History

The Inspiring Story of the Castaways of Tromelin Island

In 1776, eight people were rescued from a desert island in the Indian Ocean, where they had lived for 15 years. This is their story.

Tromelin Island is a tiny island 280 miles east of Madagascar. Surrounded by coral reefs, the island is hard to reach, except by fate. In 1722, the French ship Utine (“useful” in French) traveled from Mauritius to Madagascar carrying a few dozen sailors and about 150 slaves.

They crashed into the reefs, and about 60 slaves and some of the ship’s crew made it to Tromelin Island.

Would you believe that a group of shipwreck survivors were able to live in this tiny 1,700-meter by 700-meter island?

Since the slaves were treated as inferior, the crew of the ship kept their fresh water to themselves, leaving the slaves to die of thirst. Later on, the sailors were able to build a raft from the wrecked ship, and made it out of the island, promising to come back for the slaves they left behind.

But once they arrived on Mauritius, the officials deemed it unnecessary to come back for the slaves. On top of that, France was fighting the Seven Years’ War, wherein they could spare no ships to rescue the survivors.

However, the castaways fought to survive in the island. They kept a signal fire burning for almost 15 years, and subsisted on turtles, seabirds, and shellfish. They even built elaborate dwellings made of blocks of coral and impacted sand. They had a large oven where they cooked their food, as well as utensils made of copper, which they forged in the fire of the oven.

An archaeological expedition discovered this makeshift kitchen in the island…

As well as bowls, spoons, and other utensils.

Max Guerout, a marine archaeologist, former French naval officer, and leader of the expedition, says, “These were not people who were overwhelmed by their fate. They were people who worked together successfully in an orderly way.”

In 1776, Bernard Boudin de Tromelin, captain of the French warship La Dauphine, visited the island and rescued the survivors, which were then only seven women and an 8-month-old baby boy born in the island. Three of the survivors were a grandmother, a mother, and a child, and they were returned to Mauritius.

In 1776, Bernard Boudin de Tromelin rescued the remaining survivors of the Utine.

By this time, the governor in office decreed that the castaways were not slaves, but free people bought illegally. The grandmother, mother, and child were adopted by him. The child was raised and given the name Jacques Moise, which is the governor’s own Christian name, paired with the French form of Moses.

There were no other records to show what happened to the other survivors. However, Guerot belives that some of the survivors of Tromelin island may have merged into the community of freed slaves in Mauritius, where their descendants still live there to this day.

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