Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 819-821
[Access article in PDF]
Forget Colonialism? offers a sound and thoughtful treatment of the intricacies of ritual sacrifice in eastern Madagascar, with especially careful handling of the manner in which collective memories are negotiated and reformulated within a village setting. This study is deeply ethnographic in its orientation, based on a total of sixteen months of fieldwork conducted in 1992-1993, 1997 and 1999. As Cole explains in the Introduction, the project was driven by an initial desire to uncover how contemporary Betsimisaraka villagers in Ambodiharina understood and recalled the rebellion of 1947. The year 1947 marks a bloody and frightening period of Madagascar's colonial history, the east coast (and the region around Ambodiharina) defining the epicenter for clashes that quickly spread throughout the entire island. What, though, is the anthropologist to do when villagers resist all talk of these events? This was Cole's quandary. (It is worth noting that Cole hardly stands alone here—one only need read Peter Wilson's Freedom by a Hair's Breadth [1992, Michigan] to grasp how silence may plague ethnographic inquiry in Madagascar.)
Readers who take the book's main title at face value will be disappointed, for the bulk of this work offers only cursory glimpses at colonial history. It is, however, quite loyal to its subtitle, for this is a sophisticated study of sacrifice and [End Page 819] the art of memory. And an art it is: as Cole illustrates, page after page, the interpretation of sacrificial acts requires a keen eye for detail and contradiction, and the ability to catch the potency of thoughts, memories, and desires left unsaid. Cole carefully sifts through a range of examples that illustrate how village cattle sacrifices are performed, under what circumstances, and by whom. Her ability to unpack the complex meanings embedded in these ritual acts is impressive. Always sensitive to the shadow of the colonial encounter, Cole offers especially helpful examples that reveal highly localized desires to cleanse darker aspects of the past through ritual action. Among the most pertinent examples are rituals that focus on growing coffee (a cash crop that displaced subsistence farming and exacerbated local hierarchies); on building houses with tin roofs (rendering them foreign dwellings); and on what to do with returning soldiers (who, while serving the state, have neglected local ancestors).
Cole is especially good, I think, in her treatment of theories of memory: readers keen on this topic will find Chapter 1 and the first half of Chapter 8 most helpful, where she surveys and, later, integrates anthropological, historical, and psychological approaches. Those interested more particularly in Madagascar or in ritual should consult Chapters 2-5. The work as a whole illustrates quite well how collective ritual acts not only bind communities but also operate as a form of memory work, where specialists carefully orchestrate very particular constructions of the past. Cole shows at particular moments, too, how and when disjunction may occur, or where ritual acts are complicated by competing symbolic readings asserted, for instance, by young versus old, or villager versus returning urbanite.
As I read through this work I longed to learn more of local villagers' thinking on the colonial period, perhaps because I kept the book's title in mind. It is in the last third of the work that colonialism finally emerges as a strong focus. As Cole explains in the second to last chapter, island-wide presidential elections in 1992-93 generated a "flood" (223) of local memories of and conversations about 1947. The actions of candidates and their supporters strongly mirrored events that preceded the violence of 1947, a time when villagers were forced to take sides, subsequently enduring acts of retaliation from both rebels and the colonial state. Unlike many scholarly accounts of 1947—which both glorify the rebellion as a proto-nationalist movement and emphasize the nature of colonial terror—accounts offered by Ambodiharina villagers underscore...