- Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar
This rich book, which made me feel almost as if I knew its protagonists, provides us with an innovative account of the political nature of the apparently unpolitical. The core ethnography introduces the small village of Betafo in central rural Madagascar, where two groups of people had been involved in rivalry over status and dominance for decades. One of them, Graeber tells us, was of noble origin, the other of slave origin. While the nobles had lost all of their past glory and become impoverished, the former slaves had obtained a position of leadership. This happened because they were able to take control over most of the agricultural land and managed to establish themselves as having access to knowledge about witchcraft medicine and other special sources of power.
In fact, the successful creation of a reputation of having access to such powers, says Graeber, is the very stuff that politics is made of in rural Madagascar where, because of the general avoidance of open confrontation, there is no tradition of competitive public debate. To do politics is to manipulate impressions through narratives and gossip; it is to stir others’ imaginings that one might possess hidden powers and will thus be able to inflict harm.
The production of narratives is a key theme throughout the book. According to Graeber, the fight between the two groups goes back to a slave owner in the nineteenth century and his most enterprising slave who had a project of creating a lineage of his own and to that purpose competed with his master over who had more knowledge of medicine (281–82). However, there also exist numerous alternative narratives among the villagers. Members of the noble group attribute their fall primarily to their historical guilt of having been slave owners (though this does not resonate with other [End Page 165] ethnographic accounts [93–95]). Among the other group, there exists a multiplicity of stories about the past, each one exhibiting different levels of acceptance or rejection of the group’s alleged slave origin. Promoted by the village’s famous astrologer Ratsizafy, the politically dominant narrative claims descent from a king—a claim that Ratsizafy reinforced by building a type of tomb for his great ancestor that is reserved for the highest of nobles. Yet Graeber presents documentary evidence that Ratsizafy’s group is actually of slave descent; unfortunately, however, this is mentioned only once in the book (246), so readers may be muddled at the end of four hundred pages as to what was, historically speaking, actually going on and whether the fight between the two groups is in fact an issue over slave descent or perhaps, another kind of political competition. However, Lost People is not a detective story, intended to set the record straight; rather, it is an account of political action through narratives and history-making.
A few years prior to Graeber’s fieldwork Ratsizafy, in order to deal with repeated theft in the village had decided that the dust of the ancestors of both groups should be mixed. The event was followed, however, by economic disaster on both sides and was thus interpreted by the villagers as confirming, once and for all, that the descendants of the two great ancestors must remain apart. Thereafter, almost all daily contact between the two sides broke down, with each side walking on separate paths through the village. The focus of the book is an effort to understand this event. In Graeber’s analysis, Ratsizafy’s entire political agenda—promoted through narratives about the past and his knowledge of medicine—was the construction of an elaborate disguise of his group’s slave origin and its replacement with a noble one. The mixing of the two ancestors was to be the final coup.
In comparison to other descriptions of the legacy of slave descent in the Malagasy highlands, Graeber’s ethnography is exceptional. Other studies have shown that although slave descent...