Sunday, 21 January 2018

Moheli diving

The Comoros is not a well-known tourist destination, and Moheli, the smallest of the Union's three islands, is even less so. Even in Reunion friends and acquaintances would look at me blank-faced when I mentioned where my next dive destination was. To be honest with a total of only 400-500 visitors per year the island is definitely off the beaten path. At the time of writing getting to Moheli entails a domestic flight via Grande Comore (flights between Moheli and Mayotte are not currently operating); Grande Comore can be reached with flights from Reunion, Mayotte and Madagascar and from Europe via Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam or Addis Ababa.

Laka Lodge dive centre (on a windy day). As it's on the beach we patted down
our wetsuits every time to make sure no insect had taken refuge inside!

Unless you bring all your own equipment, any diving you do on Moheli will take place from the Dive Centre of Laka Lodge, a 3-star hotel located on the south coast of Moheli opposite the Marine Park of Moheli. The Park was created in 2001 and covers practically the entire southern coast of the island and encompasses 8 islets. 

sunset over some of the Marine Park islets

Diving is possible all year round and groups of up to 6 to 8 divers can be accommodated, although when we were there it was only ever just my husband and I or one other diver. All dives are without decompression for reasons of security as the nearest decompression chamber is in Mayotte. Depending on when you visit you may be accompanied by a dive master as opposed to an instructor, so try dives and training may not be possible year-round. We were there in January, but I believe September is actually the best time of year to dive Moheli in terms of weather conditions. Humpback whales can be seen from July to October.

map of Moheli showing the main dive sites

Below are a few photos from the nine dives we did there on six different dive spots. We also saw - but don't have decent photos of - barracudas, mantis shrimps, and octopi.

General view of the reefs, Glass Reef 

Moray eel, Glass reef

Leaf fish, Glass reef 

me looking at fan coral, Ras Kanzoni

me and a green turtle 

at Magic Rocks

at Mtsaka Point

Box fish, Mtsaka Point

at Mtsaka Point

rock shrimp, Magic Rocks

at Magic Rocks

cowrie shell with mantle, Masters 

scorpion fish at Mtsaka Point

Blue-spotted stingray, Masters

juvenile ribbon eel, Masters 

Guineafowl pufferfish, Glass Reef 

Lobster, Glass Reef 

Oriental sweetlips, Glass Reef

Coral, Glass Reef

two mangrove whiptail rays who had just finished mating

Puffer fish, Tombant des Phantomes 

Moray eel, Tombant des phantômes 

more lobsters, Tombant des Phantomes
The Comoros are of course well-known as being home to coelacanths but we had no such luck as of course we weren't diving that deep!

Further reading:

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Madeleine's Children

Madeleine's Children: Family, Freedom, Secrets and Lies in France's Indian Ocean Colonies, by Sue Peabody, is the first full-length biographical history to explore what it meant to be a slave and to become free in France’s Indian Ocean colonies. The publisher, Oxford University Press, describes the book as “a detailed family saga set against the broader context of plantation slavery, Parisian society and colonization.”

The following three paragraphs are adapted from the publisher's description: In 1759 a baby girl was born to an impoverished family on the Indian subcontinent. Her parents pawned her into bondage as a way to survive famine. A Portuguese slaver sold the girl to a French spinster in Bengal, where she was baptized as Madeleine. Eventually she was taken to France by way of Ile de France (Mauritius), and from there to Ile Bourbon (Reunion), where she worked on the Sainte-Marie plantation of the Routier family and gave birth to three children: Maurice, Constance, and Furcy, whose father was possibly the master. Following the master's death in 1787, Madame Routier registered Madeleine's manumission, making her free on paper and thus exempting the Routiers from paying the annual head tax on slaves. However, according to Madeleine's children, she was never told that she was free. She continued to serve the widow Routier for another nineteen years, through the Revolution, France's general emancipation of 1794 (which the colonists of the Indian Ocean successfully repelled), the Napoleonic restoration of slavery, and British occupation of France's Indian Ocean colonies. Not until the widow Routier died in 1808 did Madeleine learn of her freedom and that the Routier estate owed her nineteen years of back wages. Madeleine tried to use the Routiers' debt to negotiate for her son Furcy's freedom from Joseph Lory, the Routiers' son-in-law and heir, but Lory tricked the illiterate Madeleine into signing papers that, in essence, consigned Furcy to Lory as his slave for life.

While Lory invested in slave smuggling and helped introduce sugar cultivation to Ile Bourbon, Furcy spent the next quarter century trying to obtain legal recognition of his free status as he was moved from French Ile Bourbon to British Mauritius, and then took trips to Paris. His legal actions produced hundreds of pages that permit reconstruction of the lives of Furcy and his family in astonishing detail. The Cour Royale de Paris, France's highest court of appeal, finally ruled Furcy freeborn in 1843.  France's general emancipation of 1848 erased the distinction between slavery and freedom for all former slaves but the reaction of 1851 excluded them from citizenship. The struggle for justice, respect, and equality for former slaves and their descendants would not be realized within Furcy's lifetime. Furthermore, Furcy was not an abolitionist, for he soon became a slave owner himself.

The life stories of Madeleine and her three children are especially precious because, unlike scores of slave narratives published in the United States and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, no autobiographical narrative of a slave held by French-published or unpublished-exists. Madeleine's Children is thus one of only a handful of modern biographies of enslaved people within France's empire, in French or in English, and the only one to explore transformations in slavery and freedom in French colonies of the Indian Ocean. This story is also significant because of the legal arguments advanced in Furcy's freedom suits between 1817 and 1843. Furcy's lawyers argued that he was free by race (as the descendent of an Indian rather than an African mother) and also by Free Soil (the legal principle whereby any slave setting foot on French soil thereby became free, since Madeleine resided in France before Furcy was born). Madeleine's Children is a meticulous work of archival detection investigating the cunning, clandestine, and brutal strategies that masters devised to keep slaves under their control.

Historical research documents damaged by worms and water (source)

Sue Peabody is a Professor of Liberal Arts and History at Washington State University Vancouver and is considered to be one of the world's leading authorities on slavery in the French Empire. Although this book was written by an academic for a public interested in the history of slavery, world history, Indian Ocean history, and French colonial history - which is not really my case - I nonetheless, due to my interest in and knowledge of Reunion, found the book very interesting. Due to the academic nature of the publication the latter third consists of approximately 900 notes, which I occasionally found distracting, but were sometimes source of interesting facts; for example I learnt that between 1657 and 1799, 57 cyclones were retroactively designated level five, the highest possible force.

Ms Peabody has managed to write the biography of Madeleine and Furcy in quite a riveting way, all the while complementing it with a wealth of well-researched information about the historical period. As she mentions in the Acknowledgements there is a vast "slippage" between historical truth and written evidence, and so many things may have been recorded but "bend the truth for prosperity" or have happened and were never recorded on paper. A spine-chilling example of the latter is given on page 130: "Then [Commissioner General Philippe] Panon Desbassayns called a guard into his office to persuade Constance [Furcy's sister] to confide to him, stepping out of his office to leave them alone for this conversation. One can only imagine the ways that the guard attempted to intimidate Constance". Colonial elites "patently manipulated the legal system and the historical record to serve their own purposes".

The nit-picker in me found a few errors, mainly with dates and numbers, but also a few mistranslations: chabouc is (bizarrely) translated as a 'hookah pipe' when it in fact refers to a whip for beating slaves made out of woven aloes or an oxtail, and Liber Not [sic] Furcy is translated as 'We Free Furcy' instead of 'Free Our Furcy'. There was also a slight lack of local knowledge: to give two examples, the month of June is referred to as 'midwinter' when June is in fact the beginning of winter/the cool, dry season; and she locates Rivière des Pluies to the south-west of Saint-Denis when it is fact to the (south-)east. Although there were two family trees, I would also have appreciated a timeline - this would have been a useful reference to refer back to the chronology of events.  However this shortcoming and the minor errors did not take away from what was overall an extremely interesting tale of legal intrigue, revealing the lives and secret relationships between slaves and free people that have remained obscure for two centuries.

Beating a slave using a sabouk or chabouk (source)

On a final note, the author mentions a number of ways in which Furcy is now remembered in Reunion: by a novel, two plays and a song by Kaf Malbar, and for a group of contemporary activists, Furcy is a symbol against oppression (the aforementioned 'Liber Nout Furcy' can be found graffiti-ed at various locations around the island). By the way the name of Ilet Furcy, which is a hamlet on the road to Cilaos, is apparently not related to this Furcy but to a later Alfred Furcy.

'Liber Nout Furcy' graffiti in Reunion

'Liber Nout Furcy' graffiti in Reunion

P.S. The following picture is often used to represent Furcy; it was notably used on the cover of Mohammed Aïssaoui's novel L'affaire de l'esclave Furcy.

Ira Aldridge, dressed for the role of Othello 

However it is actually a portrait of American actor Ira Frederick Aldridge, painted in 1826 by James Northcote (thanks to 7 Lames La Mer for this information). No known portrait of Furcy exists, and the cover of Madeleine's Children shows an 1848 lithograph by Antoine Louis Roussin.

Further reading:

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A documentary and 2 more podcasts about Reunion

For my third podcast recording session* I recorded two episodes:

- the first was entitled 'What A Waste' and I talk about an unusual visit I made for World Water Way on 22nd April.

The second is called 'Dirty Weekend' and I recount an eventful hike I made a few years ago to Marla in Mafate, when everything that could have gone wrong did!

* For more explanations about why I'm recording podcasts see here and here. The podcasts are organised by the team at, and video recording for these podcasts took place in the studio of O'tv La Réunion. Here I am in front of the green screen:

A University of Reunion Island documentary about Barau's petrels which I translated and voiced was also made available on Youtube this month. Called "Taille-vent, the mountain petrel", it tells the story of this endangered species and the conservation work involved in protecting it.

More viewing/listening:

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Don't Let Go

When I first heard that "Ne lâche pas ma main", a French crime novel set in Reunion by Michel Bussi (France's third best-selling author), was going to be translated into English and released as "Don't Let Go" I thought 'great'. Then I read the French book and was very disappointed. 

English cover

The crime story itself is decent enough, but:

  • Bussi uses a lot of clichés about the island and has only a superficial knowledge of Reunion's social climate and realities gleaned from what I've gathered from one or two stays on the island;
  • Bussi uses some Creole but not always Reunion Creole (other people have said it's from the West Indies: Martinique or Guadeloupe);
  • Bussi's timings are completely off (e.g. time taken to drive from Saint Gilles to the volcano, or time needed to walk from the Plaine des Sables to Sainte-Rose). This is somewhat surprising given that the author is also a Professor of Geography!
I see from the Amazon reviews that the translator, Sam Taylor, also used a lot of translator's notes to explain things, which is never a good sign. 

French cover

Have you read it? What did you think?


Here's a video from 2013 of the author talking about the book (in French but subtitled in English):

A review at on 15 May 2017

A Death in Paradise - a review by Wendy Montrose on 29 June 2017 at Scoop Review of Books

A review at Mysteries in Paradise on 5 August 2017

Michel Bussi’s latest thriller is clever and nuanced - review by Margaret von Klemperer on 10 August 2017 in the South African Sunday Times

Michel Bussi’s ‘Don’t Let Go’ is a gripper - review by Ivinder Gill published on 13 August 2017 in The Financial Express.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Sentier Littoral Nord

The Sentier Littoral Nord is a 21 km-long path that extends from the western edge of Saint-Denis to Sainte-Suzanne, passing through Sainte-Marie en route. I recently had the opportunity of doing a cultural and historical walk along part of the path, which I know well from having walked, ran or cycled it many times.

we started at La Mare and finished at Village Desprez

The meeting point was at the marina at La Mare, Sainte Marie which is at the eastern end of the airport runway.

At Sainte-Marie marina, looking back towards Saint-Denis and with the red and
white chimney of the old La Mare sugar factory in the middle of the photo

Barbary fig (aka prickly pear), which looks like a hand or foot with digits

Barbary fig budding flower

Barbary fig flower

I was interested to learn that seagrapes (raisins de mer) can be eaten when they're ripe.

Some not-quite-ripe seagrapes

side view of Notre-Dame de l'Assomption church, Sainte-Marie

When slavery was abolished in 1848 the area saw the arrival of numerous indentured workers from India to work on the sugarcane plantations and they were allowed to build temples near their living areas. They often built them near the sea in order to be able to wash statues for religious ceremonies.

side view of a small Indian temple

Looking out to sea; the temple in the previous photo is just out of shot to the left.
You can se the pile of logs being stored for a future firewalking
Weaver bird nests in bamboo

we saw a panther chameleon, known locally as an endormi

Small Saint-Expédit shrines are a common sight in Reunion, where the saint has a significant folk following. Stories about the origin of his veneration vary. Decapitated statues of the saint are often found, the defacement inflicted in anger for a request not carried out, or in order to break an existing curse.

a decapitated Saint-Expedit statue

statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Indian god, near the entrance to another temple

the invasive Madagascar day gecko

pedestrian tunnel underneath Sainte-Suzanne lighthouse 

You can read more about a separate visit to Sainte-Suzanne lighthouse here. It is the only working lighthouse in Reunion.

We finished our very informative walk a little further on from the lighthouse at an area known as Le Bocage, where we able to have a well-deserved lunch before taking a bus back to La Mare where we had left our cars.

For this and other guided visits like this you can contact Geoffrey at or Les Aventuriers de l'Est on Facebook, or write to him at