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Lost People

Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar

David Graeber

Publication Year: 2007

Betafo, a rural community in central Madagascar, is divided between the descendants of nobles and descendants of slaves. Anthropologist David Graeber arrived for fieldwork at the height of tensions attributed to a disastrous communal ordeal two years earlier. As Graeber uncovers the layers of historical, social, and cultural knowledge required to understand this event, he elaborates a new view of power, inequality, and the political role of narrative. Combining theoretical subtlety, a compelling narrative line, and vividly drawn characters, Lost People is a singular contribution to the anthropology of politics and the literature on ethnographic writing.

Published by: Indiana University Press


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pp. vii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xi

When I went to Madagascar, I took with me a lot of Dostoevsky: The Prince, The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, and various collections (there was also some Gogol and Pynchon, but it was mostly Dostoevsky). I think this is one reason this book is so long. I didn’t really notice at the time, but much later, Dale Pesmen remarked to me that my portrait of Ratsizafy in chapter 9 bore a striking resemblance to Dostoevsky’s character studies. After some contemplation, I realized...

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Notes on Malagasy Pronunciation

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pp. xiii

Generally speaking, Malagasy, of the sort spoken around Arivonimamo, is pronounced not too differently from English (Malagasy speakers often say that English pronunciation is much easier for them than French). However, there are a number of differences:
o is pronounced “oo” as in book
ao is pronounced “o” as in “owe”
ia is pronounced “ee” as in “seen”
ai is pronounced “i” as in “high”
Unstressed “o”s and “i”s are often unpronounced, and terminal...

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1. Betafo, 1990

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pp. 1-32

I was first drawn to Betafo because people there didn’t get along. Many of its inhabitants were practically not on speaking terms with one another. Now, it is a notorious thing in Madagascar that when a community is divided in this way, no one wants to talk about it....

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2. Royal Authority

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pp. 33-52

The island of Madagascar, over a thousand miles long, is located in the Indian Ocean opposite the coast of Mozambique. According to the best evidence now available, it was not inhabited until around 600 or even 800 CE; its first inhabitants came from somewhere in what is now Indonesia. While...

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3. Negative Authority

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pp. 53-72

The reader might by now be left with the impression that the inhabitants of rural Imerina are simply anti-authoritarian. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, the attitude described in the last section, however pervasive, is only that: an attitude. It is rarely formulated explicitly. No one ever told me...

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4. Character

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pp. 73-86

“You should be careful when you go asking people about beads,” Chantal told me one day, early on in my researches. For weeks, I had been going to the market and buying beads, drawing colored pictures of each variety in the pocket-sized notebooks I always carried around, and then showing the pictures to anyone I thought might be able to tell me their names and purposes. “Because when you...

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5. A Brief History of Betafo

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pp. 87-126

Imerina, remember, is divided into ancestral territories, each belonging to the descendants of a single named ancestor who is, usually, said to have migrated there sometime in “Malagasy times.” Roughly a third of such demes claim andriana, or “noble” status, the rest are hova, or “commoners.” There was usually a little story about...

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6. Anti-Heroic Politics

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pp. 127-182

So far I have been talking largely about history, and particularly the authoritative version of the ancestral past in a place like Betafo. At first glance, this ancestral past seems a pretty dull place; having been carefully scrubbed of any element of conflict, the stories lack any possibility of drama. However,...

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7. The Trials of Miadana

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pp. 183-200

Let me return to Miadana’s family, and recount some of the difficulties they faced on moving to Betafo. They are particularly useful witnesses because—as they continually pointed out—they arrived in Betafo understanding very little about how authority, in a rural community, actually worked. They too had....

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8. Lost People

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pp. 201-243

So wrote Raombana, secretary to Queen Ranavalona I, around 1855, in a history which he wrote in English so that no one else at court could read it. For its victims, brought as captives to be sold in markets in Imerina, the very first thing slavery meant was a complete rupture of the ties of love, kinship, and shared experience that...

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9. The Descendants of Rainitamaina

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pp. 244-308

At this point we can finally return to the problem posed in chapter 1: how it is that Betafo has come to be divided between two ancestors, one andriana and one mainty, so inimical to one another that mixing them together could only lead to catastrophe. The mainty ancestor in question was named Rainitamaina. He was said... to have been a wandering astrologer who...

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10. It Must Have Gone Something Like This

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pp. 309-328

The reader may well be wondering about my own effects on Betafo’s politics. Especially if one defines politics as mainly about the circulation of stories, the presence of a foreign researcher actively poking about trying to collect such accounts is ipso facto a political phenomenon. This is true...

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11. Catastrophe

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pp. 329-378

By now it should be easier to understand how there could have been so much tension in Betafo; so much mistrust between the andriana, most of whom were increasingly impoverished farmers, and Betafo’s mainty population, who seemed to be doing relatively well. In this chapter, I can finally answer some of the questions posed in the introduction...

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12. Epilogue

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pp. 379-392

In purely formal terms, this is a rather unusual ethnography. Its style is at times almost novelistic; at others, it shifts into much more conventional modes of ethnographic writing. The same characters who appear in one part of the text as actors often reappear in others as narrators or analysts...

Glossary of Malagasy Terms

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pp. 393-395

Personal Names in Text

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pp. 397-400

Important Places Named in Text

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pp. 401-402


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pp. 403-436


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pp. 437-445


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pp. 447-467

E-ISBN-13: 9780253116994
E-ISBN-10: 0253116996
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253349101

Page Count: 488
Illustrations: 9 figures, 7 maps
Publication Year: 2007