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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 840-846
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History and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Becoming Merina in Highland Madagascar, 1770-1822
History and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Becoming Merina in Highland Madagascar, 1770-1822, by Pier M. Larson, published as a part of Social History of Africa Series (Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH; James Currey: Oxford; David Philip: Cape Town, 2000) xxii + 288 pp.
Two statements about African slavery briefly captured the attention of Africanists in the year 2000. The first, contained in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Wonders of the African World, explicitly blamed Africans for the heinous trade. Gates Jr. argued that if Africans had not sold slaves, there would not have been any slavery. 1 The second statement, penned by Achille Mbembe, backed up the first one. According to Mbembe, "between the African-Americans' memory of slavery and that of continental Africans, there is a shadowy zone that conceals a deep silence: the silence of guilt and the refusal of Africans to face up to the troubling aspect of the crime for which they are directly responsible." 2 Fortunately, each of these statements lacked the necessary strength of concrete research. Driven by an urge to apportion blame, Gates Jr. and Mbembe oversimplified a complex process and history and would do well to benefit [End Page 840] from the innovative and well crafted arguments contained in Larson's book.
Larson's text under review explicitly rejects the reduction of the complex history of slavery to dual relationships. The author prefers to use the words "impact" and "slave trade" as intellectual points of departure not destinations. 3 As a result, the study contains a number of intriguing, innovative, original and lucid arguments about enslavement, its motivation and consequences for the people of highland Madagascar. In brief, he argues that "transformations in identity and cultural practice benefitted no one in and of themselves; it was the purposes to which those new cultural changes were later deployed that mattered." 4 As such, the study proceeds to demonstrate that the people of highland Madagascar did not only strive to construct new foundations of society after the degrading effects of enslavement, but they used the instance to develop new memories and silence others in service of the wider Merina identity that was the outcome of the whole process.
The study is divided into two parts, each with three chapters. Chapter One, which is separate from the mentioned two parts, provides a rich background including a critical historiographical evaluation of the trends in the study of enslavement and culture. Larson uses the chapter to summarize the text by arguing around the main thrust of his arguments, critiquing the literature and providing a methodological frame for his study. Part One contains chapters that deal with the question of enslavement in Madagascar, its external and internal impetus, its morality and changing rationale as the area was increasingly integrated into the mercantile trade of the Indian Ocean, and finally, the strategies employed in undermining local forms of morality of kinship relations so as to enslave those who initially were not subject to enslavement. Basically, the chapters convincingly show that the decision to enslave others developed by a process that eroded traditional values of moral community and the expansion of a mercantile economy that made exchange of goods in silver more important than any other medium. It became essential to own silver to pay debts, taxes and access other basic needs but the inequitable access to silver led kin to pawn relatives, friends and neighbors. This eroded and destroyed kinship net-works, communal morals and any basis for trust that had hitherto cemented highland Madagascar society together. Further, Larson shows how status and in-equality exacerbated the rate of enslavement.
Part Two of the study contains chapters that discuss the process of reconstructing the identity of highland Madagascar people. This began as a contract between Andrianampoinimerina, the new king and protector of the people and the people of Imerina as his subjects. Andrianampoinimerina had gained his wealth...