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  • Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora
  • Iain Walker
Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora. By Pier M. Larson (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009) 378 pp. $103.99 cloth $39.99 paper

Ocean of Letters is an analysis of the development of Malagasy language literacy in Madagascar and in the Malagasy diaspora in the western Indian Ocean from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. As a result of his personal background—a childhood spent in southeastern Madagascar—Larson is particularly well equipped to view the development of Malagasy identities from the periphery, and his linguistic competence and historical knowledge is brought to bear on a range of written documents in Malagasy, drawn particularly from the archives of the French Congrégation de la Mission (the Lazarists) and the London Missionary Society. Analysis of these and other written and archival sources are set in the wider context of debates about creolization and diasporas.

The introductory chapter addresses these wider issues. Larson challenges dogma from the Atlantic world that ancestral languages of Africans in diaspora did not generally survive the forced migrations of the slave-trade period and that creoles, transformations of the hegemonic language of their masters, were essential for communication among [End Page 491] themselves as well as with the Europeans. The author’s concern in this case study is to demonstrate the durability of ancestral tongues, using the specific case study of the Malagasy.

After an overview of the historical constitution of the Malagasy Indian Ocean diaspora, Larson engages several chronologically arranged case studies of Malagasy literacy. In the first, he briefly discusses Lazarist missionaries’ productions of a Latin-script Malagasy at the French colony at Ft. Dauphin in the southeastern part of the island. The Lazarist’s script, however, remained sacred and private; there was no strategy of vulgarization and no specific policy of teaching the script to Malagasy. Sacred texts employing Latin script in Malagasy were often little more than an aide-mémoires for the missionaries’ verbal work in Malagasy.

After this initial and isolated foray into literacy, Larson moves to the Mascarene islands, where most of the rest of the book is set. Through sheer weight of numbers, Malagasy rapidly became the vernacular among slaves and remained the principal language of communication with and among non-Europeans until after the French Revolution. Missionary vocabularies were not written for the benefit of the Malagasy but to help slave owners to communicate with their slaves; the Malagasy seized upon the texts, both sacred and secular, as they developed literary skills in their own language. In Chapters 4 and 5, a discussion of colonial-creole struggles for control of Malagasy literacy in Mauritius, initially set in the context of francophone colonial practice, was displaced as the British assumed control and Malagasy literacy was appropriated by the anglophone London Missionary Society for proselytization in Madagascar itself. This turn of events effectively transformed Malagasy vernacular literacy from a French colonial project into a tool of Imerina administration and a means of expression for its subjects.

Chapter 6 deals with the effects of Queen Ranavalona’s interdiction on the practice of Christianity in Imerina, which, not surprisingly, led to a recrudescence of the use of Malagasy in Mauritius as the island became a base for Malagasy resistance to anti-Christian policy at home. At the same time, the abolition of slavery saw freed Malagasy establishing their own villages in Mauritius and developing a Malagasy culture there. The final chapter is devoted to the use of Malagasy in vernacular written documents, mostly letters, produced by Christian Malagasy in exile. Larson briefly discusses the Malagasy presence in the Comoros, although, unlike in Mauritius, local identities in Comoros were such that distinct Malagasy communities never developed in the islands.

Overall, this book provides a fascinating glimpse of life on the Malagasy periphery. Larson’s use of the sources is masterful, and his historical knowledge provides context. But, for the readership of this journal, the lack of other sources (ethnographic, particularly) is disappointing: The syncretic Christianity of Madagascar, for example, might equally be considered an aspect of creolization. Larson makes no attempt to...


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pp. 491-493
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