[On the night of July 31, 1761, Jean de Lafargue, captain of the French East India Company ship L’Utile (“Useful”), was likely thinking of riches. In the ship’s hold were approximately 160 slaves purchased in Madagascar just days before and bound for Île de France, known today as Mauritius. It had been 80 years since the dodo had gone extinct on that Indian Ocean island, and the thriving French colony had a plantation economy in need of labor. However, though slavery was legal at the time, de Lafargue was not authorized by colonial authorities to trade in slaves.
According to the detailed account of the ship’s écrivain, or purser, as L’Utile approached the vicinity of an islet then called Île des Sables, or Sandy Island, winds kicked up to 15 or 20 knots. The ship’s two maps did not agree on the small island’s precise location, and a more prudent captain probably would have slowed and waited for daylight. But de Lafargue was in a hurry to reap his bounty. That night L’Utile struck the reef off the islet’s north end, shattering the hull. Most of the slaves, trapped in the cargo holds, drowned, though some escaped as the ship broke apart. The next morning, 123 of the 140 members of the French crew and somewhere between 60 and 80 Malagasy slaves found themselves stranded on Île des Sables—shaken and injured, but alive.
De Lafargue had some kind of nervous breakdown, according to the écrivain. First officer Barthélémy Castellan du Vernet took over, and rallied the crew to salvage food, tools, and timber from the wreck and build separate camps for the crew and the slaves. Under the first officer’s guidance, a well was dug, an oven and furnace built, and work on a new boat begun. Within two months, the makeshift vessel La Providence emerged from the remains of L’Utile. Du Vernet, before he sailed away with the crew, promised the Malagasy people that a ship would return for them. And so they waited. The few that survived waited a very long time.]