On February 1, 2022, we are celebrating the 187th year of the abolition of slavery in Mauritius. As usual, I shall write on the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in an inclusive way, coolitude having developed this archipelagic methodology. This is because in the country, a unique fact in the world, two sites relating to indenture and slavery are classified by UNESCO: the Aapravasi Ghat (2006) and Le Morne (2008).
I was a privileged witness to the classification of these two heritage sites, having worked upstream to give these sites a theoretical and symbolic dimension while they were in a historical and memorial reality still to be ‘discursified’.
For the record, UNESCO, knowing my work, had contacted me to work, after the classification of the Ghat, in the direction of an archipelago/articulation between these two sites. This methodology did not exist before, because Aapravasi Ghat and Le Morne were kept separate, potentially favoring memory and victim competitions though a monosemic reading of History going against the charter of cultural diversity of the UN body.
Let’s put things chronologically, because one does not improvise oneself as the theoretician of indenture and slavery. A poetology, developed as a methodology and a praxis, is proven in my slow and patient construction.
In 1989, I wrote Cale d’étoiles-coolitude (CEC, Azalées editions, 1992, now translated by Nancy Carlson as Cargo Hold of Stars, Seagul,l 2021). It laid the poetological foundations of the archipelago between these two pages of servitude, which were separated, especially in Mauritius, in the perspective of our « mountain against theirs ».
Indeed, in this archipelagic construct: a) I linked the fragments of the history of the coolie/slave trade in a trans-oceanic and trans-archipelagic « pan indenturism », in addition to focusing on the intra « coolie trade » diversities
b) I linked the pages of slavery and indentured labor in this text, calling myself « nominee slave » and « Indian nigger », in order to unite the coolie body with that of the slave, to invest a corpus of signs in the name of a common imaginary. This, to share memories and histories between the “wretched of the Earth”, another configuration of the humanism of diversity developed through inclusive indenture. The oceanic scope is essential in this construction because CEC inaugurated writing History in an oceanic way, making the mental and geographical borders more porous, notably through the Indies and the coral poetics.
But my work goes back even before CEC.
I read on Friday January 21, during a webinar with a Parisian observatory, a text that I had written in 1986, Fausse-île II (Pluralité-Babel, Lyon II University). This poem announced my methodology, the very first in the world, to articulate slavery and indenture in a phenomenological and poetological way:
« Negro by expression, since I have no preference…
Mauritian by contagion, poet by depression of languages,
I’m nigger, coolie, métèque,
Words of nothing, Maori, red skin of white words,
Negro of words to break sentences,
Zombie of the unconscious and islander of cultures of silence…” (p 23).
In this text, at that time, more than an intellectual or careerist or opportunist choice, I lived this diversity deeply, linking my body to a corpus of complex signs, archipelizing the historical traumas beyond these two pages of servitude (Maori, red skin, half-bred) in a
sincere humanist vein that lived in the depths of my being. For proof of a sincere phenomenological construction, I had already INSCRIBED this in my own archipelagic thought, before reading the Antillean authors, in 1987, in Appel d’Archipels, anchoring it first in the Indian Ocean, in a fragmented way.
These fragments are islands of memory that I archipelized/conjoined 25 years ago:
“The Indian Ocean cradles my shadow
and my body hears it softly
in my fragments of foam…
A griot will bring you the moon
Between beauty and miracle (…)
Before the light of your call of archipelagos”.
I have never earned my living with what I have written on the “wretched of the earth”. I have done it freely, humanely, without having any remuneration for about thirty years. This work has fueled the first holistic studies on indenture, which it has brought to the fore globally, notably with Coolitude (co-authored with Marina Carter, Anthem, 2003) articulating the complex themes of identity, diasporas and coral cultures… I wanted to make this remark, in view of the looting of this work in progress by people who have no remorse in appropriating this work for not so humanistic purposes…
They will recognize themselves, because they take up my work by disguising it a little or by passing it, they think subtly, from French to English, for example, by obliterating the source of this work which took some 35 years to develop. It is true that here, as on other shores, we are suffering from the epidemic of « registering the children of others »…
Thus, it is important to think of an epistemology and rigorous ethical and academic considerations when approaching this work which one cannot pretend to ignore while plundering it. By doing this, the looters, sometimes in the academic world, as I have already said, are setting a bad example for young people who are investing in this field now that it has emerged through our constructions. Especially since those, on the periphery of the empires, who have complained about the « silence of history and archives », are now having the mood to replicate exclusions and censorship for their personal benefit.
Thence, let us already respect the memory of the ancestors who suffered, so as not to build a career or a reputation by truncating the others or silencing their voices and plundering their work. It is the first element of a true and authentic shared memory. Otherwise, there would be a “competition” of memories, contravening UNESCO specifications for these two sites, a fact which needs to be monitored with great vigilance.
Mauritius, I have always said, beyond certain coteries, has a lot to offer the world. Inclusive indenture was born in our lands, developing, in a praxis, the wishes of UNESCO. It is in this spirit that coolitude articulated slavery and indenture to initiate the International Indentured Labor Route Project (1).
We have developed the first global methodology archipelizing indenture and slavery, calling for them to be considered as chronotopes (2).
Before that, I would like to quote an article, « A footbridge between Le Morne and the Aapravasi Ghat » that Sedley Assonne published in Le Matinal on July 16, 2008, that is to say, shortly after the classification of the Morne by UNESCO. I mentioned a contribution in the Creative Spirit, Indian Ethnoscapes in Francophone Writings of Indenture (Rutgers, 2010), work coordinated by Brinda Mehta. It was inspired by the kala pani aesthetic that I had previously developed for a transnational narrative of indenture.
And from the outset, in the article, I expressed my joy at the ranking of Le Morne, after that of the Ghat in 2006: “…it is important to open ourselves up to this magnificent opportunity to
make our country a welcoming land between two memories. That’s my plea…This double classification is an extraordinary opportunity offered to Maurice to carry out a work of memory… I cannot understand a lack of desire to conjoin (or archipelize, to make it clear) the symbols of these two places. It is a question of creating a movement towards and between them, specific to the intercultural policy of UNESCO”. This conjunction is put in relation or archipelization of the memories of servitudes and of all memories beyond these.
Also, I maintained that it « would be unthinkable for the State not to establish a route between Ghat and Morne, within the framework of a route of memory, for example, proposing a cultural and historical program which would give weight to the sustainable cultural tourism”. My advocacy did not stop there: “It is about raising awareness and deepening the reading of histories, here and elsewhere. Giving a fraternal, transcultural symbolism to this dialogue between slavery and indenture is our mission to all, government and intellectuals, artists and citizens of countries and beyond the Mauritian borders. On the eve of the Justice and Truth Commission, classification could not better indicate the way forward” (3).
Heritage is a language that must be based on an inclusive and humanist foundation, this cannot be disputed. It represents more than a monument, a steep landscape for maroons or a sorting center for hired workers. Its stones speak beyond time, censorships, exclusive aims. The important thing is that they do not build walls but bridges… We have constantly taken their stones not to make walls of them but bridges, bridges and not courts of censorship for silencing genuine constructions of archipelization of histories and memories.
Also, in my archipelago and memorial construction, I dedicate these words made flesh to the descendants of slaves of my native island and beyond:
I refuse to ignore the misfortune of the shadow,
This weight of my sinister refrain. If you were
Slave and me indentured or coolie of a thousand rubble
I couldn’t celebrate myself whole if I’m lost or confused
In the hate or indifference of your chained memory.
The holocaust of memories is the reverse of my word (…).
I damned the arabesque of our death by signing the petition of broken backs
But it was raining from morning to evening in the ocean
from the Indias to the parapet of the Caribbean…” (ref).
We will resolutely continue to carry this transarchipelagic, historical, cultural and memorial work in vigil… Bonne commémoration à toutes et tous en ce jour de mémoire nationale !
© Khal Torabully, février 2022
(1) https://www.lemauricien.com/le-mauricien/the-story-of-the-international-indentured -labour-route-project-and-its-philosophy/400344/)
(2) http://africultures.com/khal-torabully-ghat-et-morne-les-chronotopes-de-lslavery-et-de -engaging-in-mauritius/). (3) http://www.potomitan.info/torabully/morne_unesco.php
Additional reading, “Exiles”, Courrier de l’UNESCO, 1996: https://en.unesco.org/courier/october-1996