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African Heroes on a Desert Island

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.

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