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Le Morne Cemetery

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Le Morne represents one of the most significant global commemorations to the memory of slave resistance. Not only does this region evidence a rich cultural and oral history within a local context, but in 2008 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site precisely for its remarkable role within the maroon movement.

Le Morne forms a peninsula on the south-western most tip of the island. It is most famous for the ‘Brabant’, an inselburg that rises to some 545 meters from the coast and the Indian Ocean. The inselburg itself, noted to have one very precarious access point, forms a plateau at its summit. This combination of a single entrance and an area of flat terrain made the Brabant an ideal retreat for runaway slaves, and came to be known as the Maroon Republic. Oral history reveals a more compelling and poignant story about the Brabant. When the maroons observed British soldiers, having made the hazardous journey up to the summit, approaching their hideaway they flung themselves from the plateau rather than return to the shackles of slavery. Sadly, they were never to learn the true reason for the soldier’s trip: to inform them that slavery was over and they were emancipated.

Our research at Le Morne, working closely with the Le Morne Heritage Trust Fund, commenced in 2009, with survey of three key locations: the summit of the Brabant itself, Ilôt Fourneau and the ‘Old’ Cemetery. The first two sites mentioned above are discussed in concert as they potentially represent regions that had similar functions, at least during certain periods of time. Ilôt Fourneau is historically recorded as a site where French masters punished slaves; however, our appraisal also suggested that perhaps it had quite different uses within the paradigm of maroon resistance. Two clusters, one at the plateau and another on Ilôt Fourneau may be seen as parts of a communication network between villagers at the foot of Le Morne, and out-look posts on the top of the Brabant. Our working hypothesis sees this as allowing for a greater portion of the region around Le Morne to be used as a safe haven, largely due to the fact that the Brabant and Ilôt Fourneau provided such good viewpoints from both land and sea.

While our surveys of the plateau and Ilôt Fourneau have provided the foundation for future work directly investigating maroon resistance, the ‘Old Cemetery’ has proved the most informative.

The cemetery is remarkable. Its positioning within the natural environment is both ephemeral and durable. It falls directly within the shadow of the Brabant and one cannot help but see the significance of the ‘Mountain’ to those who used the cemetery in the past; especially when it is noted that all the interred recovered so far face the summit. Of 11 skeletons recovered, six are sub-adult. The cemetery has, for the very first time, provided clear evidence relating to diet, health and working life for an ancestral Mauritian community. As significant, we have a unique and unparalleled insight into the life ways of that community as it relates to death, burial and spiritualism. While it is unfortunate that in the absence of DNA evidence, we do not at this stage have conclusive evidence of the origins of those interred, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a first for the Republic, and represents an invaluable step in linking the modern Mauritian population with its past.