Press release #3/2006


60 salves abandoned for 15 years on a desert islet of the Indian Ocean

After leaving Bayonne on November 17th 1760, l’Utile, ship of the East Indies French Company, sank on July 31st 1761on the “Sandy Island” (today Tromelin island), a square kilometre and desert islet.
She carries Madagascan slaves bought fraudulently to be sold on the Island of France (today Mauritius Island).

The crew sails to Madagascar on a craft leaving 60 slaves on the island with food for 3 months and promising them to come back soon.

They didn’t keep their promise and a long time after, on November 29th 1776, The chevalier of Tromelin, commanding the ship La Dauphine, saved eight surviving slaves: seven women and on eight months baby.


After they spent a month on Tromelin Island, the ten members of the submarine and terrestrial archaeological mission have just come back to the Reunion.

Since the trade wind almost never abated, the submarine site was explored and measured often in very difficult conditions. This work required about 120 diving sessions, i.e. 150 hours. This site is exposed to strong seas raised by cyclones, and contains the anchors, the artillery, the iron and the stone ballast of the ship which are usually located in the furrows made by the sea

perpendicularly to the shore. Numerous rigging pieces are jammed in the coral. Several objects, including two fragments of the ship bell, could be uncovered. As we expected it, some objects of the wreck were also found on the ground of the area where the slaves lived.

Archaeologists are not disappointed with what they found when they searched the soil.  Concerning the period of French presence, we rapidly discovered the oven which was used to make biscuit, the only food they had on their makeshift boat for their journey to Madagascar.
Nevertheless, archaeologists weren’t successful in the search for the graves of sailors and slaves who drowned when the ship wrecked. Probing systematically the backshore didn’t bring the expected results, however it allowed us to discover the pathway used by the castaways to go from the beach to the inside of the island.
Localising the slaves’ house, on the upper part in the northern island, was the most significant result of this mission. A part of one of its walls could be cleared, although the area had been disturbed by the modern buildings of the weather station. The original soil revealed a lot of information about the occupation, their diet (which seemed to be mainly composed of turtles and birds) and the use of fire (they kept it going till the end and used wood from the framework of the wreck, especially at the beginning). The most significant finding is a series of six copper containers of different sizes which are marked by the Malagasy slaves’ fingerprints since some of them had been repaired several times by rivets. They show how determined they were to use the raw materials supplied by the wreck till the end, but also symbolise the ravages of time on objects and men.

Found in their proper place on the slaves’ house area, these objects are very rare since they are the witness of their life. Indeed, very few relics of the slaves’ lives have been preserved, as it is shown by the extreme poverty of museums in that domain.

Three members of a Reunion association, the ”Confrérie des gens de la mer” (Brotherhood of Seafarers) took part in the search. So we had the opportunity to train two divers of this association to the techniques of the submarine archaeology. 

This operation was done under the authority of the TAAF prefect (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises –Austral and Antarctic French Lands), in charge of administering the scattered islands of the Indian Ocean, in collaboration with the UNESCO and its programme called “the slave route”. It was funded by the Banque Populaire corporate foundation, the local governments (Regional and General Councils) and the Reunion Regional Service for Cultural Affairs. It was also helped by the Defence Department (commander-in-chief of the Armies in the southern Indian Ocean) and The Reunion Meteo France which brought logistical support.
Many institutions and associations also brought their support and contributed to perform this project, including the Mixed Research Team (UMS), History and Maritime Archaeology (National Center for Scientific Research-Sorbonne-Marine Museum), the Société Française d’Histoire Maritime (Maritime History French Society), the association called “les anneaux de la Mémoire” (“The memory rings”) based in Nantes, the Institut National de Recherche Archéologique Préventive (Preventive Archaeology Research National Institute), the National Education Department and especially the Reunion academies, the association called “la confrérie des gens de la mer” (“brotherhood of seafarers”) based in the Reunion, the Association Réunionnaise Culture and Communication (The Reunion Culture and Communication Association), the Genealogy and History of Families of the Basque Country and Maritime Adour and the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes (India Company Museum) based in Lorient.

As usual the GRAN released a diary on its website ( )
, relayed by the UNESCO websites, as well as those of the Culture Department and the TAAF, enabling to follow the progress of the mission day after day. Moreover, thanks to appropriate software and a forum, 14 classes including Reunion students from Le tampon and Saint-Leu schools and several other academies - especially those from Orleans-Tours, Nice and Marseille- could take part in the operation and talk with the researchers. They intend to keep in touch with the team till the end of the academic year.


Contacts :

Head project - GRAN
Max Guérout
Email :
Phone : 00 (33) 4 67 35 92 01 ou 00 (33) 6 23 16 78 17

Thierry Périllo
Email :
Phone  : 00 (33) 2 62 96 78 09

Marie-Josée Thiel
Email :
Phone : 00 (33) 1 45 68 44 20

Communication - GRAN
Email :
Téléphone : 00 (33) 4 66 04 05 41

In la Réunion
Jean-François Rebeyrotte
Email  :
Phone  : 06 92 65 53 97

Website - GRAN
Sébastien Eon
Mastering and management of the website of the GRAN - -
Email :