Tromelin Island – French Southern and Antarctic Lands - Atlas Obscura

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Tromelin Island

Now home to nothing but a weather station and a landing strip, a group of enslaved people were marooned on this tiny island for 15 years. 


Tromelin Island, off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean is little more than a speck of sand covered in low-lying scrub plants, but miraculously, a group of more than 60 enslaved people were able to survive (some of them at least) for over 15 years after being shipwrecked and left for dead.   

Back in 1761 a French ship was ferrying around 160 enslaved men and women out of Madagascar, bound for French plantations. While slavery was legal at the time, the captain was not approved as a slaver and so was likely trying to finish his illicit deal quickly. It’s possible that this haste contributed to the wreck of his ship, but either way, not long into their voyage, they ran into the reef surrounding Tromelin Island while trying to navigate it in the dark. The hull was destroyed and water rushed into the cargo hold drowning the majority of the poor souls below deck, however some 60 of the captives were able to swim to safety. Using the wrecked debris from the ship, two camps were made, one for the crew and one for the people they had enslaved. Eventually, the crew men were able to create a new boat out of the debris of the old, but it only had room for the crew. The crew sailed back to Madagascar, vowing to return for the enslaved people, but they must have gotten side-tracked as no one returned for 15 years.

The shipwreck survivors kept themselves alive by eating turtles and crabs that came to the island to nest. They built simple shelters by digging rooms into the ground and fortifying them with rocks. They used remaining debris from the ship to fashion small tools, and bowls. It is reported that a group was eventually even able to create a raft that was powered by a sail made of feathers, although its passengers are thought to have died at sea. When a rescue boat was finally sent to the island all those years later, only seven women and child less than a year old remained.

The tragic events of Tromelin Island are not remembered by any marker, and the remains of the ship have all but been swept away by the tides, but the remains of the castaways’ shelters and artifacts can still be found on the island. The only other things that share the sandy real estate are a short landing strip and a weather station.

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