July 31, 1761: The French ship l'Utile, illegally transporting 160 Africans from Madagascar to Ile de France (Mauritius), approaches Sand Island. Because the captain worries about a potential revolt, he orders the hatches to be nailed shut. In the night, the ship runs into a reef and capsizes.
What follows is, arguably, the most extraordinary story of survival ever documented.
More than 70 Africans trapped in the hold died that night, while 123 French crew and passengers (18 had died) escaped. Only when the ship broke down could 88 Madagascans reach shore. Their refuge was the wind-swept, bare, treeless, and deserted Sand Island, less than a mile long and half a mile wide. Within three days, 28 Africans died, most likely because the crew refused to share the water and food salvaged from l'Utile. For the next three weeks, after having dug a well, the survivors built a raft. On September 27, all the French got on board, abandoning 60 stunned Madagascans with three months worth of food and a promise to ask for a rescue mission. Four days later, they safely reached Madagascar, but the governor — perhaps worried that the illegal slave trading operation would be exposed — categorically refused to send help.
Meanwhile, the Madagascans organized their precarious existence. They lived on a diet of turtles, birds, eggs, oysters, fish, and a few roots. They retrieved pots and other items from the ship and kept the same fire burning. To protect themselves, they built sturdy houses with blocks of coral and compacted sand. Their walls were thick — up to five feet. Several rooms, including a workshop, can still be seen. Over the years, these amazingly ingenuous survivors made, repaired, and transformed over 700 objects. The women fashioned clothes out of feathers and decorated hair pins out of pieces of metal.
But life was terribly hard on this desolate piece of arid land, and two years after the shipwreck, half the people had passed away. Determined to get out of this hell, the 31 survivors built a raft and made a sail out of feathers. The 18 men and women who boarded it in search of help never reached land.
Incredibly, another 12 years passed before a ship was sent to rescue the Madagascans. In August 1775, a dingy with two men approached but was wrecked by the wind. One sailor made it back to the ship but the other was stuck on the island. The following year, two expeditions were unable to land. So, once again, the Africans built a raft with feathered sails and the last three men, as well as three women and the sailor departed in July 1776. They too were lost at sea.
By then seven women had lived for 15 years on SandIsland (today Tromelin Island). Finally, on November 28, 1776, they were rescued along with an eight-month-old boy, whose mother, Tsimiavo, and extremely weak grandmother were still alive. Two buried skeletons, possibly of a young woman and an adolescent, will be discovered centuries later.
This shameful story of exploitation and racism is also one of unimaginable resourcefulness, adaptability, and resilience. The courageous survivors used all their skills and acquired and perfected others to organize and keep together a functioning community in these horrendous circumstances. That they endured for so long against such odds is truly astounding. They were all heroes. As we celebrate International Women's Day and Women's History Month, let's have a special thought for the seven extraordinary and creative women who for 15 long years lived, hoped, and persevered, forgotten about but nevertheless determined to survive on Sand Island.
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