She was an exceptional woman in 19th-century colonial society: a fervent Catholic with unusual spiritual beliefs and a troubled conscience, she was also an untiring and intrepid women of action, perfectly aware of the political and economic events of her time.
As a young girl, from 1811 to 1847, Camille Desbassayns conformed to the wishes of her family, following the codes of appropriate behaviour dictated by the colonial society of the time.
Brought up as an only child, her sister and two brothers having died at an early age, as an adolescent, Camille Desbassayns was sent to boarding school in France, far from her parents and her native island, to benefit from a strict education, at the time more frequently reserved for the sons of colonial families.
At the age of 14, her behaviour as a schoolgirl did not entirely conform with what was expected of her. On 28th April 1825, one of her cousins wrote: “she is well, extremely well, but does not always behave appropriately: she has not being allowed out for some time, having been retained in detention … .”
However, one year later, Pauline Desbassyans, another of her cousins, declared: “I am very pleased to inform you that the day before yesterday Camille celebrated her first communion, proof of her good behaviour […] I am very satisfied with her manners and her deportment and I hope that she is now on the right path …”
On 7th September 1826, the young woman added: “I have the impression that [she] likes me very much, and the feeling is mutual, as she really is a very good girl, like me and orphan, but her situation is far less comfortable, since she does not live with her family as I do, but is at a boarding school, where she is only allowed out every fortnight.”
Camille Desbassayns travelled back to Bourbon island around 1830. Louis Charles Jurien de la Gravière, the island’s chief authorising officer, asked for her hand in marriage and the wedding took place on 25th April 1831. A short time later, the young couple sailed for France, where Mr Jurien took up a post as General Commissioner of the French Navy and maritime Prefect of the town of Rochefort.
However, six years after her marriage, the young girl admitted to her grandmother: “Unfortunately, my dear grandmother, it appears that I am destined to always be a source of shame for your race and that I will never give birth to a little Ombline Jurien. I would have been only too happy to have given her your name, which is why it has been refused to me …“.
A letter sent by Betsy Desbassayns on 24th October 1842 tells us how Camille Jurien coped with this painful situation:
My dear cousin […], with passion and exaggeration, now devotes herself to religion. She goes to Mass every day and every day, wearing her old dress, visits the poor in the town, deprives herself so that she can donate what they need to the Spanish refugees in France. My poor old friend inspires me with pity and only hopes to inherit her fortune so that she can give it away to this or that person […]
A few years later, the couple reached a common agreement to end their married life. Camille Jurien was quite happy to do so and until her death on 5th September 1858, Mr Jurien allowed her to use her fortune as she wished.
As from 1847-1848 and until 1870, Camille Jurien threw herself body and soul into great adventures that did not totally conform to the role assigned to women at the time, following her conscience and what she considered to be divine injunctions.
After Camille Jurien had turned over the painful page of her married life, she was led to question the system of slavery that was the source of her fortune, unconditionally condemning slavery and the slave trade, as expressed by father Lacordaire, who restored the Order of Preachers (or Dominicans) in France and precursor of social doctrine within the Church.
Eight years later, on behalf of Camille Jurien, Lacordaire signed the sales deed for the site of the Dominican monastery of Prouilhe, which had been destroyed during the French Revolution. The deed stipulates: “The purpose of the present purchase is to re-employ […] the compensation awarded by the government in application of the provisions of the decree dated 27th April 1848 concerning the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.”
This was an essential element in the eyes of a woman who was to take on a totally unprecedented work of expiation, if not reparation, for the crimes of slavery, as she was to explain a few years before her death:
The compensation, the price of our slaves, I considered to be sacred, but not belonging to me and often, I asked N.S what it was destined for […] when I came back to Paris from Prouille, he explained that this compensation should be used to reconstruct the convent, in order to expiate the crimes of slavery and all that my relatives had lived through during that period.
Camille Jurien invested over one million francs in this work, but after her death, the land and the monastery buildings, still unfinished, were auctioned off, purchased by three Dominicans from Nay on 11th July 1879 for the sum of 60,000 Francs, and “the liturgy could once more be heard [at Prouilhe] on 29th April 1880…“
Camille Jurien also financed hospices, installation of the mother house of the order of the Sœurs Auxiliatrices des Âmes du Purgatoire (Auxiliary Sisters of the Souls in Purgatory) in Paris, construction of the church for the French seminary in Rome, as well as a number of other pious works.
When Pope Pius IX was divested of his temporal powers during the Italian revolution on 21st December 1848, following which he was forced to take exile in Gaète, she crossed the Piedmont region – legend has it she was escorted by a band of brigands –in order to bring him a donation of 300,000 Francs and her support. During the 20 years to follow, when she was not on Reunion island or in Prouilhe, she accompanied and cared for the international battalion of Zouaves on all the battlefields of the invaded pontifical States, until the siege and capitulation of Rome on 20th September 1870. During all those years “Madame Jurien was allowed free entry to the Quirinal palace in Rome, as well as the Vatican. According to the Dominicain M.D. Constant, “The Holy Father often gave her private a audience, treating her as though she were a true daughter.”
In 1850, when Camille Jurien became owner of the vast estate that had belonged to her father, she was too busy in Europe to live there permanently. She thus entrusted the day-to-day running of affairs to her cousin Albert de Villèle. She took on the long journey between the two hemispheres a dozen or so times in one direction or the other, each time spending a few months on her estate. In 1858, however, Camille Jurien spent the entire year at Bel-Air, and the correspondence between her and Sister Marie of la Providence shows how close she was to the indentured labourers and the freed slaves on the estate. Despite the reluctance shown by her family, she decided to settle in the hospital there, “with those who I must love and heal in the name of the Saviour, whom they do not yet know, most of them living in idolatry,” she wrote on 11th June 1858. The Bishop of Reunion wrote the following about her: “She is living in a small room at the hospital, where the only chair I have seen consists of a wooden chopping block or a poor-quality wooden plank placed on four wooden legs.”
In the same year, Mme Jurien laid the first stone for a masonry chapel, large enough to welcome all the workers of the estate on Sundays and she also embarked on a maritime expedition aimed at bringing back new workers from Zanzibar, where slavery was still practised.
Mme Jurien did not trust the recruiters from Reunion, who would behave exactly like the slave traders vilified by Lacordaire in 1847, and on 28th October, she personally disembarked at Zanzibar, on board the ship Pallas. She had a private audience with the young Sultan Majid bin Saïd, requesting his permission to set up a slave hospital on Zanzibar. The Sultan, who had previously refused to treat with the captains of ships from Reunion, did, however, grant her authorisation to purchase 200 slaves on his territory.
However, the journey to Reunion turned out to be a disaster: half of the future workers died of dysentery or smallpox, despite the treatment they were given. The Pallas sailed into the harbour of Saint-Denis on 13th December 1858 and the nightmare continued during the whole period of quarantine on board. Mme Jurien was deeply affected by the disaster and, an extremely rare event in her correspondence, expressed her despair: “… I had the impression that everything in [me] was reduced to nothing and felt I had reached the bottom of the abyss.”
Undoubtedly feeling responsible for the disaster, as well as for a cholera academic that broke out the following year, in 1860 Mme Jurien brought onto the island a community of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, to take care of the hospitals at Bel-Air and others on the island. One of them, Sister Petit, described the way in which Camille Jurien cared for her indentured workers and freed slaves:
We arrived on Bourbon island on 7th March and on 8th at Bel-Air. On her estate, there was a sort of infirmary for the poor Africans, employed to grow sugar cane. After such a long voyage, and without taking a single day to rest, Madame Jurien set to work tidying and organising the infirmary during the whole month that she stayed with us. She set to work looking after and treating the wounds of those poor Africans, just like a mother would with her own children, sitting up at night with the sick, feeding them food prepared for herself, simply eating a little rice with a few herbs. […] Nobody on her estate was miserable. Each slave granted freedom in 1848 had his little hut, his little plot of land and his garden.
Later on, the collapse of sugar-cane led to ruin of Camille Jurien. In 1868, during her final stay at Bel-Air, which she no longer managed, she noticed that the commitments she had made towards her workers were no longer respected: the women were sent back into their huts, with no work and thus no salary and the old were no longer taken care of by the establishment. Her correspondence with her lawyer and friend Christol de Sigoyer, and the instructions she repeated to him bear witness to her determination to give back to her indentured labourers their rights and advantages.
Until 1870 in Europe, letters from Camille Jurien’s lawyer were held by the papal authorities. Informed of the loss of all her property, she wrote: “My soul experienced an ineffable shudder when I was told: ‘Now you have nothing […] I am now free like [the little birds] and can soar above this world, which seems to embrace me and simply gives me wings.
After 1871, this woman of action retired to the land around the monastery at Prouilhe, where she lived in poverty in the company of two freed slaves: Marie-Antoinette, her “adopted daughter” and Magdeleine, her “trustworthy daughter”. She died in Paris in 1878 and her body was transferred to the crypt of the monastery which today houses a community of Dominican nuns of all nationalities.