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  • Les Voix du marronnage dans la littérature française du XVIIIe siècle par Rachel Danon
  • Simon Davies
Les Voix du marronnage dans la littérature française du XVIIIe siècle. Par Rachel Danon. (L’Europe des Lumières, 39.) Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2015. 421 pp.

Although there are slave narratives in English, there are none in French. Thus, treatment of marronnage in eighteenth-century writings in French is by European authors, giving voice to the voiceless. Rachel Danon’s investigation is underpinned by studies published in French by historians, literary critics, and postcolonial theorists; her debts are copiously acknowledged, particularly to Youmna Charara. Her corpus (1735–92) includes fiction, poetry, theatre, and texts in periodicals. Danon identifies varying types of resistance, not just the grand marronnage, but the culture of dancing, story-telling, and singing originating in Africa. Danon’s initial examples of texts with anti-slavery resonances are adaptations from English. Her first example, Prévost’s 1735 Discours du chef des nègres révoltés de la Jamaïque, has been pronounced the first anti-slavery text in French. The protagonist, Moses, delivers ‘un réquisitoire contre l’esclavage en justifiant la légitimitéde la révolte des marrons’ (p. 100). Her second example is Oronooko (1688) by Aphra Behn. However, it was Laplace’s adaptation of 1745 that was known by the French public: Laplace’s changes were significant, including a ‘happy end’ (p. 157), weakening the original’s impact though giving ‘plus d’initiative à la narratrice’ (p. 173). A tale of French origin, Makandal, histoire véritable was printed in the Mercure de France in 1787 and in four other versions. Based on a real person, albeit one surrounded by legend, Makandal is presented ambivalently. He is ferocious, a womanizer, and pushed to marronnage by a sexual rivalry with a slave-owner. Saint-Lambert’s Ziméo (1769) provides an ambiguous picture of slaves being prepared to protect a good master, and also a family atmosphere evoked in a good ‘plantation esclavagiste’ (p. 201). Nevertheless, violence is caused by the grand marronnage, as Ziméo is noble yet bloodthirsty. An interesting aspect is evidence of physiocratic thought: the economic benefits of treating slaves well. A poem of 1775, the Discours d’un nègreàun Européen, describes slaves as merchandise in a language reminiscent of classical tragedy. Butini’s Lettres africaines (1771), with its powerful heroine Phédima, suggest physiocratic influence in advocating the freeing of slaves: ‘c’est régler du même coup le problème de la révolte et [ ... ] assurer la quiétude des maîtres’ (p. 257). Olympe de Gouges’s final text, L’Esclavage des nègres, flopped at the Comédie-Française in 1789 as a murderous marron was deemed unsympathetic. One finds no mention of the mutilated slave in Chapter 19 of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), nor references to marronnage in letter 12 of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Voyage à l’île de France (1773) or the runaway slave in Paul et Virginie (1788), nor discussion of Aza, ou, Le nègre (1792), which portrays marronnage (recently republished in MHRA Critical Texts, London: MHRA, 2011). The monograph concludes with a lengthy survey of marronnage in postcolonial fiction. Danon’s study would have benefited from some pruning from the original thesis but draws useful attention to marronnage while showing that there was no groundswell in literary evocations as the century advanced, nor an unambiguous condemnation of slavery. [End Page 601]

Simon Davies


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