Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora

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Pier M. Larson. Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xx + 378 pp. List of Figures. List of Maps, Tables, and Graphs. Archives Abbreviations. Index. $108.00. Cloth. $35.99. Paper.

Debates around creolization and ethnicity have dominated discussions on the history of ways in which Africans and their descendents have identified themselves in the Americas. In Ocean of Letters, Pier Larson takes these debates to the western Indian Ocean, where he examines the construction of a Malagasy-speaking diaspora in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the process he turns to a history of language and reading to decipher the ways in which these settlers forged a sense of identity tied to the Big Island and its political communities. Set within the constraints of changing structures of demography, religion, slavery, politics, and imperialism, this is cultural history at its best.

'The Indian Ocean is not the Atlantic" (350), Larson helpfully informs us toward the end of his book, acknowledging Hubert Gerbeau. Europeans formed only a small part of the swirling populations brought to the Mascarene and Comoro islands from Arabia, Africa, India, and Madagascar. Even at the Cape, men and women of "Mozambican" and Madagascan descent made up close to a third of the population in the first half of the nineteenth century. Larson moves away from the archives and travel accounts of the region, dominated by French and English, to focus on the various speech forms carried to the islands by waves of Madagascan immigrants. He is particularly concerned to trace the fluctuating strength of these language communities over time and in space. This allows him to test sociological theories in the light of evidence drawn from a very wide range of primary and secondary sources. The result is an analysis set against the "cultural survivals" found by historians in recent work on Atlantic America and the process of "creolization" thought to dominate language and life in Mauritius. Negotiating his way through these two extremes, Larson develops a theory of "creolite-as-versatility" that sees language and identity as resources to be exploited with agility rather than as components of a zerosum game. This leads him to argue that Madagascan identities and "ancestral tongues" existed alongside, and successfully interacted and competed with, other language forms into the middle of the nineteenth century, especially French-based Creole in Mauritius. His book calls for scholars to take seriously the historical role of language in the construction of identity, and specifically for them to recognize the major role played by Madagascans in the history of the western Indian Ocean.

The history of the transcription of language forms in Madagascar starts with local diviner-healers who produced texts in Arabic script functional to their calling. When the French established a small colony on the southeastern corner of the island in the mid-seventeenth century, Catholic missionaries continued this tradition, producing small catechisms, this time in Latin script. The French took this linguistic tradition to Bourbon (Reunion) when they abandoned their foothold on the Madagascan coast; and when they occupied Ile de France (Mauritius) in the wake of the departing Dutch, they peopled both islands with large numbers of Madagascan slaves. It was this community that, for the hundred years before the end of die slave trade in about 1830, "probably first forged ... a proto-Malagasy national identity" (105). This community also fused its various dialects into a creole language that served for about sixty years after 1730 as a broad lingua franca for the many ethnic peoples brought to Mauritius as slaves. …