“The world is our house”, Jérôme Nadal, one of the first companions of the founder of the Company of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), is said to have declared. The Jesuit missionaries were faithful to this principle and accompanied European colonial expansion. By the first half of the sixteenth century they were present in India, in the Congo, and in China. In March 1549 the first Jesuit mission to the New World arrived in Bahia. In 1665 the West Indies Trading Company allowed them to establish themselves in French Guiana “to work to convert the ignorant savages to the mysteries of faith”.

17th and 18th centuries – history

“I left the town of Cayenne to go to Loyola, which is the name of the place where our plantation is. (…) It is in this neighbourhood of Rémire that the biggest and finest sugar plantations are, and consequently the largest number of Negroes.”

Father J. de la Mousse, Cayenne, 1687.

In 1668 the Company of Jesus bought a plantation near the town of Rémire, a few miles from Cayenne. The early years of what was called the Loyola plantation were modest, as the fledgeling colony was subject to attacks by the English and Dutch. But the Jesuits had capital and faith on their side to motivate them, and the survival of the Missions in Indian country depended on their economic success.

Within a few decades the Jesuits turned Loyola into the largest establishment on the “isle of Cayenne”. By about 1740 the plantation produced more sugar, coffee, and cocoa on its 1000 or so hectares of land than the rest of the colony put together. Loyola was a model plantation, the place to see for visitors stopping off in French Guiana. The scientific explorer Charles de La Condamine stayed there in March 1744.

From their residence they built in Cayenne – the current Prefecture – the Jesuits controlled the vast territories of the evangelisation Missions (on the Oyapock, the Kourou, and the Sinnamary). 1000 slaves lived on their five plantations, or a fifth of the slave population of the colony. The Company of Jesus did not condemn the slave system, on the contrary, they took full advantage of it.

As the historian Vincent Huyghues-Belrose has pointed out, in the middle of the eighteenth century the Jesuits were the only real “major landowners” in French Guiana (Pagara 1996, p.164). The West Indies Trading Company had also conferred them with religious authority in the colony. Their joint economic and spiritual power was a source of tension with the authorities and other settlers. And so in the eighteenth century French Guiana was a microcosm of Europe.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the domination of the Company of Jesus was a cause for alarm, and their unconditional support for the Pope irritated the European monarchies. The order was also subject to ideological quarrels with the Jansenists* and Encyclopaedists*. The financial scandal which rocked the Company of Jesus in Martinique was used as a pretext for its dissolution, which was pronounced by Louis XV in 1763.

When their property in French Guiana were sold off, Loyola went for the sum of 300,286 livres, a veritable fortune at that time. The plantation had 417 slaves. The Jesuit missionaries only returned to French Guiana a century later to help with the “moral redress” of the convicts.

Twentieth century – archaeology

The new owners of Loyola decided to move the main house in 1774, resulting in the progressive dismantling of the buildings. In the nineteenth century the ruins of the plantation were used as a quarry. The site was then forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1988 by Patrick Huard.

Fascinated by French Guianese society under the Ancien Régime, the historian Yannick Le Roux immediately realised the potential offered for filling in the gaps in the written sources. He undertook the first archaeological excavation in 1994. Six research campaigns followed up until 2000, led jointly by archaeologists from French Guiana and Québec. The excavations carried out at Loyola are the only major colonial archaeological operation in French Guiana to date.

Knowledge of the layout of the plantation, as revealed partially in an engraving from 1730, was updated. Life was based around a main spacious wooden house where the masters lived (240m²). As the establishment was built on a hillside there was a terrace above, with the workshop, sugar mill, some of the crops, and the slaves’ area below. The plantation had a kitchen, hospital, forge, chapel, and cemetery. An aqueduct brought water from a few hundred metres higher up.

Laboratory analysis has shown that most of the pottery and ceramics used (jars, pitchers, tiles and so on) were made locally. They were found alongside China porcelain and Dutch earthenware. The tools (hoes, sickles, hammers, and so on) required for the proper operation of the plantation were forged on site using imported raw materials.

Although it was not possible to conduct specific excavations in the slaves’ area, the archaeologists did find two slave collars at the site. The masters of Loyola enforced the Black Code*, and corporal punishment was used on their property as it was elsewhere.

21st-century– a place of remembrance

Today the site in the process of being cleared, consolidated, and restored. Loyola is re-emerging from several centuries of oblivion.

Under the technical supervision of Thomas Moussu, a stonemason with the CHAM Association (Work on historic and mediaeval architecture, Chantiers histoire & architectures médiévales), a dozen men of varying ages are looking for the original foundations of the walls, conserving everything they can and selecting replacement stones when necessary. The rubble stone walls are built up using a string line and a natural hydraulic lime mortar “to allow the walls to breathe” as Thomas explains.

The team is drawn from two associations, ROZO and the Departmental school for the disabled (IMED, Institut Médico Educatif Départemental). When the Youth and Sports Directorate (Direction de la Jeunesse et des Sports) approached him about this project working with another organisation, Jacques Hulic, a team leader with the IMED, did not expect it to be such a success: “we really live together like a family” he observes.

The men working here have good reason to be proud of what they have accomplished. Lysson, a 63-year-old from Haiti, compares Loyola with the many abandoned Haitian sites and is glad to be restoring it. Fred, who is 28, hopes to be able to bring his children here in a few years time to show them “his work”. The operation is piloted by the Coastal Conservation Authority (Conservatoire du littoral) – which bought the land with the help of the town of Rémire-Montjoly – and the Regional Office for Cultural Affairs in French Guiana (DRAC, Direction régionale des affaires culturelles) which oversees this site listed as a Historic Monument.

Soon there will be a footpath partially following what remains of an old aqueduct linking up the road to Rémire and the road to the beaches. It will pass through fine secondary forest with a large number of sandbox trees (Hura crepitans). There are also further projects such as an ethno-botanical garden and the rebuilding of the main house. Excavations in the slaves’ area would be of particular interest.

Loyola was built by hundreds of slaves, both men and women. The rehabilitation of this historic site is not merely a matter of the enhancement of our heritage, it is also our duty of remembrance. We have an obligation to preserve the site so as not to forget what became one of the worst periods of French colonial history, and to make visible the history of the slaves so that it is not reduced to silence.

“Many people say: ‘what’s the point in talking about these things, this business, it’s over and done with now’; But I think that the failure to speak of collective crimes sanctions further collective crimes.

This is why I think that the question of slavery is not some idle, rhetorical issue. [...] It is a question that we all ought to ask ourselves.”

Edouard Glissant, Poétiques d’E. Glissant, Presse de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 1999.