Bernadin de Saint Pierre

  • Early life

    Bernardin de Saint Pierre was an author and botanist born  in 1737 at the Havre Port, to[1]  a “modest family with aristocratic pretentions”[1]. After beginning his practical education by accompanying his uncle on a voyage to Martinique, he trained as an engineer at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris. Soon after, he enrolled in the military and[2]  served in Holland, Russia, Poland and Germany. After a series of disappointing experiences, in 1768 he took up employment as the King’s engineer to join an expedition to Madagascar, but due to frictions with the rest of the party, he continued his journey to Mauritius where he stayed for almost two years.


    [1] Megan Vaughan, Creating the Creole Island, Duke University Press, p.56.



Visit to Mauritius

There, Bernardin de Saint Pierre undertook a trip around the island accompanied by – and sometimes carried by slaves, lodging and dining at locals and describing social relations and the natural environment. This trip resulted in his first publication: “Voyage à l’Isle de France, l’Isle Bourbon et le Cap de Bon Espérance”. It is in this book that one of the first written accounts of Bel Ombre, then called “Belle Ombre”can be found.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre belonged to the era of Enlightenment and can also be said to have belonged to the movement of physiocrats, known to place much emphasis on the development of land. He decried the social relations in Mauritius of the time, the treatment of slaves but also the lack of rural development. Indeed, it is to be noted that in 1766, only half of the island’s arable land had been allocated as concessions, and less than a quarter of these concessions were under cultivation. The wealth created on Ile de France came from commerce, the slave trade and speculation. 


Impressions of Bel Ombre

Nonetheless, the author uses kind words to describe those he meets on his journey to the south-west, as well as the beauty and the uniqueness of the scenery he encounters.  To get through from le Morne to Baie du Cap is the obligatory passage through Macondé, which he does by boat then carries on by foot on grasses for three hours before meeting Mr. T Estienne Bolgerd, administrator of the plantation at the time: “toute cette partie est d’une fraîcheur et d’une verdure charmante, c’est une savanne sans roches, entre la mer et les bois, qui sont très beaux”[1]. He goes as far as saying that, had he not been alone, he could have envisaged spending the rest of his life there.

In leaving Bel Ombre, Bernardin de Saint Pierre also notes the presence of “Noirs fugitifs” or maroon slaves, as described to him by Mr. Etienne, numbering 200-300 in the area, responding to one chief, fishing and hunting deer with their herds of dogs.

He continued his voyage onwards South around the island, culminating in the publication of Voyage à l’Isle de France, à l’Isle de Bourbon, au Cap de Bonne-Espérance in 1771 upon his return to France. Among other noteworthy notes, he wrote the novel Paul & Virginie, which was translated in multiple languages and allowed Mauritius to be known to many across Europe.


[1]Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’Isle de France, à l’Isle de Bourbon, au Cap de Bonne-Espérance, p.284.

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