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Between the first and second abolitions of slavery in the French Empire (1794- 1848), an autonomous francophone literary field began to emerge in France’s Indian Ocean colonies. A print culture with its own agents of production, distribution, and reception of literary works developed during this time. In the 1830s and 40s, some of the first Indian Ocean novels began to emerge from the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. This corpus of Indian Ocean texts decenters the Atlantic paradigm that dominates conventional understandings of European colonial slavery.
Marronnage, or the flight of slaves from the plantation to escape servitude, forms the central preoccupation of early Indian Ocean novels. The first writers from the Réunion threw into sharp relief the promise of liberty held in the precarious condition of fugitivity, in the context of the violently policed environment of the slave colony. Although the stories of escaped maroons have passed down orally as foundational myths in Réunion, the actual practices of marronnage as radical acts of disruption and resistance have not received much attention in scholarship on French colonialism. In her reading of novels written by the first Reunionese writers, Pratima Prasad shows how their formulations of marronnage unsettle the two dominant modes of conceptualizing slave emancipation in canonical nineteenth-century discourses: abolition and slave revolt. In so doing, these novels imagine and envision alternate futures for a post-slavery society in the Indian Ocean. Prasad argues that by confining marronnage to the realm of mythology, or by considering its practice as a parenthetical interlude in the long march toward emancipation, we risk ignoring its anticolonial political promise.
Pratima Prasad is Professor of French and Interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) at University of Massachusets Boston. In Colonialism, Race, and the French Romantic Imagination (2009), she investigates how French Romanticism was shaped by, and contributed to, colonial discourses of race. In her current research, she studies the Indian Ocean as it has been imagined, mythologized, observed, and examined by French and francophone writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She has published a scholarly anthology of nineteenth-century novels and short stories about marronnage in the Reunion Island of the Indian Ocean. Her ongoing book project (forthcoming with The Liverpool University Press) uncovers the literary history of the French Indian Ocean during the July Monarchy (1830-1848).
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