Marooned plants and subaltern histories

What role did slaves from Africa and Madagascar play in transporting, spreading, and cultivating new plants in the sugar colonies of Mauritius and Reunion? What can plant names teach us about the lives and landscapes of marginalized people in the past?

Historian Ned Alpers, ecologist Jacques Tassin, and I address these questions in a paper that just appeared in Environment and History (link pdf). We take as a starting point the observation that no less than 114 common plant names in the Mascarene Islands include the adjective marron(ne). This is a reference to the maroons, or the people who escaped slavery and hid in the forests and volcanic heights of the interior of the islands, particularly on Reunion, founding settlements that persist to this day. Plant names like the ‘maroon vine’ could either refer directly to a perceived association of the plant with marooned people, or more metaphorically in the sense of being ‘escaped’ or ‘wild’ or ‘undomesticated’. We also looked at the Reunionese creole language, and discovered that of all the loan words from Malagasy, fully one-third are plant names.

We cross-checked these observations with botanical databases and contextualised them using historical sources and the literature of the period.   Combining these interdisciplinary forms of evidence, we show that maroons relied on a variety of wild, escaped, and cultivated plants for their subsistence. We also highlight importance of the idea of marronnage in popular culture, with the result that many plants are named maroon in a metaphorical sense. Finally, we identify a few plants that may have been transported, cultivated, or encouraged in one way or another by enslaved Africans and Malagasy.

This piece is part of a special issue of Environment and History on the role of Africans in the transoceanic environmental histories of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins. The volume, through its different contributions, “challenges the implicit and persistent civilizational conceit that African agency … if it existed at all, was always as enslaved subjects under the direction of Arab, Indian, Chinese, or European superiors” (Rangan and Bell, p. 127). In seeking to give more weight to the contributions of Africans, the volume contributors (us included) struggled with the “elusive traces” of such subaltern histories, relying on diverse, multi-disciplinary sources for evidence (like we did). The table of contents is listed below.

To close, and to return to the theme of maroons, I want to draw attention to a recently published novel by my co-author Jacques Tassin entitled Forêt marronne (Orphie, 2013). In poetic language and descriptions, it intertwines two stories about Reunion Island in alternate short chapters. It’s in French, so for those who can’t read it here’s a brief summary.

Cover Forêt marronne Jacques TassinOne story is an ecological, philosophical, spiritual, and rhythmic musing about trees. A modern-day scientist is strolling in the forest, and meets a solitary character, a nature spirit and philosopher named Robin who enchants the narrator with a three hour long monologue. Each chapter presents a part of his observations and philosophy, why trees are like birds, archives, water, how to hear and feel trees.

These alternate with the other chapters, a tough, inspiring story of a man who escapes slavery by going ‘maroon’, hiding and living from nature in Reunion’s steep, remote upland forests. Tan Rouge is a man from Central Africa shipped to Reunion as a slave in the Bourbon coffee plantations. We meet his fellow slaves – from Madagascar, from Mozambique – and their difficult working life. With knowledge he gained in his childhood from his grandmother, he was their healer, finding plants that could heal in the local flora. After a brutal event, Tan Rouge takes off up the steep, forested, volcanic valleys, and we learn with him as he seeks to survive from the plants, insects and animals he finds. His existence is precarious, fearful of discovery, but also liberating.

In the final sections, the two stories come together; I won’t spoil the ending. Having worked plenty with Jacques on more literal, scientific matters, it was a joy to discover the fluidity of his pen, beauty of his words, and creativity of his mind, and to have this book as the sensual and visual texture against which to think about the role of slaves and maroons in shaping the flora, landscapes, and cultural imaginaries of Reunion.

Here is the table of contents of the Special Issue of Environment & History (vol. 21, no. 1, February 2015):

  • Introduction: Situating African agency in environmental history  (Judith Carney and Haripriya Rangan)
  • African Oil Palms, Colonial Socioecological Transformation and the Making of an Afro-Brazilian Landscape in Bahia, Brazil (Case Watkins)
  • Marooned Plants: Vernacular Naming Practices in the Mascarene Islands (Christian A. Kull, Edward A. Alpers, and Jacques Tassin)
  • How Africans and Their Descendants Participated in Establishing Open-Range Cattle Ranching in the Americas (Andrew Sluyter)
  • Elusive Traces: Baobabs and the African Diaspora in South Asia (Haripriya Rangan and Karen Bell)
  • Food Traditions and Landscape Histories of the Indian Ocean World: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections (Haripriya Rangan, Edward A. Alpers, Tim Denham, Christian A. Kull, and Judith Carney)

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