Indian Ocean Africa and New Narrative Forms

Third Locations and Locutions lecture (Stellenbosch, 13 September 2011).

Annel Pieterse

The Locations and Locutions lecture series is a project initiated by the Stellenbosch University Graduate School in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. It is currently convened by Achille Mbembe, Grace Musila, Sarah Nuttall and Meg Samuelson. The theme for 2011 is “Which Africa? Whose Africa?”.

The third and last lecture in this 2011 series took place on Tuesday 13 September in Stellenbosch. The topic of the lecture, “Indian Ocean Africa”, opened up an exploration of the importance of the Indian Ocean as a position from which to rethink Africa from a global perspective. The panel consisted of Professors Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie (History, UWC), Isabel Hofmeyr (African Literature, Wits), and Dr Yvette Christiansë (Africana Studies and English, Barnard College, New York). The discussion was chaired by founding co-convenor of the lecture series, Prof Meg Samuelson (English, SU).

The event was introduced by Dr Christoff Pauw, Manager of International Academic Networks at Stellenbosch University, who underscored the thematic concerns of the series, what do we mean when we speak of Africa?

Samuelson briefly recapped the concerns of the previous two seminars. The first seminar, “Thinking Africa from the Cape”, had established the importance of the Western Cape in general and Cape Town in particular as a fulcrum between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. The second, “Atlantic Locations”, had explored the historical prominence of Atlantic studies, and suggested ways in which an Atlantic framework could be extended and informed by “thinking from the Cape”.

Each panelist then proceeded to discuss the Indian Ocean as a frame for approaching and understanding Africa’s position as part of a global network of trade and the global movement of people.

In a complex and subtle paper that drew on her skills as a poet as well as an academic, Christiansë provided a close reading of the register of the H.M.S. Columbine, which landed more than 2500 liberated African slaves at Port Victoria on the island of Mahé in the Seychelles between 1861 and 1874. These liberated slaves were re-designated as “apprentices” and immediately apprenticed to labour-hungry plantation owners.

Christiansë noted in particular the introduction of passport-sized photographs to the register, an act which was intended to facilitate the classification of freed slaves. However, the photos themselves required captions and a list of “distinguishing features”, just as slaves were classified according to their “distinguishing features”. Thus, while the photos were meant to compel recognition, that recognition remained the prerogative of power, underscoring the fact that the freed slaves were not really free, since the law itself became the legitimising mark of their so-called “freedom”.

Through her analysis, Christiansë showed the close formal connections between the processing of slaves and the processing of liberated slaves as “apprentices”, thus revealing an ideological continuity between the two, underpinned by the need for free labour in the colonies.

While much research on the Indian Ocean has dwelt on slavery and indentured labour, Christiansë’s reading suggested that a further study of the records of admiralty vessels transporting liberated slaves as “apprentices” to Indian Ocean plantation islands could provide a closer understanding of the movement of people in this area.

This notion was echoed by Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, who noted that the Indian Ocean world was very large and that most Indian Ocean scholarship was therefore necessarily geographically divided. Her own focus is specifically on the India-South Africa link.

For Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Cape Town provided an important site for the study of biographies of Indian Ocean immigrants, despite claims by some that Cape Town is not technically in the Indian Ocean. She suggested that Cape Town should come to grips with its Indian Ocean heritage, and pointed to several examples of place names in Cape Town that revealed an Indian connection and Indian-Cape cultural circuits.

Furthermore, Dhupelia-Mesthrie was also concerned with foregrounding the movement of women across the Indian Ocean, a space that has traditionally been dominated by the narratives of men. She noted that several narratives existed of South African women from South African port cities, who found themselves in India through their marriages to Indian men, and that these histories had not yet been explored.

She concluded by pointing out that in a field where the historians’ construction of history very often served to perpetuate established ideas of the national past, biography as a methodology promised to yield useful results, since biographies recorded the lives of people, and people were constantly on the move. These life histories challenged accepted notions of the past, which tended to be based on a more static world-view.

This resonated with the ideas of Isabel Hofmeyr, who posited the Indian Ocean as a “complicating sea”, a framework which allowed for a more complex world-view that would help us make sense of an emerging new world order.

She suggested that we are in the process of moving from a world dominated by one or two world powers — a “bipolar” world view — to a world dominated by several world powers, as evidenced by the rise of China and India in particular, and the global south generally. This world was multipolar, and required a shift in our perspectives, which often still hankered after bi-polar situations.

Hofmeyr provocatively noted that in South Africa we have suffered from a surfeit of binarisms, and that we tended to be addicted to these kinds of narratives, since they had epic and romantic dimensions, with clear divisions: coloniser and colonised, black and white, imperialism and anti-imperialism. According to Hofmeyr, much academic work still clung to these binaries, which were at some level embedded in an anti-colonial discourse, and arose from a post-independence revision of colonial history.

In Hofmeyr’s reading, the Indian Ocean was the arena where post-binary work was taking shape. Hofmeyr suggested that although theorists in the south were sitting with a whole archive of ways of making sense of the world that had been very creative in the 1980s and 1990s, these forms had been complicated because they had been taken hold of by the state itself. This resulted in what she called a "dead situation", and she urged theorists to find “a more robust set of categories to think about the south, without falling prey to the sentimental stuff that comes with it”.

In the third and last of the 2011 Locations and Locutions lectures, understanding Africa through an Indian Ocean paradigm consistently returned to the question of narrative form, and the need for a shift away from, or at the least a troubling of, established forms.

  • The Locations and Locutions lecture series will continue in 2012, when it will take up a new set of questions.