Like the United States, Mauritius is a country founded upon the contradictions of slavery: a land of freedom dependent on the subjugation of men and women with dark skin.
Slaves accompanied the first Europeans who settled Mauritius; however, it was the success of the sugarcane plantations that made slaves from Africa and Asia indispensible to the kings of white gold. By the 1830s, 95% of the island’s inhabitants were slaves.
Many slaves in Mauritius rejected their captivity, becoming what were called maroons. These escaped slaves risked torture and death, slipping into the island’s dense forests. One destination for the maroons was a rugged peak named Le Morne.
In the first days after slavery was abolished in 1835, British soldiers approached Le Morne to spread the news. However, the maroons, not yet knowing of their emancipation, assumed they were about to be recaptured and leapt from the mountain’s summit. In 2008, Le Morne was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List as a symbol of the senseless agony of slavery and the undying search for freedom.
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This year, Mauritius celebrated its 178th anniversary of slavery’s abolition—a national holiday. There was a major gathering at Le Morne, replete with speeches, songs, dance, and poetry. I was invited to help with an exhibit about archaeology at Le Morne, and even got to meet the Prime Minister.
Several years ago a Truth and Justice Commission here found that the class and racial echoes of slavery are still heard across the island. The holiday is not enough to make full amends. But compared to the United States—which does not have a national day or even yet a national museum dedicated to the stain of slavery—I was moved by the attempt, however imperfect, of Mauritians to come to terms with a tragic past.