generally close to a source of water, were sometimes protected by a fence of wooden stakes, and defended further down the slope by ditches filled with poisoned wooden stakes, their point hardened with fire. These traps, covered over with vegetation, were the source of serious injury for the hunters in the detachments . These small plateaus were an important element in the strategy adopted by the maroons: they would go from one to the other to flee the detachments of hunters and take advantage of a protected space, where they had stored reserves of food and hidden stocks of weapons. This network of ‘ilets’ was the object of the regular upkeep, aimed at maintaining this strategy. These small plateaus were linked up by paths consisting of gullies, hillside paths and narrow passes, all forming the archipelago of the Interior Kingdom. The maroons had dogs which would warn them of the approaching presence of any suspicious person and were capable of causing serious injury for the hunters.

The importance of onomastics

The maroons’ situation necessarily involved a domestic structure and organisation propitious to an itinerant way of life, even though certain spots such as Ilet-à-Corde appear to have afforded permanent shelter to three generations of maroons, according to a 1752 detachment report. The toponymy was intended to respond to certain highly informative criteria .

N°9 – ‘Our ancestors the Gauls – Fugitive slaves’ . Hervé Masson (1919-1990). 1972. Drawing.
Private collection of Hervé Masson (1919-1990). All rights reserved.

Onomastics applied to maroonage developed in Reunion as from 2005 thanks to the work of Charlotte Rabesahala. Her research has made it possible to trace the words of enslaved persons through the toponymy and anthroponymy which are still applied today on the island’s maps, even though the spellings and pronunciation of these names have been modified over time to the extent that they have lost their original meaning .

The analysis and interpretation of the results of multidisciplinary research also make it possible to better identify and localise names originating in maroonage, whether these first originated in the language of the ‘detachments of slave-hunters’ or that of the maroons themselves. A space was thus created in the interior of the island – the Interior Kingdom –   accessible solely to the initiated (the maroons), who would transmit orally the mental map of the mountain areas, enabling them to find their way, gather, protect themselves from the hunters and organise their life following death.

The study and comparison of all this information have finally made it possible to draw up a map of the island’s maroons in the 18th century, localising the settlements of long-term maroons as we know them. This map of maroonage contains the toponyms found in the documents, covering different periods. The names given by the maroons are of Madagascan origin and there are also French names given by slave-hunters .

The peak of Piton d’Enchein: view from Mare à Poule d’eau.
Villèle museum. Michel Polényk collection.

For Charlotte Rabesahala, “the toponymy of the space occupied by the maroons offers a rich inventory of the resources of the territory, both regarding replenishing of food and other goods and guerrilla logistics and resistance. It maps out a true physical, moral and spiritual geography of the ‘Interior Kingdom’, made available to different groups and handed down from generation to generation”. 

However, long-term maroonage came to an end when this territory became proportionally smaller with the extension of the area occupied by the settlers who, as from the start of the 19th century, gradually extended their properties into the island’s mountains, which saw the start of official settlement in the island’s three cirques. The rebellious character of maroonage was stifled, without really disappearing, however. Even though there is little information about this period to be found in documents, we know that groups of maroons continued their activity until the abolition of slavery in 1848.

The recent studies of the issue of maroonage in Reunion reveal essential information which still needs to be more thoroughly examined. Finally, we must take into consideration the fact the population now shows a strong desire to obtain more precise knowledge of maroonage as an act of resistance, giving it the important role it deserves to play in our local and national history.


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1 The scientific committee and the curators of the exhibition Maronages : Refuser l'esclavage à l'île Bourbon au XVIIIe siècle, (Maroonage: Refusing slavery on Bourbon island in the 18th century) decided to adopt the spellings ‘maron / maronage’, contrary to the one currently in use in French with two “r’s” and two “n’s”. we have also used the feminine ‘marone’ and the plurals ‘marons /marones’, both for the substantive and for the adjective. Along the same lines, the Reunionese Creole expression ‘partir maron’ (becoming a runaway) to refer to the fugitive slaves uses the same spelling. We consider that, apart from the important patrimonial element, it is preferable to retain the former spelling with a single “r” (maron) and to use it similarly in the feminine and in the plural. We have here events and facts the importance of which has so far been underestimated. Maroonage reflects a considerable human side, the importance of which is to be emphasised and not diminished through a confusing use of vocabulary. We propose to use this original spelling, devoted to a historical reality as yet unknown.
2 Maronages : Refuser l’esclavage à l’île Bourbon au XVIIIe siècle, Exhibition organised by the Service Régional de l’Inventaire (SRI) (Regional Inventory Department) of the Regional Council, Centre Culturel Sudel Fuma – Saint-Paul, 2016-2020. Scientific committee and exhibition curators: Alendroit Eric, Hoarau Loran, Pignon Gilles, Rabesahala Charlotte, Rebeyrotte Jean-François. Scenography and graphic design: Kamboo. Surface: 200 m². Small exhibition catalogue, A1 format, with mapping of maroonage and Interior Kingdom. Itinerant version of the exhibition with 20 Kakemonos exhibited in schools and media centres. Exhibition website: (pedagogical documentation, bibliography, cartography of maroonage). Sentié maron: theatrical visit of the site of Mare-à-Poule-d’Eau – Cirque of Salazie, important maroon settlement centre. Artistic creation by Compagnie théâtrale Lolita Monga in the context of an artistic territorial residency in partnership with the Regional Council of Reunion and the town council of Salazie.
3 Study of maroonage: ethnic-historical approach to written documents; ethnic-linguistic analysis of toponyms et anthroponyms in Reunion; maroonage in the Indian Ocean placed in perspective. Carried out by the study group: Loran Hoarau, historian; Sylvain Dumont Ah-Line, research assistant; Charlotte Rabesahala, anthropologist and linguist specialised in ancient Madagascan; Cyril Notter, geomatician, administrator of geographical data for the National Park of Reunion. Texts and bibliographical references collected by Loran Hoarau and Charlotte Rabesahala. Paleography and transcription of in the departmental archives of Reunion: Sylvain Dumont Ah-Line. Original mapping by Cyril Notter. Final report December 2015.
4 Report by François Mussard, officer of the bourgeois militia at the head of the detachment of slave hunters, submitted to the clerk’s office for Saint-Paul on 31st October 1751. Composition of the detachment : François Grosset, Antoine Mussard, Gaspard Lautrec, Henry Hoareau, Sylvestre Grosset, Joseph Hoareau (father), Jacques Hoareau son of Noël, Louis Lauret, Antoine Cerveau, Claude Garnier. Reunion Departmental archives (ADR) C 994.
5 The toponym Bélouve, which means “of many traps”, bears witness to this passive defence system set up around the villages of the maroons.
6 Ambranle “where there are briars”: ‘branle’ is a variety of the plant that burns without producing smoke. Bétoune “the vast space where you can grill meat” (without being seen!). Piton Bérane “where there is plenty of water” (and is situated high up). Bémale “where there are many eels”. Taïbit “place in the shape of rabbit droppings”.
7 A clear example: the toponymy of the waterfall of ‘cascade Biberon’, situated at the Plaine-des-Palmistes. It was not named after a settler, but comes from Biby rano in Madagascan, which is pronounced ‘bibrane’ and refers to the spirits of the water invoked at the foot of the waterfalls during religious ceremonies. The Madagascan toponym was deformed to be replaced by the French-sounding “biberon”.
8 The toponyms caverne à Manzac; Piton de feux à Manzac, situated high up along the slopes of Pays brûlé, bear witness to the existence of the King Manzac, whose name and its spelling are the Creole forms of Mpanjaka, which in Madagascan and means ‘King’. On 24th August 1758, Manzac was killed by a detachment headed by Jean Dugain. His wife the Queen Fouche was captured with their three-month-old daughter a few months earlier, on 9th June 1758. She announced her status as Queen: “the Negro woman says she is Christian and named Françoise and that she has been a fugitive for about 20 years and that before escaping she was married (…), but that since she has been living out in the wild, she has changed her name and is called Queen Fouche and that she was married to the man named Manzac”. ADR C 1000 Report by Jean Dugain submitted to the clerk’s office of Saint-Benoît. Reine Fouche: ‘the White Queen’ (skin colour?) fotsy: white.
9 Downloadable map on the website of the exhibition Maronages : Refuser l’esclavage à l’île Bourbon au XVIIIe siècle. Site:
10 The toponyms Le Bloc, Piton de Bloc, Camp de Bloc, appear six times on the map of maroon settlements. Most of them are to be found along the edges of the Interior Kingdom. These were places where the maroons were imprisoned using a constraint consisting of two pieces of wood placed one on top of the other and ‘blocking’ the captives’ ankles, wrists and head.
11 Étude sur le mar(r)onnage : approche ethnohistorique des sources écrites ; analyse ethnolinguistique des toponymes et anthroponymes de La Réunion ; mise en perspective des marronnages dans l'océan Indien. Final Report, 2nd part, General conclusion page 66.
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Territorial heritage curator
Regional Inventory Department – Region  of Reunion Island