Maroons in the Archives: The Uses of the Past in the French Caribbean
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In the heart of Basse-Terre, the administrative capital of the island of Guadeloupe, sits a prison. It is notorious for its overcrowding and antiquated facilities and also because over the years a number of local activists who have fought for independence from France have been imprisoned there. The concrete walls of the prison, topped by barbed wire, run along one of the main boulevards of the town. Underneath the barbed wire is a mural, painted in the 1980s with the support of local cultural ofacials. It represents the slave trade: a line of slaves in chains and the famous Maison des Esclaves, of the slave port of Gorée, from where slaves were embarked on ships for the Middle Passage. And it presents symbols of bondage and resistance in the Caribbean: a maroon in a spiked iron collar, a machete and a stalk of sugar cane, a drum, and a conch shell—the latter of which was used on plantations to call slaves to work and by maroons as a call to attack. Nearby, in 2001, was a small poster sporting a representation of a “document”—a piece of yellow parchment, curved at the ends. On it was an excerpt from a historical document, a list of maroons “held in the prison of Basse-Terre.” The list—which was reproduced from an eighteenth-century newspaper and included names, descriptions, and “country marks”—is similar to many others available in the archives of Guadeloupe and in archives throughout the Americas. Within the archives, then, it is a fairly unremarkable document. Its placement next to the prison, however, transforms it into something very different. Members of the independence movement in both Guadeloupe and Martinique have often referred to the history of the maroons in presenting their political and cultural agenda, associating their contemporary struggle with that of these ancestors. The maroons are seen as precursors for those who resist in the present, as heroes who refused the colonial order, struck out violently against it, and created their own communities in the heights of the island. In slavery times, it is often recalled, they were hunted down by a police force—the maréchaussée (many of whose soldiers, as is less often recalled, were actually slaves or free coloreds)—and when caught, according to the stipulations of the French Code Noir that governed slavery, were stamped with a beur-de-lis on their arst offense, had their hamstrings cut on their second, and punished with death for further attempts at bight.1 Aimé 291 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Maroons in the Archives The Uses of the Past in the French Caribbean Laurent Dubois ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ yo palé mwen dè libèté, dè égalité they talk to me of liberty, equality yo menm di mwen fraternité they even say fraternity men ès tout sa sé vwé but is all that true? sé sa yo di, men és tout sa sé vwé that’s what they say, but is it all true? libété pa vini tou sèl liberty didn’t come by itself fô yo té goumé they had to aght nèg mawon pa atann papyé the maroons didn’t wait for papers pou yo té chapé to escape from them —Voukoum, “Kolon-la” Césaire called on the history of the maroons in his Notebook of a Return to My Native Land when he wrote, “I accept . . . the spiked iron-collar / and the hamstringing of my runaway audacity / and the deur-de-lys bowing from the red iron into the fat of my shoulder.”2 More recently, in the song quoted in the epigraph that begins this essay, the group Voukoum has evoked the maroons as a way of countering the way they see the history of Guadeloupe too often told—as a story of its white colonists and of the generous actions of the French state in freeing the slaves in 1848 and making the island a department in 1946.3 The literary and cultural presence of the maroons is vibrant in the contemporary French Caribbean—through novels, plays, songs, and carnival costumes called nègmawon —and the placement of an archival document pertaining to them in front of Basse-Terre’s prison is a powerful gesture of criticism made through a potent and well-understood analogy. The document was placed there as part of a townwide project of the public presentation of historical documents , led by the director of cultural affairs in BasseTerre , the historian Josette Faloppe.4 In the main park of...