In the rush to colonize Africa, various European countries scrambled to claim lands, exploit their natural resources, raise crops using forced labor, and export Africans as slaves. By 1761, the French East India Company was in control of Madagascar and the Mascarene archipelago. The Mascarene Islands were uninhabited, and the French set about bringing in enslaved people to work the land. The preferred crops were coffee and sugar, which were in high demand around the world. They did not grow crops that would sustain the people who lived and worked there, so supplies had to be imported. Captain Jean de Lafargue was willing to take food to the Macarene Islands, but he was also open to making some extra money on the side.
The governor gave Lafargue his new orders: go to Foulpointe, on Madagascar’s east coast, and bring back food. Oh, and don’t bring any slaves.
From the governor’s point of view, the proscription made perfect sense. The one advantage of having been abandoned by the navy was that its crews no longer stopped by, insisting on being fed, but even with that reduction in overall appetite, Île de France still needed victuals more than extra mouths to feed. Lafargue, though, had no intention of paying attention to the restriction: L’Utile was his first command, and one of the benefits of being captain of a Company ship was the possibility of engaging in trade on your own account. Indeed, it was an official perk: the Company had suffered so many losses from pilfering captains that it had eventually thrown up its hands and given them the right to merchandise for themselves, in the hopes that they would stick to their permitted limits and leave the Company’s goods alone. And Foulpointe was Madagascar’s main slave trading port.
L’Utile departed on 27 June. Three weeks later, on 22 July, it set sail for its return journey. In between, Lafargue had not only filled up the hold with flour, meat, wine, and other necessities, he had also negotiated the purchase of 158 Malagasy men and women, who cost him 10,000 livres. This was something over his yearly salary, but he could expect to sell them in the Mascarenes for twice that—and the buyers would consider it a good deal as long as a slave lived more than three months.The slaves were shoved into the hold and walled up in a compartment separating them from the foodstuffs. The only mitigation in their situation was that L’Utile was not a specialised slave ship, and so they were not chained.
Lafarge’s plan was to sell the Malagasy people on the island of Rodrigues, then continue to Île de France (now Mauritius) with the supplies. But on his secret route, there was the Island of Sand, a tiny, treeless, uninhabited volcanic island with a dangerous reef that had been badly plotted on various maps. You guessed it; L’Utile was shipwrecked when the island appeared where Lafarge wasn’t expecting it. The surviving French sailors and the Malagasy worked together to built a boat, in which the Frenchmen sailed away, leaving the Malagasy behind. Read the incredible story of the castaways who lived on the island for 15 years at Damn Interesting. The story is also available as a podcast.
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