Sylviane Anna Diouf

Historian of the African Diaspora

Osman, the maroon in the swamp

My ancestor's mosque built in 1611 in Pire, Senegal

Tromelin, Indian Ocean, home of the shipwrecked Africans

Ruins of the houses

African Heroes on a Desert island

May 16, 2009

Tags: slave trade, heroes, Tromelin

On July 31, 1761 the French ship L'Utile left Madagascar for Mauritius with 150 sailors on board and about 100 illegally transported African captives. A week later the ship went under. The Africans were shut down in the holds and several died, but a wave cracked open the hull and 88 escaped. Along with 120 sailors, they swam to safety but 28 died in the following days mostly because the Africans were denied water until a well was dug, while the Europeans kept for themselves the water from the ship. Two camps, one for the crew, the other for the Africans were erected and 45 Africans and only 25 French (the rest refused) worked on building a boat with pieces from the ship. Two months later the entire crew left promising to send a ship.

When the Governor of Mauritius refused to save them the 60 Africans were abandoned. On an arid, flat island less than a mile long and half a mile wide, they lived on turtles, eggs and fish. They made clothes with feathers, created jewelry and amulets, manufactured utensils with copper, built large houses with stones and coral and for 15 years kept the same fire going.
After 2 years , 18 people left on a raft to find help but never returned. In 1775 a ship failed to rescue the survivors, and another attempt was made by 3 women and the last 3 men. They were lost at sea.
Finally in November 1776, seven women and an 8-month-old boy were rescued.

Recent archaeological excavations have produced 400 objects the survivors made from materials found on the ship, including spoons and needles. They also melted lead to make large containers, probably to keep water. Two skeletons, one of a robust young man between 15 and 20 have been found so far.

I find this story absolutely extraordinary and inspiring. These people's ingenuity, adaptability, resilience and the multitude of skills they perfected to organize and keep together a community in these circumstances and for such a long time are truly amazing. Going contrary to several of their traditions, they literally invented a world. Unsung heroes, they were the hardiest of survivors. Ongoing archaeological studies will tell us more about their incredible feat.


  1. October 6, 2009 2:43 PM EDT
    Hi this Robert Greenaway currently living in Mauritius.I am intrigued by the questions that arise from this slice of history.I doubt the answers will ever emerge but it is incredibly thought provoking
    - belleetoile
  2. December 4, 2009 4:33 PM EST
    This story is heartbreaking, yet so inspiring. You were able to challenge us into thinking of the accomplishments and resilience of those who experienced such fate, rather than, yet again, focus on the enslavers. As a consequence, rather than empathy, which naturally is called upon in the context of slavery, one finds him/herself proud and inspired.
    Thank you for a wonderful account of history.
    - Khady Brumblay
  3. November 6, 2011 2:55 PM EST
    You know I've often just by the sheer recognition of being Black believed in an internal ability to create my way out of any portion of my life that didn't suit the vision of myself. Recently I found myself in what appeared or at least felt like a prison of some sort...a feeling of being locked away and with a strong invitation to think this is it and I can't do anymore. Why are you sharing this you may ask? Well, what you just taught me and allowed me to have a glimpse of through this blog confirms my internal knowing. I will make these ancestors proud of me by adapting (which was the title of a paper my younger self wrote for no reason at 16 years of age) and creating my way out of this. Many blessings to you and thank you for the life you chose to live in order to carry this type of teaching!
    - Ms. Jesue Walker


In a tale worthy of a novelist, Sylviane Diouf provides a well-researched, nicely written, and moving account of the last slave ship to America, whose 110 captives arrived in Mobile in 1860 and, after the war, created their dream of Africa in Alabama. Howard Jones, author of Mutiny on the Amistad
The first book on the American maroons' experience
A major book on the various components of the Black Power movement, with photos, essays and testimonies.
The fascinating story of the East Africans who distinguished themselves in India
Thorough and ambitious. William and Mary Quarterly
Readers are presented with a wide range of evidence to show how Africans fought against slavery as well as the slave trade. Canadian Journal of History
A groundbreaking look at [the] bigger picture has been unveiled in a project called "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience." The Washington Post
Children's Books
Bintou’s hair is short and fuzzy, but she wants beautiful braids “with gold coins and seashells” like the big girls, but everyone says no. The New York Times
Young readers will enjoy this fascinating look at [some] brave leaders. Children's Literature
Destroys the stereotype of the happy, ignorant slave child. Booklist

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