Sylvain Savoia tells the tragic history of eighty Malagasy people abandoned on Tromelin Island in 1761. THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF TROMELIN is meditative and informative. Savoia's delicate artwork captures the sublime island, the archaeological work being done, and the story of the forgotten people.
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At the heart of Sylvain Savoia’s comic THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF TROMELIN is the importance of freedom, as well as a deep concern for what we leave behind. The tome traces two histories. The first chronicles the lives of eighty shipwrecked Malagasy slaves. French captors abandoned the Malagasy on Tromelin, “Sand Island,” between 1761 and 1776. The second is the story of Sylvain Savoia’s experience as an artist with the archaeological team dedicated to uncovering the Malagasy’s remains. The comic’s bold art emphasizes the tragedy. Savoia’s writing is simultaneously full of awe and anguish as he explores the sublime island and its devastating history.

Savoia tells the story of the eighty abducted Malagasy following the shipwreck of the Utile in 1761. Tromelin is a stunningly desolate spit of sand and coral where sea turtles, crabs, and seabirds call home. His narrative focuses on Tsimiavo, one of the few of the eighty whose Malagasy name is still known. Tsimiavo and her fellow survivors’ story is only one part of Savoia’s harrowing tale. The rest of the comic focuses on the archaeological and archival project in which Savoia participated.

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THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF TROMELIN: Reconstructing History, Honoring the Past

When discussing the archaeological dig, Savoia’s writing feels detached. It’s as if he’s somewhat overcome by the magnitude of the story, the heat, and the separation from the rest of humanity. Although the trauma is distant, Savoia and his companions live on the site. The crews’ emotions are still apparent. The archaeologists’ attention to detail is in the spirit of learning about the abandoned slaves and their stories. Savoia diligently records this aspect of his work.

Despite the island’s tragic history, it seems as though Savoia wants to be as objective as possible in recounting the research efforts. Nevertheless, he deliberately highlights the strength of the enduring Malagasy. The text centers their presence in the comic in ways he avoids with members of the archaeological team. Readers know the archaeological crews’ names and functions. Yet it’s the Malagasy’s story that Savoia truly develops, even if their interactions are strictly conjecture.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics.

Savoia meticulously depicts the dual histories, straddling the roles of nature writer, historian, and fiction writer. Savoia builds a clear account of the Malagasy group’s life in exile on the island. So clear, that it reads more like fiction. Although we can never know exactly what Tsimiavo said to her companions, Savoia fluidly reconstructs a possible scenario. One might otherwise be swept away by the story, but Savoia’s interjections about the archaeology reground the history. Additionally, THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF TROMELIN conveys a well-researched portrayal of Malagasy beliefs. Savoia dedicates considerable energy to honoring the abandoned people, effectively highlighting the injustices of slavery.

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What We Leave Behind: A Plea For The Future

Savoia understates the horrible irony of the Malagasy story. He’s aware that, unlike the Malagasy, he’s able to leave the island in a few months time. His artwork captures the remoteness of the island. What causes the Malagasy to despair is ironically set next to the modern day account of peaceful swimming and communal dinners. Any sense of captivity he feels by the surrounding ocean is temporary. For the Malagasy, the freedom of escaping their captors only lead to another prison.

The Malagasy group’s experience is unlike any other slave populations. Archaeologically, the site is significant for reconstructing group dynamics in such a terrible place. Additionally, there are few archaeological sites offering information about people displaced by slavery, nor in such severe isolation. Savoia’s inclusion in the research project is compelling. Artistic work alongside scientific projects proves that uncovering history takes all disciplines.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics.

While Savoia beautifully narrates the story, he also poignantly discusses the way the world is changing. As remote as Tromelin is, the island is covered in garbage. Washed ashore, the flip-flops, lighters, bottles, and plastics litter the beach and catch in the beaks of seabirds. Although subdued, Savoia’s attention is compelling. The comic recognizes the power of natural forces, but also the damage caused by humans. Thus, Savoia carefully highlights the dangers of apathy. Apathy for human lives, and apathy for the planet. Although the archaeological record depends on the fact that humans leave objects behind, human waste on the planet is choking out life. In a bizarre parallel, the abandonment of the Malagasy on the island is a direct result of cruel apathy for other living people.

Sublime Artwork, Dense Text

THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF TROMELIN isn’t for the faint of heart. Not only is the subject matter heartbreaking, but the writing is dense. Savoia’s diligent account deserves careful time and attention. However, for all the text’s complexities, the artwork gives readers a spellbinding image of life on the island.

Image courtesy of Europe Comics.

Tiny sketches of red-footed boobies on scrub, close-up images of sea turtles, and humorous pictures of hoards of hermit crabs fill the comic’s pages. The tiny, spindly lines of the drawings are somewhat overwhelming, but Savoia balances the pages with beautiful horizons. His art does justice to the vast ocean surrounding the sandy spit. As a result of Savoia’s careful work, the comic captures the majesty of the remote place, as well as the horrifying experiences there.

Savoia’s more intense illustrations of the Malagasy’s experience lends urgency to their story. Tsimiavo and her companions’ faces feature heavily. Savoia never gives this much space to the archaeologists. The contrast is interesting. As a result, the archaeological tale feels suspended in an isolated quiet. Except for a few incidents with various crew members, Savoia spent much of his time there alone. His twelve companions on the trip each dedicated to their own work. The Malagasy have more developed personalities, despite the fact that the experiences of each individual remain unknown.

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Final Thoughts: When Art And Science Join Forces

THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF TROMELIN is an outstanding example of the powers of art to educate and empower. Savoia’s narrative primarily honors the lost lives of the abandoned Malagasy. Additionally, Savoia is able to turn the rigorous archaeological work into a compelling piece on scientific research, engagement, and what it takes to make sense of history. Indeed, there are stories, like that of the captured Malagasy, that deserve more attention than the archives ever tell.

THE FORGOTTEN SLAVES OF TROMELIN and other titles will be on sale starting February 19th as part of Europe Comics’ Black History Month special.

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