This iconic and stunning rocky crag, located at the south-western tip of the island of Mauritius, juts out into the Indian Ocean and gives the scenic peninsula its name – Le Morne. It has some of the best beaches and is a popular tourist destination. However, Le Morne is a place of immense historical importance. It was an important node on the slave route in the Indian Ocean. It was witness to a tragic, yet heroic, story of how a group of people chose the glory of freedom and death over an enslaved life. It also provides an important lesson in communication.
Le Morne, as it is popularly known, or Le Morne Brabant or in UNESCO’s book as Le Morne Cultural Landscape, is a hill or crag that is perhaps only 556 meters or roughly 1,800 feet above sea level with many caves and overhangs on the steep slopes. The summit area is about 12 hectares or 30 acres. However, Le Morne holds a special place in the hisrory of the island on which it is located.
Mauritius has a unique multicultural history. It is said that the Arabs discovered the island in the 9th century and then the island has been taken advantage of by various colonizers from the Portuguese who made brief stopovers but never stayed; the Dutch who were responsible for the extinction of the Dodo bird; the French who amassed wealth from plantations by using slaves from Africa; and then the British who brought indentured labor from India to run the sugarcane plantations in the interior of the island after slavery was abolished in 1835, and most of the African slaves (after abolition) abandoned agriculture and moved to the coastal areas.
However, even before the official abolition of slavery in 1835, history (including the UNESCO website) has it that Le Morne was commonly used as a shelter by runaway slaves in the 18th and early part of the 19th century. These runaway slaves were known as maroons. The UNESCO website states that Mauritius was an important stopover in the eastern slave trade and it came to be known as the “Maroon republic” because of the large number of escaped slaves who lived on Le Morne.
Le Morne was isolated, wooded and had almost inaccessible steep cliffs. The runaway, escaped slaves felt protected by Le Morne and formed small settlements in the caves and on the summit. The oral traditions associated with the maroons, have made Le Morne a symbol of the slaves’ fight for freedom, their suffering, and their sacrifice, all of which have relevance to the countries from which the slaves came – the African mainland, Madagascar, India, and South-east Asia (UNESCO).
However, the tragedy of slavery is matched by a greater tragedy that struck Le Morne and its inhabitants AFTER the abolition of slavery in Mauritius on 1 February 1835. It is said that a battalion of policemen started climbing the hill. Their intent: Merely inform the runaway slaves that they had actually been freed. They did not have to live in fear or as runaways anymore.
However, the runaway families misunderstood or mis-read the expedition. They did not trust the authorities – their previous captors. They thought that the police battalion had come to re-capture them.
They chose death over recapture. Person after person leapt to their deaths from the steep cliffs. Men jumped to their death, women jumped because the police team was not far behind. Even mothers leapt with their babies.
The locals told us that even today the bones of those who jumped from the cliff-top are discovered periodically. Why did they jump? Why did the men jump, why did the women jump? Why did mothers jump with their babies? Because they had tasted freedom and did not want their children to be enslaved. The so-called slaves showed their humanity to their captors because they chose to die rather than lose their freedom. Since then the date is celebrated as the Annual Commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery. The Slave Route Monument, at the foot of Le Morne mountain and right across the public beach, has been created as a symbol of peace through cultural dialogue and as a reminder of the importance of freedom in our lives. The Slave Route Monument was inaugurated on the 1st of February 2009, which happened to be the 174th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery in Mauritius. A central sculpture (shown below) and the surrounding art (shown alongside) symbolizes and represents the various countries from where slaves were taken to either work in Mauritius or kept during the transit because Mauritius was part of the slave route of the Indian Ocean. Existing sculptures and art represent the countries of Mozambique, Madagascar, India, China, Malaysia, Haïti & Réunion island.
However, despite the power of this tragic event to rally all those working against enslavement in any form; what happened at Le Morne was completely avoidable. Or as we tend to call it in public health – the deaths at Le Morne were completely preventable deaths. Le Morne is not just a tragedy in the history of slavery; it is also a public health tragedy. A tragedy caused by poor communication!
Many things could have been done differently. The police could have sent just one person to convey the news; the administration could have sent other people that the runaways knew. They could have made announcements in other ways; celebrated the abolition in the plains and then let the news filter slowly to the hilltops. There are thousand different things that could have been done to save all those lives – avert a tragedy. In the end the Le Morne incident remains a blunder in public communication – an example of how well thought out communication saves lives and poorly thought out communication can take lives.
Legend also has it that after the abolition of slavery in Mauritius, a police expedition traveled there on 1 February 1835 to inform the slaves that they had been freed. The purpose of the expedition was however misunderstood by the very many slaves, who leapt to their deaths from the rock.
UNESCO listed Le Morne Brabant as a World Heritage Site in 2008, and to date, the peninsula is held in high regard by the island’s citizens.