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Reviewed by:
  • Ocean of Letters
  • Gabeba Baderoon
Ocean of Letters BY Pier M. LarsonCritical Perspectives on Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

In the evocatively titled Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora, Pier Larson explores the history of Malagasy, a language from the island of Madagascar that, as a result of forced migration, was spoken across the Indian Ocean region, and yet whose role in the lives of enslaved people as well as its impact on other languages remains underdiscussed. In this impressive study, Larson engages with the legacy of colonial linguistics, which arose at a time when vernacular dictionaries became a tool of both European slave-trading and missionary efforts. He also addresses the assumption in contemporary linguistic theories that, for forced migrants, African languages soon disappear amid the growth of European-based creoles that acted interlingual contact languages. He argues instead that despite being dispersed across the Indian Ocean region by war and slavery, and long after it was assumed that their language would have been lost, people from Madagascar continued to use Malagasy to articulate complex negotiations of memory, longing and identity. Ocean of Letters is therefore an ambitious book, both in the scale of its archival task—covering French, British, and Dutch imperialisms in the Indian Ocean region—and in the sophistication of its argument.

It is a book of subtle concepts, among which the "uneven archive of language" (12) is central. This is because the study of vernacular languages was itself a colonial project, and the textual archive of Indian Ocean languages was developed during a period of war and slave trading. Larson shows how this violence weights the resulting archive and marks it with inevitable emphases and absences. For instance, we learn much about the travails of settlers and missionaries. On the other hand, the violence experienced by the Malagasy must be read into the record. Malagasy children snatched in ecclesiastical kidnappings and taught Portuguese or French served as interpreters from European languages into the vernacular. Early glossaries of Malagasy were derived in part from men who learned local languages from "sleeping dictionaries," as their local female consorts were called (72).

Some of the absences come from different approaches to writing by the Malagasy and European settlers. In the Anosy region of Madagascar, writing (derived from Arabic) was an esoteric medium known only to a small number of adepts, who have consequently left very few traces. [End Page 244]

The archive is also physically fragile—parts of it were lost, pillaged, or burned in Paris during the French Revolution. Nonetheless, amid the court records, missionary documents, and colonial dictionaries, Larson is alert to the fears and longings he encounters amid the words. He has a gift for the telling detail. Two examples are particularly notable. During an exchange recorded by the French missionary Nacquart in Madagascar with a potential convert named Ramanore, Nacquart is interrupted by Ramanore's wife, who reverses the direction of the evangelical process "by suggesting that the god of the Anosy, Zahanhare, was merciful also to the French, who should learn about him from the people of Anosy" (79). This remarkable riposte by the unnamed Anosy woman, whose pointed irony is palpable across the centuries, is a "plea for intellectual reciprocity," Larson argues (79).

Another instance where Larson fruitfully reads the archive is the account of the trial of Ratsitatainina, a Malagasy nobleman exiled to Mauritius and then executed there on a debatable charge of fomenting a slave rebellion. As Larson points out, the two thousand pages of court documents tell us more than just the official account of the trial but also, through the evidence of slave witnesses, "about the lives of the city's subalterns" (213). Just as the single word hartseer ("heartsore"), spoken by an enslaved Mozambican woman at the Cape during her trial for murder in 1823, is woven into a searing account of the realities of slavery at the Cape in Yvette Christianse's novel Unconfessed (2006), here Larson reads historical detail with close and rewarding attention.

With its combination of compelling detail and supple theory, Ocean of Letters is an excellent study about language, diaspora, and archive in the...


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pp. 244-245
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