Smeared in pink by activists for more than a year, it barely caught the eye. In Saint-Denis de La Réunion, only a few tourists photographed the imposing statue of Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais, Governor General of the Isles of France (Mauritius) and Bourbon (La Réunion) between 1733 and 1746. Inaugurated in 1856 in a square in the city center, next to the prefecture and facing the Indian Ocean, this 3-meter-high bronze sparks passions, questioning the place reserved on the island for the memory of slavery and the colonization.
On April 26, the mayor of Saint-Denis (PS) and former overseas minister, Ericka Bareigts, and the prefect of Reunion, Jérôme Filippini, announced that this work by the sculptor Louis Rochet, listed since 2000 at the inventory of historical monuments, was to be “displaced in the rules” by the end of the year. She should land at the Lambert barracks, which houses the headquarters of the armed forces of the southern Indian Ocean zone, because of Mahé de La Bourdonnais’ past as a naval officer. “This trip is a political and militant choice”, justifies Ericka Bareigts, while refusing to speak of “debunking”, the term used by activists.
In 2011, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Taubira law (which for the first time recognized the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity), the latter had gagged the statue and had decked it out with a sign ” I am racist “. The mayor appears as “Activist for the non-erasure of knowledge” and believes that the statue of this “slave” is not “more in its place”. Under the action of this governor, argues the elected, the number of slaves in Reunion has increased “from 648 in 1735 to 2,612 in 1740”. Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais has “organized, intensified, and promoted the chestnut hunters [les esclaves fuyant la servitude], authors of the most ignoble punishments”, she explains.
“Our own history has been erased”
As elsewhere in the world, in the wake of actions to unbolt statues symbolizing the colonial past, a collective of 43 associations, Laproptaz Nout Péi (“Let’s sweep in front of our door, in Creole”), wrote, at the end of August 2020, to all the elected officials of the island to denounce “these statues [qui] continue to elevate crime to glory”. The collective now welcomes this decision to “to unbolt from his throne someone who has done so much harm to an entire people”.
Two online petitions have been launched, one, in 2020, for the removal of the statue, with 515 signatures, the other against, with 490 signatures for eight months. The Association of Friends of Mahé de La Bourdonnais appeals for donations to finance legal action. Specialist of the period of slavery in the island, the historian Prosper Eve sees in the transfer of the statue a “nonsense” and one “following crazy ideas from the United States”. He criticizes, in this “cancel culture”, those who make history “a court to judge”, without placing the facts in their historical context. Another historian, Olivier Fontaine, author ofHistory of Reunion and the people of Reunion, some clarifications (Orphie, 2017), is just as severe: “I don’t want to justify La Bourdonnais’ action, but what he did is in keeping with his time and what the authorities expected of him: to develop the island’s economy through agricultural operations useful to the metropolis and maintain order. »
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