Reflections on the "Ethno-" in Malagasy Ethnohistory
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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 301-308

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Reflections on the "Ethno-" in Malagasy Ethnohistory

Michael Lambek, University of Toronto

Madagascar is an island, and its scholarship has always run the risk of remaining insular. The logo of the Canadian Association of African Studies is an outline of the African continent; Madagascar is literally "off the map." At North American conventions of Africanist scholars, panels on Madagascar generally are attended by few but the small (though rapidly growing!) cohort of people working on Madagascar. Madagascar is even less well represented in Southeast Asian studies. Malgachisants need to make stronger efforts to build bridges, to make comparisons with continental African and insular Southeast Asian cases (but see, e.g., Metcalf and Huntington 1991; Bloch and Parry 1982; Lambek and Strathern 1998) and to learn from the application of common paradigms. We need to do so not to repeat the diffusionist speculations of past scholarship but to simultaneously sharpen our analytic lens and broaden our view, and to be exposed to the critiques of outsiders. For this reason Jeffrey C. Kaufmann is to be congratulated for developing this special issue of Ethnohistory, and especially for enabling the participation of Malagasy scholars. The contributors are to be congratulated as well for producing, without exception, an excellent set of articles from which this insider, at least, has learned a good deal.

What nearly all of these essays ask, in one form or other, is who are or what is the "ethno-" in ethnohistory? What are the social units that make history and about and for whom history is produced? To this we may add the central question that comes up in any work in African history or anthropology, namely the attention given to Europeans and the weight given the effects of the colonial period. To what degree have the social units found in [End Page 301] the literature, or on the ground, been constituted through colonial action or European eyes?

The articles in this issue by Jeanne Dina, Mansaré Marikandia, Karen Middleton, and James W. Yount, Tsiazonera, and Bram T. Tucker are particularly useful for going beneath or beyond the colonial screen to articulate the working of a set of small polities in southwestern Madagascar. These essays make for fascinating comparison with one another in the way they show how nearly the same ritual vocabulary and cultural scenarios are used to differing effect in neighboring, overlapping, and sometimes competing social orders. In each of these articles, as well as in Pier M. Larson’s, I found discussion of particular elements of structure or ritual that also help elucidate for me the socioreligious patterns underlying the contemporary practices I am investigating around Mahajanga in the northwest and that have been partially obscured by colonial and postcolonial interventions in that region (the effects of which are evident as well in Lesley A. Sharp’s contribution). This serves as a useful reminder to ethnographic particularists that there are remarkable continuities dating back to the precolonial era between what are generally now seen as quite distinct regions of Madagascar.

Marikandia and Yount, Tsiazonera, and Tucker are also useful for their clear examination of local uses of the environment. Conversely, other articles critically investigate Western environmental visions of Madagascar. In her remarkable contribution, Gillian Feeley-Harnik turns the tables completely, illuminating the Christian symbolism that permeated European accounts of Malagasy nature, especially in the eastern forests. It is to be hoped that Feeley-Harnik will go on to show how these metaphors and images bias the interventions by environmental agencies and interest groups that so pervade contemporary Madagascar, managed by people who indeed may be referred to as the "new missionaries" (Solway and Lambek in press). Kaufmann examines contradictions within colonial policy regarding control of the political and botanical environment of the far south, at a time at which, interestingly, missionaries were no longer the main protagonists. Sharp departs from this environmental theme but explores the way the Malagasy nationalist imaginary is inevitably permeated with French images and ideology. Andrew Walsh adds the often unwitting ways in which Europeans have been, and continue...