Heading for Tromelin

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17 May 2010

The name is a mystery for most people: Tromelin. It’s one of the Scattered Islands in the Indian Ocean — 5 little-known French territories where the vegetation is very sparse, scattered around Madagascar.

Since 2005 the prefect of the TAAF (French Austral and Antarctic Territories) based on Reunion, has been the administrator of the Scattered Islands. The first one on our route is Tromelin, halfway between Madagascar and Reunion, a tongue-shaped, sand-covered island measuring 1,7 kilometers long and 700 meters wide. Surrounded by coral reefs and ocean depths of 4000 meters, Tromelin has always had the reputation of being very dangerous for passing boats. It is however a perfect configuration for research aboard Tara. We will be sampling water masses rarely frequented by other plankton enthusiasts.

“It’s a stone in the middle of the Indian Ocean,” says Lionel Bigot, scientist from the University of Reunion. “These islands fascinate everyone because they’re so isolated from human activities. On Tromelin, a meteorological station is the only sign of French presence. “Although these territories are very small, their zone of economic jurisdiction covers more than 640,000 km2. This necessarily attracts the envy of fishermen, and research scientists, and causes geopolitical rivalries between various countries.”

While waiting to plunge our nets in these highly protected waters, we hear the terrifying history of Tromelin, the “Island of Forgotten Slaves”. In 1761, The Utile, a slave ship belonging to the Compagnie française des Indes Orientales, was wrecked on the terrible reefs outlining the shore. 142 crew members, and 60 slaves captured in Madagascar, survived the disaster and organized life on the island using materials and supplies remaining from the wreck. After 2 months on Tromelin, the crew succeeded in rebuilding a boat, and they sailed away from the island, abandoning the slaves with the solemn promise of eventually returning to fetch them.

It took 15 years for this promise to be kept — by the Chevalier of Tromelin. He found 7 surviving women, and an 8-month old baby. Incredible as it may seem, they had managed to stay alive on this totally barren island, and had even succeeded in keeping a fire going, though no trees grow here. The forgotten slaves were freed, and the baby baptized Moses.

Even before we can glimpse their sandy shores, the Scattered Islands have aroused our curiosity. We will certainly not approach, content just to explore the mysteries of the waters surrounding the Island of the Forgotten Slaves.

Sacha Bollet