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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 1

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Claudine Raynaud

Questioning Diasporas

Cosmopolitan or Creole Lives?

Globalized Oceans and Insular Identities1

Françoise Lionnet


If terms such as diaspora, cosmopolitanism, and creolization can be considered equally useful theoretical models for mapping social realities, why does the general notion of creolization continue to carry a host of troublesome baggage? In particular, how do we think ’cosmopolitan’ and ’Creole’ together and hope to elicit a revaluation of the notion of creolization and of the producers of Creole cultures? In this essay, I use the literary, cultural, and political history of the Indian Ocean to think through the connotations of each term. I argue that if we consider both cosmopolitanism and creolization from the perspective of the insular regions of the Indian Ocean, new possibilities emerge for comparison and redefinition of what it means to be ’Creole’ and more specifically, a Creole cosmopolitan who participates actively in the construction of cultural meanings through technologies of oral, print, visual, and virtual communication.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This essay first appeared in Profession 2011 (December 2011): 23-43. It is reprinted here by permis (...)
  • 2 All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

île nous reste les cartes les traces
vies voilées par l’histoire violée...
Diego ton nom sur la carte rayé
Diego amour
Diego amer
Diego à mort....
Michel Ducasse, ’île va sang dire, ’ Mélangés
islands only maps left only traces
lives veiled by violated history...
Diego your name crossed out on the map
Diego sweet love
Diego bitter sweet
Diego till death . . .

  • 3 These include Edouard Glissant, Néstor García Canclini, Robin Cohen, Doris Garraway, Mary Gallagher (...)

1New perspectives on the Indian Ocean world have been multiplying. In a recent issue of PMLA, the South African critic Isabel Hofmeyr points out that ’the Indian Ocean offers a privileged vantage point from which to track... what some are calling a ’post-American’ world’ (721) in which the dominance of the Atlantic is being superseded by the rise of other axes of analysis. I want to echo and complement this approach by bringing into the conversation a concept Hofmyer does not use despite its importance for an accurate understanding of cultural dynamics in the region: creolization. Her method, which is not uncommon among scholars and theorists of cosmopolitanism, is symptomatic of a tendency to avoid discussions of creolization and its normative theoretical models or empirical variations (e.g. métissage, mestizaje, hybridity) and thus to ignore its conceptual applicability outside fields such as linguistics and anthropology, despite the sustained philosophical, literary, and theoretical engagement carried out by many thinkers over the past three decades.3

2Hofmeyr mentions the dialectics of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, imperialism and mobility, old diasporic networks and new public spheres. She acknowledges in a footnote existing research on Indian Ocean creolization and insular cultures. But her argument does not gesture toward the work that the notion of creolization can do to open up the above binaries and the forms of entanglement they hide. She thus misses an opportunity to provide a comprehensive account of old and new colonial dynamics, even though, as she puts it, ’At every turn, the Indian Ocean complicates binaries, moving us... toward a historically deep archive of competing universalisms’ (722). I support this important statement, but only up to a point. Hofmeyr appears to remain wedded to a view of cosmopolitan universalism that excludes the possibility of its actual transformation-beyond mere competition-in the contact zones of the region and their creolized life worlds. These worlds, shaped by movement along intersecting axes that connected historical nodes of economic activity on land and at sea, remain a crucial part of contemporary geopolitics.

Fig. 1. — Johannes van Keulen, Oost Indien (’East Indies’), 1689.

Fig. 1. — Johannes van Keulen, Oost Indien (’East Indies’), 1689.

3A 1689 Dutch map of the East Indies by Johannes van Keulen helps us visualize the rhizomatic multidirectionality of these axes and imagine new possibilities of encounter in the Indian Ocean rim region (fig. 1). The map concretely plots multiple crossings, each one a ’point d’intrication’ (Glissant 1981: 36; ’entanglement’ [1989: 26]) with its specific mode of ’emmêlement’ (Glissant 1990: 103; ’complex mix’ [1997: 89]) at sites where a plurality of possible agents can produce the unpredictable linguistic and social formations characteristic of creolization. The prominent number of islands charted on this map between Madagascar and India reveals the importance they always had for early seafarers.

4Specialists of the Indian Ocean from Auguste Toussaint to Megan Vaughan and Françoise Vergès, all of whom Hofmeyr does acknowledge, have reflected on the paradoxes of creolization, as have critics of South African literary and cultural studies (Nuttall 2009). The concept has now become influential in trans-Pacific studies (DeLoughrey 2007, Lionnet and Shih 2011, Matsuda 2001). But it remains a controversial notion (Palmié 2006, Stewart 2007), especially among literary and cultural critics. My goal in this essay is to grasp the reasons that might motivate this generalized diffidence and to suggest greater convergence between the concepts of cosmopolitanism and creolization. I give some concrete examples of overlapping frames of meaning and call for greater understanding of the Creole Indian Ocean, in particular the islands of the Mascarenes and Chagos, which have been directly affected by United States military imperialism in the Persian Gulf.

5These Creole archipelagos have served, since the 1970s, as instruments of United States foreign policy in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Their islands, distant though they are from the western hemisphere, are crucial nodes in the global network of militarized sites that have made perpetual war possible. In 1965, despite local protest, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was created by means of the administrative separation of the Chagos islands from Mauritius and the Seychelles, which were due to become independent in the near future (Chan Low 1996). Between 1968 and 1973, with the help of the United Kingdom, the United States summarily deported some two thousand Chagossians without regard for the self-determination and integrity of either the communities they belonged to or those they were imposed on. These two closely allied nations thus acted as terrorist agents long before 9/11, justifying in the name of global security the forcible displacement of a community that had been rooted in the Chagos for over two centuries, while Americans at home remained ignorant of the historical, linguistic, political, and economic specificities of a region invisible to them. Had the islands of the Indian Ocean been better understood as cosmopolitan crucibles of creolized cultures, would more attention have been paid to their inhabitants’ fate? Nothing is less certain given the islands’ isolated location and small population, the secrecy that surrounds the military facilities in Diego Garcia, and the imperial longue durée behind the use of the Mascarenes, since the early modern period, as strategic pawns in the competing colonial agendas of European empires (Koike).

6Shifting alliances among these empires and existing trade routes across the Indian Ocean brought many people into contact for extended periods of time and produced various ’multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual’ communities whose cosmopolitan character was undeniable (Gupta 2008: 10). But it is in fact the term Creole that is primarily used to refer to the region’s islanders and to their languages and cultures. Yet for many scholars the designation Creole continues to imply people without history, located in a geopolitical space that conjures up a tabula rasa or the utopias associated with desert islands.

7Judith Butler’s important and lucid reflections in Precarious Life on United States policies of perpetual war come to mind, but in a modified version. ’The question that preoccupies me in light of recent global violence, ’ she writes ’is, Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? and finally, What makes for a grievable life?’ (20). I want to ask: Who counts as cosmopolitan? Whose lives count as cosmopolitan lives? How do we define a cosmopolitan life in relation to a Creole one? And finally, Is a cosmopolitan life more grievable than a Creole one?

8If terms such as diaspora, cosmopolitanism, and creolization can be considered equally useful theoretical models for mapping social realities, why does the general notion of creolization continue to carry a host of troublesome baggage? In particular, how do we think ’cosmopolitan’ and ’Creole’ together and hope to elicit a revaluation of the notion of creolization and of the producers of Creole cultures, especially those who mourn the loss of their home and must grieve for their dead away from the traditional burial grounds?

9By definition, creolization, like cosmopolitanism, presupposes patterns of movement and degrees of mixing. But apart from a brief discussion by Françoise Vergès and my own recent work on Creole cosmopolitics (2009 Introduction) and solidarities (2008), the notions have not been brought into productive confrontation. Robin Cohen’s distinct readers on cosmopolitanism (Vertovec and Cohen 2002) and creolization (Cohen and Toninato 2010) are a symptom of this separation that results in the inability to think the concepts together in order to produce a true comparative engagement with the issues they respectively index. If compared at all, the nouns cosmopolitan and Creole and the realities they connote are likely to be seen as polar opposites, belonging to incommensurable coordinates of time and space. The mere fact that I am using capital ’C’ for Creole and small ’c’ for cosmopolitan already puts the words into different semantic categories. As a proper noun, Creole refers to a well-defined if not exactly static cultural and linguistic identity (on the model of French or English as proper nouns which identify both a national culture and its language). As both common noun and adjective, cosmopolitan, by contrast, suggests an orientation and an attitude, a habitus and a conscious ethical stance against the limitations of radical territorialism. For David Hansen, ’cosmopolitanism implies education rather than just socialization’ (164). It connotes freedom and is linked to the achievements of rational ethical agents who actively participate in a public culture of refinement and sophistication, of travel and tolerant detachment that is antithetical to the overt or hidden violence of extreme forms of nationalism and chauvinism. The Enlightenment defense of universal rights by the philosophes and their championing of tolerance marks them as cosmopolitan subjects of world culture and benevolent advocates of diversity-an attitude that could however slide into patronizing gestures of self-righteousness, ’riddled with racial prejudices against the peoples or cultures they are about-prejudices that are, quite often, only barely disguised in the language of science and philosophy’ (Eze 1997: 1). That attitude persists among much of the educated elite’s view of the Creole.

10A Creole identity is an accident of birth: a mode of belonging that connects one to a history of coerced contact that produced unpredictable cultural formations and linguistic variations. Creole languages can be erroneously described as dialects, patois, patwah, pidgins, jargons, and ’entwisted tongues’ (Lang 2000). Michel Degraff (among others, such as Chaudenson and Mufwene 2001) has argued against ’the fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism’ and denounced the prejudices and fantasies of scholars who maintain ’dualist assumptions that separate creolistics from the rest of linguistics” and classify Creole languages ’apart from “normal”/ “regular” languages’ (537). Primarily oral cultures have been ’doomed to inferior status’ (Lang 2000: 17) because of the material conditions of their emergence in plantation economies. Such negative views easily result in ’creolophobia’ (Lang 2000: 16), even among creolophones who internalize erroneous foreign views because they lack familiarity with the global array of Creoles: Kreyòl Ayisyen (Haiti), Jamaican Creole, Papiamentu (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao), Kreol Morisien (Mauritius), Kreyol Reunyoné (Reunion), Sierra Leone Krio, Capeverdian Crioulo, Peranakan Creole (Indonesia), and on the North American continent, Kréyol La Lwizyàn (Louisiana), Gullah (South Carolina) or Chinuk Wawa (Pacific Northwest). The common perception of Creole peoples and languages is still shrouded in ignorance and mired in exotic clichés, in racial mythologies of degeneracy and the deficiencies associated with insularity and slavery, orality, indenture, forcible transplantation or imposed immobility. Haiti is one of the most creative but also most invidious casualties of that history of violent encounters.

11Cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, indexes a general or abstract construct applicable to a wide variety of individuals, communities, circumstances, and life worlds. It has elicited a great deal of analytic scrutiny and theoretical unpacking. Hence the many debates about the ’ethos of cosmopolitanism’ (Brennan 1997: 10), the positive and negative valences of cosmopolitanism in relation to nationalism, and the vast array of qualifiers that have been used in recent studies of this concept: ’actually existing’ (Malcomson 1998: 240), ’critical’ (Mignolo 2000: 72), ’discrepant’ (Clifford 1997: 36) ’embodied’ (Linklater 2007: 139, Mellor 2006: 289), ’planetary’ (Gilroy 2000: 2), ’rooted’ (Appiah 2005: 213), ’postcolonial’ (McKinley: 2009 81), ’situated’ (Simpson 2001: 14), ’vernacular’ (Bhabha 1996: 191), et cetera. Ulrich Beck links it to a particular practice of multilocation, exemplified by those who are ’married to several places at once’ and thus practice what he calls ’place polygamy’ (72-77). Cosmopolitan subjects project worldliness, expansiveness, rational decision-making, and orderly accumulation.

12If cosmopolitans often claim to understand and even advocate in favor of tolerant diversity, they can also be condescending toward those forms of difference that appear to diverge from established norms of cultural and political rationality that are the signs of an enlightened polity. Such norms pit rationalism against the primitivism of the indigenous and mixed-race populations that largely correspond to the Creoles of both the continental New World and the insular peripheries of former French, British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Danish colonies in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean where the realities of creoleness and creolization first emerged. Creoles were the primary target of scientific discourses of degeneration in the nineteenth century, when our disciplines were devised and notions of universalism and particularism became tied to specific social formations by the human sciences that study them. Today, the globalization of cities and national spaces produces instances of creolization and linguistic code switching not unlike those of colonial times (Glissant 1998), but these instances tend to be studied under the rubric of cosmopolitanism, globalism, and the generic ’cultural mobility’ (Greenblatt 2010)-not under the rubric of creolization.

13In relation to modern norms of identity associated with the emergence of the nation and linked to a legitimate state comprising a relatively homogeneous population, the cosmopolitan subject tends to represent a dubious ontological excess or surplus-personified, since the nineteenth century, by means of clichés, some of them racialized: the rootless intellectual, the wandering Jew, and the transnational banker whose loyalty to a nation-state is in doubt. The Creole subject, by contrast, continues to index a racial, cultural, economic, and linguistic deficit embodied by the illiterate manual or indentured laborer, slave, or economic migrant whose position is ipso facto that of a subject devoid of civilizational quotient and depth. Both the cosmopolitan and the Creole thus appear situated at a similar distance from the national norm but on the plus and minus sides of it, respectively.

14The challenge, therefore, is to bring into dialogue intellectual histories that have been viewed as distinct, since the idea of the cosmopolis evokes a highly literate, urbane, and enlightened polity, in contrast to the oral cultures of a Creole world associated with superstition and primitive rituals, from witchcraft and voodoo to varieties of unstable religious syncretism coded as inferior to the ’purer’ traditions they combine and ’mix up’ (Métraux 1972, Mouls 1982). But if we re-think both cosmopolitanism and creolization from the perspective of the insular regions of the Indian Ocean, new possibilities emerge for comparison and redefinition of what it means to be ’Creole’ and more specifically, a Creole cosmopolitan who participates actively in the construction of cultural meanings through technologies of oral, print, visual, and virtual communication.

15The Indian Ocean trade routes that connected the Atlantic to Asia, the Mediterranean to east Africa, the Persian Gulf, south and southeast Asia, the Spice Islands, Formosa/Taiwan, the coast of China and the ports of Japan ’lead to an incredible exchange of ideas, technologies, and goods’ (Gupta 2008: 8). During the nineteenth-century age of sail, ship crews of lascars or lashkari ’from every edge of the Indian Ocean’ interacted on what Amitav Ghosh has termed ’floating Babel [s]’ (17). They produced a creolized contact languagea mix of Swahili, Malay, Hindustani and Sino-Portuguese-English pidgin (23-24). These lascars were ’possibly the first Asians and Africans to participate freely and in substantial numbers, in a globalised workspace’ (19); they were without question a ’richly cosmopolitan group’ (16), among ’the first... to acquire a familiarity with colloquial (as opposed to book-learnt) European languages’ (19). Conceptually, however, this contact or trade language differs from Creole understood as the mother tongue of a transplanted population that undergoes transformations over time and several generations, in some instances developing African Creole languages rather than European-based ones (Larson 2009: 10-12; Teelock 1999: 7). Much comparative work still needs to be done in order to parse out the conceptual issues raised by these linguistic variations.

16In addition to this vibrant popular oral culture, printing and book learning also emerged quite early in the archipelagos of the Indian Ocean. In Mauritius, a distinct two-hundred-year-old literary and political culture and the critical discourses it generated dates back to the creation in 1799 of the island’s first literary journal, Le Chroniqueur colonial [The Colonial Chronicler], subtitled Journal politique et littéraire des Isles de France et de la Réunion [Political and Literary Journal of the Isle de France and Reunion]. These developments were made possible by the introduction of the printing press in 1767 (seventeen years before Cape Town received its first press in 1784 [Toussaint, Early Printing in the Mascarene Islands, 21], which was followed in 1773 by the publication of the island’s first newspaper, Le Cernéen. Initially published as a weekly, it became a daily by the middle of the nineteenth century and is believed to be the second oldest daily French-language newspaper in the world (Le Figaro began in 1825; L’Abeille de la Nouvelle Orléans was founded en 1827, but its publication was interrupted during the Civil War; Le Cernéen’s masthead announces that it was a Mauritian tradition ’from 1832 to 1981’ (the newspaper is now on-line only). Auguste Toussaint explains that in the Isle de France printing was ’entirely a lay enterprise, whereas in most other lands of the Indian Ocean, it began as a missionary enterprise with limited objects’ (Toussaint 1969: 9). It allowed the French but completely multilingual island to take ’a place of honour in the history of the progress of printing outside Europe’ (Toussaint 1969: 27) given ’the existence of conditions favouring the development of an intellectual class to which printing contributed and by which it was itself influenced in its own development’ (Toussaint 1969: 9).

17A few revealing examples of this multilingualism: in the mid-nineteenth century, the newspaper Le Mauricien regularly published announcements and articles in Tamil as well as French and English; in 1883, Mirza Ahmod founded the Urdu language Anjuman Islam Maurice; and in 1909, Manilal Doctor, a lawyer originally from Bombay, started a political weekly, The Hindusthani, which published contributions in English, Gujarati, and Hindi (Toussaint 1969: 51). In 1939, Xavier Le Juge de Segrais (in Kreol, Zavié Lézize dé Ségré) published a set of forty fables in Creole ’imitated’ from those of La Fontaine, Quarante zolies Zistoires Missié Lafontaine, illustrated with beautiful woodcuts and reprinted in 1976 (fig. 2 and 3).

18A strong Francophone literary culture developed early, its origins in three related eighteenth-century genres: travel narratives; local responses to these exogenous representations of local peoples, flora, and fauna; and official documents produced by colonial administrators over a century and a half of French rule followed by British rule until independence in 1968. The nineteenth century was marked by an oppositional francophone culture and the proliferation of literary journals (Ramharai 2009: 555). These provide a unique perspective on processes of world-making that can be defined as both ’cosmopolitan’ and ’Creole’. Intellectual and critical debates among the literati revolved around the relative merits of two opposing tendencies, versions of which still define postcolonial studies today, namely ’francotropisme’ and ’mauricianisme’ or the imitation of French poetic models versus the development of native-born Creole approaches to writing, literary history, and criticism (Kee Mew 2011: 423).

19In Reunion Island (aka Bourbon), the Collège Saint-Cyprien, a colonial school established in the 1750s by the French East India Company, was run by Lazarist brothers who recruited students locally but also from the Isle de France and as far away as the Portuguese settlements in India. By 1767, the school had educated more than 160 young men. A 1756 inventory reveals that its library held ’no fewer than 2400 books worth 3510 pounds’ (Caudron 1995: 346). Reading, like theatre going, was an important activity for the elites (Dupuit 2001). The very successful eighteenth-century Creole poets Evariste Parny and Antoine Bertin both attended this school. The renowned astronomer and cartographer Jean-Baptiste Lislet-Geoffroy (1755-1836), on the other hand, was home-schooled in his native Bourbon. The son of an erudite French engineer and a well-educated Senegalese Muslim slave from the kingdom of Galam who was enfranchised at the birth of her son, Lislet-Geoffroy had access at home to a well-stocked library. His personal trajectory exemplifies the kind of early Creole cosmopolitan consciousness I want to underscore here. A talented scientist who assisted the French botanist Philibert Commerson during the latter’s explorations of the islands of Bourbon and Isle de France, Lislet-Geoffroy was elected in 1786 membre correspondant of the Paris Académie Royale des Sciences, though he never set foot in Europe and travelled only around the Indian Ocean (Richon). He was the first non-white member of the Académie. During the English occupation of the island between 1810 and 1815, he was granted British citizenship. Another distinguished cosmopolitan Creole Réunionais scholar is the twentieth-century Medievalist Joseph Bédier, a major influence on the field (Warren 2011).

Fig. 2. — A sample of Kreol Morisien, 1939 version.

Fig. 2. — A sample of Kreol Morisien, 1939 version.

Fig. 3. — Illustrated cover of the 1976 limited edition of the 1939 book.

Fig. 3. — Illustrated cover of the 1976 limited edition of the 1939 book.

20Contemporary versions of this mixed-race cosmopolitanism are present in the work of Yves Pitchen, a Lubumbashi-born Mauritian-Belgian photographer who documented the lives of Mauriciens of all backgrounds in the decades following independence. His body of work narrates multiplicities while providing evidence of converging new meanings in the representation of cosmopolitan Creole lives. He points toward new understandings of the realities of creolization and globalization in a post-independence context. One of his most suggestive images captures the contradictions embedded in my project. It is a 1974 photograph of a slender man in his twenties, smartly dressed in his light-colored raincoat, dark pants, shiny shoes, and felt hat (fig. 4). His eyes are wise and knowing; they look directly at the camera. His full mouth shows just a touch of defiance. He is leaning against a carved-wood wardrobe with his left hand in his pocket, posing like a dandy, a white scarf tied a little too neatly around his neck, and peace sign buttons visible on his lapels.

Fig. 4. — ’Prêt à partir sous la pluie’ (’ready to go into the rain’). By permission of Yves Pitchen.

Fig. 4. — ’Prêt à partir sous la pluie’ (’ready to go into the rain’). By permission of Yves Pitchen.

21It is hard to determine the exact ethnic group or groups to which the young man in the photograph belongs: he is light-skinned and of mixed heritage. He has an air of sophistication that belies his modest circumstances, and his class affiliation does not easily map onto familiar western norms. Is he a cosmopolitan or a Creole subject? Knowing the complexity of his national environment, how can we situate him in relation to these two concepts, and does his location alter their received meanings? Does the staging of this photograph open a path that may lead us toward a revision of these terms’ specifically metropolitan meanings, their etymologies, and ideological genealogies? Does it help us understand the conceptual logic that has served to keep them so far apart?

22At first glance, the demeanor of the young man conveys a cosmopolitan, jaded elegance that clashes with the modest room in which he is captured on film. One gets the sense that he is aching to break out of the confines of his surroundings, and we understand the feeling of imprisonment that also comes from living in a small, recently independent island of uncertain future located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The political and economic difficulties of Mauritius in the 1960s and 1970s generated large-scale out-migrations that coincided with the arrival of the displaced Chagossians and that began to ease up only in the 1990s. Today Mauritius is thriving, attracting large numbers of rich cosmopolitan South African exiles who have built gated communities protected by armed guards, an unusual residential development for an island where ’87 percent of Mauritians own their own homes-without fueling a housing bubble’ (Stieglitz 2011). For many locals, the island appears to be losing its soul in the maw of economic globalization.

  • 4 For a fascinating historical account of the links between the vacoas plant (or vakwá [Malagasy] and (...)

23The image of the young would-be sophisticate conveys the hopes and dreams of the independence generation, just before it began to feel more self-confident about the nation’s options in the new postcolonial world order and ongoing imperial wars. The peace buttons, an expression of solidarity with the people of Vietnam, suggest a lateral or transversal commonality, an ideal of global perpetual peace, in the spirit of a revisited Kantian ideal for a post-imperial world. But if the young man’s overall style and attitude speak of a worldliness or cosmopolitan savvy that is universally legible, there is one unexpected detail in the photograph that produces a different affective response in the viewer who shares or simply recognizes the specificities of the young man’s location in a Creole geography. The man holds in his right hand a small package wrapped in newsprint (probably a loaf of bread), and a tente tiffin or lunch bag made from the woven leaves of the vacoas, a plant common to the tropics and used for centuries by local artisans to make hats, mats, and bags.4 This detail makes his worldly demeanor suddenly appear out of place and thus incompatible with the actual resources and boundaries of his condition as a Creole subject (according to the widespread clichés that attach to that designation). The bag connects him to his local environment and its practices of everyday life. This detail interrupts and complicates the image’s message: it corresponds to what Roland Barthes calls the ’punctum’ of a photograph, an incidental spark of difference that can launch ’desire beyond what it permits us to see’ (59), an accident of representation that changes the overall meaning. This vacoas bag makes poignant the man’s longing for a hypothetical elsewhere beyond the shores of the island. It moves the viewer to take the full measure of his aspirations and its existential contradictions. Yves Pitchen achieves here the subtle intertwining of both global connotations and local particularities that is his trademark.

24In her remarkable book Le Silence des Chagos [The silence of the Chagos], Shenaz Patel, a Mauritian writer, captures the harsh realities of forced exile for the Chagossians, providing a concrete cognitive and affective mapping of a small community that fought, for nearly forty years, a losing battle against the super powers (Bragard 2008). This sudden exile conforms to the notion of ’foundational event’ (Hovanessian 1998: 17) developed by scholars of the Armenian diaspora and it has produced a lingering memory of catastrophe that marks subsequent generations of Chagossians, as David Constantin’s documentary film makes abundantly clear.

25Like the subject of Pitchen’s photograph, Patel’s character Désiré, now grown up, longs for that unknown elsewhere, the country of origin of his matriarchal community, a ’true diaspora’ in the sense understood by Yves Lacoste: ’the dispersion of the major part of a people’ (3). Born on the vessel Nordvaer, during the last deportees’ transfer to Mauritius in 1973, Désiré can only imagine, from his location in Port Louis-the capital city that refuses to assimilate him-the emptiness his community left behind:

Elbows on the metal guardrail that runs along the harbour, Désiré scrutinizes the horizon the way one looks at an empty screen... Behind him, the city is bustling with hurried pedestrians and noisy vehicles. A dry dust irritates his nose and eyes. His body bent forward, his gaze pierces the fading blue sky that turns yellow in the distance where it meets up with the sea... To leave, jump over the water, cross the horizon, break through that stubborn line and open it up to find out what it hides, what they are hiding from him, what they are keeping from him even though it belongs to him and he dreams about it, whether awake or asleep, ever since his mother told him about it. (114-115)

26Patel’s documentary fiction opens with a poetic description of the Chagos:

C’est une pluie d’îles posées sur la mer. Frangées de sable blanc, un semis de gouttelettes laiteuses qu’on pourrait croire tombées du pis indolent de la Grande Péninsule, dans la traîne des îles Maldives.
(Patel 2005: 9)

[It is a dusting of islands on the sea, fringed with white sand, a sprinkling of milky drops that seem to be falling from the lazy udder of the South Asian Peninsula, in the wake of the Maldives.] Chagos. Un archipel au nom soyeux comme une caresse, brûlant comme un regret, âpre comme la mort. (Patel 2005: 10) [Chagos. An archipelago with a name as silky as a caress, as burning as a regret, as harsh as death itself.]

27This description is interrupted by the image of a child, far from there, lying next to his dead mother, after United States planes have completed a bombing run, leaving scorched earth behind:

Kilometers away from there, almost in a straight line to the north, another country rises. Mountainous, it has a name that whistles. Afghanistan. A child looks up.... The B52s are leaving, lighter without their bombs, on their way back to the Indian Ocean where they will land in just a few minutes, over there, on their base in Diego Garcia, their destination in the Chagos. (10)

28It is from the facilities on that atoll that the twentieth- and twenty-first-century incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were launched. It is thanks to high-tech equipment on the ground that Iran, China, Russia as well as countries in Africa and the rest of Asia can easily be kept under surveillance by the United States. It is on that base that a secret CIA detention center is maintained along with the stockpiling of a military arsenal and the regular rotation of air force and navy personnel who come there to enjoy a paradisiacal insular environment.

  • 5 They claim the name Chagossiens for themselves (Chavrimootoo 2011).

29Despite a 2008 British high court ruling against the Chagossians’ rightful claim to these islands and their territorial waters, the inhabitants, also known as Ilois (a generic colonial term they reject5) still harbor the hope of return and continue to fight for it in international courts. In a leaked confidential cable, made public by Wikileaks in 2010, the United Kingdom proposed in 2009 that the entire Chagos archipelago become a protected ecological zone or marine biosphere as a means of preventing the former inhabitants and their descendants from ever returning to what many of them, whether living in Mauritius, the Seychelles, or Europe, still consider home. In a cynical move that epitomizes the contradictions of contemporary conservation efforts and the hypocritical environmentalist policies of powerful nations, and thus echoes and furthers the ’green imperialism’ (Grove 1996) of earlier colonial times, the United Kingdom contended that to establish this archipelago as the world’s largest marine park would definitively safeguard United States strategic and military interests in the region and put to rest, once and for all, the resettlement claims of these Creole-speaking peoples. Britain led the effort to declare the Chagos an environmental preservation and protection zone for global biodiversity.

30Is marine life more grievable than the disappearance of a Creole community? Rooted there for more than two centuries, the community had caused no harm to the fauna and flora. Why does the fate of the Chagossians, whose forcible displacement directly serves US political interests, remain largely invisible in North America despite the novel (Patel 2005), documentary films (Constantin 2007; Pilger 2004), exhibition (Kréyol Factory), and most recently, comprehensive history (Evers and Kooy 2011) and anthropological study (Vine 2009) that have been devoted to it? Would a better understanding of the cosmopolitan origins of Creole cultures in the region help reframe perceptions? The Portuguese, French, Indian, English, and Creole toponyms of the Chagos archipelago bear the traces of their cosmopolitan history: Diego Garcia, Peros Bahnos, Saint Brandon, Ile Gabrielle, Benares Shoal, Ganges Bank, Blenheim Reef, Solomon, Moresby, Tit’île Mapou, and so on. First mapped by the Portuguese explorers Mascarehnas and Albuquerque, the Chagos, like the Mascarene Islands to the south, were subsequently settled by the French, then by the English. They became home to Europeans, Africans, and Asians and so to an ethnically diverse mix of creolized multilingual populations whose concrete experiences of ’actually existing cosmopolitanisms’ (Malcolmson 1998: 240; Lionnet and Spear 2011: 379) can serve to modify the parameters by which scholars construct the idea of the cosmopolitan.

31The scholarly turn to the Indian Ocean heralded by Hofmeyr is a welcome development if it also signals greater awareness of the layered political and cultural legacies of the Creole populations and their contributions to world history, music, literature, and visual culture. It would be regrettable if this turn simply became another opportunity to study only the competing histories of emerging Anglophone (and yet also multilingual) powers (India, South Africa) in their respective face off with more established nation-states (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France). As new geonarratives of globalization and universalism begin to cast longer shadows on some of the smallest and most diverse human environments of the planet, greater attention to the specificities of creolization can help clarify what is at stake and yet remains hidden in the ’terraqueous’ (M. Cohen 2010) politics of place and space and in what historians are now calling ’the new thalassology’ (Horden and Purcell 2006; Vink 2011) that is reconfiguring global studies in terms of maritime histories.


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1 This essay first appeared in Profession 2011 (December 2011): 23-43. It is reprinted here by permission of the Modern Language Association of America.

2 All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

3 These include Edouard Glissant, Néstor García Canclini, Robin Cohen, Doris Garraway, Mary Gallagher, and many other Caribbeanists and Latin Americanists. In addition, see the comparative study by Christopher GoGwilt on Indonesia and the Caribbean.

4 For a fascinating historical account of the links between the vacoas plant (or vakwá [Malagasy] and vaquois [French]) and the mythical island of Waqwaq or al-Waqwâq in medieval Arabic literature, especially in the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl’s allegorical work, see Toorawa 1996, 2007.

5 They claim the name Chagossiens for themselves (Chavrimootoo 2011).

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. — Johannes van Keulen, Oost Indien (’East Indies’), 1689.
Fichier image/jpeg, 105k
Titre Fig. 2. — A sample of Kreol Morisien, 1939 version.
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Titre Fig. 3. — Illustrated cover of the 1976 limited edition of the 1939 book.
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Titre Fig. 4. — ’Prêt à partir sous la pluie’ (’ready to go into the rain’). By permission of Yves Pitchen.
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