Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Musée de Villèle

The Villèle Museum is set in the former home of a wealthy slave-owning landowner, Mme Desbassayns. The Museum was established in 1974 in order to preserve one of the most important plantation estates on the island, established by the Panon Desbassayns family at the end of the 18th century. Originally cotton and sugar were cultivated, but they were gradually replaced by sugarcane from the 1820s onwards.  The property belonged to the Villèle family from the mid-1900s until 1973. The house is accessible on a guided tour (no photos  allowed inside) and afterwards you can wander round the outbuildings and the 10-hectare park.

Villèle main house

The two-storey main house was built between 1775 and 1788, and has a neo-classical aspect with terraced roof reminiscent of the mansions of Pondicherry, a former French trading post in India. The building was constructed from rough-stone basalt and locally-fired bricks. Originally both outer and inner walls were plastered with a stucco coating called 'argamasse lime' composed of lime, sand, sugar and egg-whites. 

Pediment of the main house

Today you enter the house via the former library, where the Desbassayns family tree can now be seen. Other rooms on the ground floor are the small parlour, the office, Mme Desbassayns' bedroom (the only bedroom located on the ground floor), the large parlour, the dining room, and the pantry. The rooms on the upper floor are sometimes used to house temporary exhibitions.

back of the main house

The kitchens were located in outbuildings for safety reasons, and in Mme Desbassayns' will (dated 1845) reference is made to two separate kitchens: one for the slaves (which no longer exists) and one for the masters (still standing). This latter is in a sober building with a blank oeil de boeuf window and an enormous fireplace; the chimney-piece rests on a large piece of wood which runs the whole width of the room. To the left of the fireplace was an area for boucanage (meat curing). After his stay on the estate, in a book published in 1892, Abbot Macquet commented on both the quality and variety of the dishes served by his hostess Mme Desbassayns: turtle soup, swallows' nests, Madagascan buffalo carri, pheasants from Pondicherry, Cochin Chinese chicken, and Cape lamb. In the slave quarters however meals were made up almost exclusively of corn, cassava, pulses and beans.

former kitchen, with oeil de boeuf window

Close to the main house, the slaves' hospital was built with rough-stone whitewashed basalt, and had a wooden roof covered in shingles. Slaves' living and working conditions were characterised by harshness and discipline. Even sick slaves were set to work splitting vacoa, crushing stone, brushing wool, extracting oil or making rope. In 1918 the hospital was still in use as a treatment centre for employees working on the estate. Since 1996 a memorial inside the building has paid homage to the 461 slaves belonging to Mme Desbassayns and who were listed in a 1824 census by name, age, occupation and ethnic origin.

former slaves' hospital, now a memorial

decorated tiles (modern) depicting the slaves' hospital

bougainvillea in the garden

interesting flowers in the garden

Located in the grounds, the pavilion is a classic example of Reunion Island architecture. The wooden framework rests on a stone base, and the roof and walls are covered in hand-cut tamarind wood shingles.  The verandah has a tin roof. It is not known who originally lived in the pavilion - possibly the steward responsible for estate maintenance. 

The pavilion 

modern statue in the grounds (Mme Desbassayns reading?)

In 1827, out of 27 working sugar mills registered in the district of Saint Paul, only the mill at Saint Gilles was powered by steam. However harnessing this new energy source required abundant quantities of water and the setting up of a supply network.

old sugar mill chimney in the grounds

Consequently a hydraulic bucket-wheel, a pumping system, and a watercourse were built to supply the mill's water tank and boilers. The water was drawn and then pumped back from the Saint Gilles ravine above Bassin Bleu.

sugar mill ruins in the grounds

The hydraulic wheel, 6 metres in diameter, was located about 100 metres down from the mill and was in operation until the 1970s. During this period the surrounding area lacked running water, and the population would fill their tin water carriers in the Saint Gilles ravine at a place named Bassin La Pompe (literally 'Pump pool').

In 1845, one year before Mme Debassayns' death, the ten acres planted with coffee yielded 100 quintals, whereas the 150 acres given over to sugar cane represented a total yield of 4250 quintals of sugar. Joseph Desbassayns (1780-1850) improved sugar cane production techniques, recommending crop rotations with cassava root, which along with corn, was a staple food for workers.

Before the abolition of slavery, field slaves tended food crops: rice, cassava, corn, wheat and vegetables. Once the sugarcane harvests were underway, they were put to work in the sugar mills. In 1848 slavery was abolished and indentured labourers replaced the slaves.

If you visit the Musée de Villèle you should also visit the Chapelle Pointue, Mme Desbassayn's final resting place, which is located just across the road.

Useful information:
  • Opening times: 10am-12:30 and 1:30-5:30 pm daily except Mondays and public holidays.
  • Guided visits last 45 minutes and only available in French, although a brief visitor's guide in English is available on request.
  • Price: €2
If you read French, local author

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