Originally settled by sugar plantation owners and their Indian and African slaves following a seventeenth-century French colonial decree, Réunion abolished slavery in 1848. Because plantation owners continued to import workers from India, Africa, Asia, and Madagascar, the island was defined as a place based on mixed heritages, or métissage. Vergès reads the relationship between France and the residents of Réunion as a family romance: France is the seemingly protective mother, La Mère-Patrie, while the people of Réunion are seen and see themselves as France’s children. Arguing that the central dynamic in the colonial family romance is that of debt and dependence, Verges explains how the republican ideals of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment are seen as gifts to Réunion that can never be repaid. This dynamic is complicated by the presence of métissage, a source of anxiety to the colonizer in its refutation of the “purity” of racial bloodlines. For Vergès, the island’s history of slavery is the key to understanding métissage, the politics of assimilation, constructions of masculinity, and emancipatory discourses on Réunion.
About the Author
Françoise Vergès is a Lecturer at the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex. She recently collaborated with Isaac Julien on a film about Frantz Fanon.
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Monsters and Revolutionaries
Colonial Family Romance and Métissage
By Françoise Vergès
Duke University PressCopyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Family Romance of French Colonialism and Métissage
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This research emerged out of a number of questions I have carried with me over the years as a child and adolescent in Réunion Island, as a woman, a postcolonial subject living in Algeria, France, and the United States: What is a decolonized subject? What are the historical conditions of formation of discourses of colonial emancipation? Growing up in a former colony that remains dependent on France, I was haunted by these questions. Why did my anti-colonialist foremothers and forefathers choose greater integration with France rather than independence? What was the importance of the French republican ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity for the colonial movement of emancipation? The great narratives of emancipation weigh on us, imprisoning us, and yet they offer us the means to escape.
As a young woman, I shared with many the myth of a pure historical rupture, that moment through which the colonized would accede to a dis-alienated self. I then spoke with the vocabulary of historical rupture: only a clear, sharp break with the metropole would guarantee the possibility of constructing a decolonized culture and identity that would affirm its radical difference with the legacy of colonialism and give birth to a purified identity, cleansed from the alienating, shameful elements of colonization. For lack of conforming to this ideal model, for lack of accomplishing this psychological repudiation, any emancipatory attempt was doomed to failure, any action inscribed in morbid repetition. For many of us, the notion of rupture and the "myth of historical rupture" played determining roles in our conception of colonial emancipation. We exchanged a great narrative for another one. Rejecting the universalizing Western narrative of the discourse of rights and its historical complicity with exploitation and colonization, we sought theoretical purity and espoused the great narrative of anti-Western emancipatory discourse. The redemptive message of identity legitimized our contempt for the complexity of human relations, supported our desire for a clear explanation of human contradictions, and offered us a dream of regeneration through the rejection of past ideals and theories. We often confused radicalism with brutality, processes of identification with a search for authentic identity, political emancipation with a struggle for "roots."
However, when in 1992 to 1993 I went to Réunion, thanks to a research fellowship, I realized that I could not fully explain why anticolonialists had, in this French colony, for centuries adopted the French republican ideal, why they had followed the path of political emancipation, why this island wanted to remain French. Neither could I explain the violence of political and social life, and the reasons why French civil servants tended to adopt a colonial attitude quite rapidly in their stay. Or rather, I did have explanations, but they appeared ideological rationalizations once brought face-to-face with the complex, ambiguous world of politics. My confrontation with the social and cultural reality of Algeria in the early seventies, with feminism and radical politics in France in the seventies, and with the politics of race, class, and gender in the United States in the eighties progressively helped me to reconsider the approaches of my study. I decided to research the history of the political movement for colonial emancipation in Réunion Island from the abolition of slavery to the present. This is therefore a study of politics in a French colony and postcolony, focusing on the political struggle for emancipation and the reactive strategies of discipline and control developed by the French state and its representatives on the island.
As France still controls Réunion, it is impossible to examine the political struggle without casting the state as a central character. There are other legitimate approaches, but to me working through this history appeared a necessity to untie the bonds of fantasized alienation and to reestablish a filiation. I wanted to confront a reality that deconstructed illusions, idealizations, and romantic images of struggle. I thought that it was important to work through the Western and Christian origins of these idealizations and romantic images. Years of militancy in anticolonialist movements and, above all, in a French women's group unfortunately removed me from any serious intellectual enterprise. They gave me, though, an experience that made me suspicious of any form of romanticism. I learned that human relations could not be reduced to a battle of interests. Passions, malice, hate, vindictiveness, altruism, antipathy, and love play an important role in shaping human behavior. The desire for recognition and the aspiration for dignity have mobilized individuals and groups as much as the demand for rights.
Two notions run through this study: "colonial family romance" and " métissage." Colonial family romance because French republican colonial rhetoric filled the tie between France and its colony with intimate meaning, creating what Freud has called a "family romance," the fiction developed by children about imagined parents. In the colonial relation, however, it was a fiction created by the colonial power that substituted a set of imaginary parents, La Mère-Patrie and her children the colonized, for the real parents of the colonized, who were slaves, colonists, and indentured workers. Lynn Hunt has eloquently shown, in The Family Romance of the French Revolution, why one must pay attention to the "collective, unconscious images of the familial order that underlie politics." The "family romances" of the French Revolution "were metaphors for political life, metaphors that developed in response to changing events (and in response to long-term cultural trends), but also metaphors that drove the revolutionary process forward."
Freud traces the source of the romance back to the child's "most intense and most momentous wish" to be like his parents, who are the source of all beliefs. The child, however, comes to realize that his parents are not the powerful persons he imagined. Freud argues that this fantasy is stronger among boys than girls because a "boy is far more inclined to feel hostile impulses towards his father than towards his mother, and, hence, has a far more intense desire to get free from him than from her." Humiliated, disappointed, the child starts to compare and observe, to "replace faith with examination, eternity with the troubling reality of time." A "biographical fable" is invented, "expressly conceived to explain the inexplicable shame of being wrongly born, badly off, and badly loved and that fable still gives him the means to complain, to console and to avenge himself, in a single movement of the imagination." The child imagines a new set of parents, who are replaced in his imagination by persons of better birth. By associating this notion and the metaphor of social and political organization, the family, Hunt presents "both a narrative and a mode of knowledge of the revolutionary event."
The colonial family romance, I argue, derived its character from the French Revolution's family romance. The rhetoric of the French revolutionary community of brothers paradoxically justified the subjugation of peoples in the name of fraternité, liberté, égalité. The French republicans were convinced that France was bringing the republican ideal to peoples under the yoke of feudalism. In the prerevolutionary romance of colonialism, the relations between the colony and the metropole were not suffused with affective ties and metaphors of love and protection. Men went to the colony to find gold or bring the word of Christ. The "savage" occupied a complex site in the European imaginary, whether as a monster or an innocent, but there was no discourse about bringing a political ideal. The monarchy had imposed patriarchal rule; the republic would propose a rule among equals, under the symbol of Marianne. The state would play the role of a benevolent mediator, protecting the children against patriarchal tyranny. The republic's protection would naturally extend to her colonies. Colonization was the expansion of republican brotherhood, and France was La Mère-Patrie, protecting her colonized children from the abuse of local tyrants. With this fable, the French state aspired to substitute an ideal model of filiation for the historical colonial filiation. Colonial family romance invented one parent, the Mère-Patrie, and consequently sought to impose a process of identification that rejected the reality that each human being has two parents. Colonial family romance established a founding myth, the myth of the "unique root" against which Édouard Glissant has argued. The construction of an ideal parent associated with whiteness and Europe denied the dimension of race in the making of colonial identity. The fable gave France the means to console itself when colonized "children" would rebel and to repress the reasons for which they rejected her. It was their ingratitude, rather than her tyrannical "love," that explained their behavior.
The family romance is the invention of children. Yet in the case of the colony, it was the invention of men constructing France as the parents of the colonized. Colonial family romance is therefore a romance created by the colonial "parents" who invented a single parent (La Mère-Patrie), a character mixing the feminine and the masculine: the castrating and protective mother. This creation had social meaning. The displacement of parenthood from the colonized parents to an abstract figure denied the reality of sexual intercourse between individuals on the island and situated the colonized as perennial children. However, colonial family romance was also invented by revolutionary men who embraced the ideal of fraternity and liberty and aspired to expand a social bond based on this ideal. The fraternal bond dreamed by metropolitan brothers was affected by colonialism and its logic of racism. Colonized men might be their brothers, but they were their little brothers. In the empire, fraternity masked the continuity of primogeniture—the law whereby the firstborn son received the heritage to the detriment of the other brothers and of the sisters. Yet this fiction was adopted by Réunion's educated colored, intellectuals, workers, and peasants. They imagined themselves as the brothers of French citizens. And they appealed to France to protect them against the tyrannical power of the landowners. The latter defended an old regime in which they held the tyrannical power of the patriarch. Revolution had not happened in Réunion, the colonized said. The 1794 abolition of slavery had not been accomplished because of the colonial lobbies, the passivity of the metropolitan brothers, and then their defeat. An "ideological bond was imagined in place of a political project.... The French people, the Gallick Hercules claimed to be the frère aîné [the older brother] of the other peoples, which, while remaining in a minor position, exchanged their filial subjection to previous authorities against a probably more oppressive dependency, but which justified itself with the idea of progress invented by the revolutionary culture."
Yet because the colonial family romance was the child of the French Revolution, because it wanted to be a republican romance, it both suffused the colonial relation with familial metaphors and offered the grounds to challenge French colonialism. It brought with it the republican ideal of liberty and fraternity, and the promise of equality among peoples. To that extent, though it limited their demands for autonomy, colonized Creoles would remain attached to the notion that France was their protector against domestic tyrants well into the mid–twentieth century. And the words liberty, equality, and fraternity continued to carry with them the utopian dream of a more just society. The colonial family romance did not remain fixed throughout colonial history. Its representations, its tropes, its discourse changed, but the structure remained. Its perpetuation was the result of the need to claim the inferiority of colonized peoples and of the peculiarity of French imperial discourse that declared colonization a republican duty. It played a greater role in the Vieilles Colonies than in the other parts of the empire because there the battle between the Old Regime and French Revolution continued late into the twentieth century. Even 1848, the year slavery was abolished in the French colonies, did not abolish the feudal and racist world of the plantation.
The family romance of French colonialism created a highly idealized maternal space, France La Mère-Patrie. Dependence and debt were the operative elements of the colonial family's dynamics. Its rhetoric displaced social relations determined by the symbolic and economic organization of exchange between the colony and the metropole and replaced them with the theme of continuous debt of the colony to its metropole. Colonized "children" had contracted a debt to France. My goal is to show that in the colonial family romance, the colonial don (gift) transformed the colonized into children permanently indebted to La Mère-Patrie. The debt was constituted by the ideals of the French Revolution, of the French republic. In territories where feudalism, barbarism, or backwardness reigned, maternal France had brought Enlightenment and progress. She would save her children and elevate them toward full humanness. The children, once women and men, would naturally want to pay their debt. The transformation of revolutionary ideals into maternal dons sought to deprive individuals of their agency. In the colonial family romance, children remained children forever. It was "full payment, forever. Because the rescuer wanted to hear his name, not mimicked but adored." To subvert the terms of the colonial family romance, the colonized reconstructed the ideals for what they were: "A source of conflicts forever."
The colonial family romance produced two fixed categories, the giving colonizers and the receiving colonized. Studying its idiom means distinguishing between what was given and what was not given, how the don of France was transformed and reinterpreted by the colonial romance. The "gift," Marcel Mauss has argued in his Essai sur le don, introduces an elaborate web of social relations known as the symbolic order. There is always the expectation of a return, accompanied by a certain security that derives from such expectations. In the colonial political romance, the don of France was presented as a selfless, generous gesture, a pure don, and yet there was a sentiment among the colonized that they were neglected and in constant debt. Deconstructing the colonial romance would thus mean determining what in the romance put the colonized in perpetual debt. Precious woods, sugar, minerals, bodies to fight her wars, none of this would be enough to repay France for what she had given. The debt was construed between two unequal groups, not between subjects who mutually recognized each other as subjects. The colonized, constructed as "receivers," were not recognized as equals, and thus their reciprocal don never satisfied the metropole. And the colonial don could never satisfy the colonized. To begin with, it could not be perceived as Mauss's don because the colonized knew that it was not inscribed in an intersubjective relation between equal subjects. The colonized continued to be second-class citizens, and their countries remained under French colonial control. They gave to the French nation wealth, sexualities, sites to excite the European imaginary, and received slavery and colonialism. The debt that they recognized was what France owed them: access to the vocabulary of rights and the democratic ideal. Yet when the colonized wanted to act on this debt, demanding their inclusion in the community of equals, France refused.
I read the colonial family romance partly as the construction of colonial relations as a debt owed by the colonized to the metropole and partly as the fantasy of an ideal model of filiation in which there is only one parent, the republic. Today, the language of debt has been rewritten as the "culture of dependence," the process whereby a minority wants more and more from the metropole, which would like to wean its dependents. Réunionnais who receive welfare are said to have lost the "desire to work" and to revel in dependency. Dependency, it is said, breeds laziness and criminality and encourages single female-headed families. Matrifocality and dependency reinforce each other, experts argue, to produce an infantilized population, under the power of the mother. The rhetoric about dependency as disease, infection, and degeneration hides a reality. Réunion Island is dependent, economically and politically, on France. The space of autonomy that the island has won has been the result of long years of struggle. The French state long resisted any project that would open an autonomous space in the relation between the metropole and the island. Even today, the final decision rests in the hands of the French state. By invoking a Creole pathological dependence, the terms of the colonial debt are still operating: France is giving, giving, giving but receives nothing in return. The questions that one must ask are: What use is Réunion's dependency for the French state? What functions does this dependency ensure? In what strategies of power is it integrated? How does dependence function? If French assimilation had failed, why shift the blame of the failure on the community that had been subjected to slavery and colonialism? The notion of colonial family romance offers an interpretative tool that allows a reading of colonial relations that takes into account the metaphors organizing these relations. It is about reraconter (telling again) different moments in which the metaphor of family relations leads to a new narrative of these moments.
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Table of ContentsIllustrations ix
Preface: Bitter Sugar's Island xi
The Family Romance of French Colonialism and Métissage 1
Contested Family Romances: Slaves, Workers, Children 22
Blood Politics and Political Assimilation 72
"Oté Debré, rouver la port lenfer, Diab kominis i sa rentré": Cold War Demonology in the Postcolony 123
Single Mothers, Missing Fathers, and French Psychiatrists 185
Epilogue: A Small Island 246