history, Uncategorized, women and gender studies

Book Review: Francoise Vergès, Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage (Duke University Press, 1999), Pp. 394.

 

Verges.jpgFrancoise Verges takes a different approach to discussing the political history of a non-inhabited space—well not until t the French brought slaves to the island of Réunion. Verges monograph entitled, Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Métissage, discusses how the history of one Island, Réunion, was the “creation of a colonial act” (xiii). The history of Réunion starts as an island with no inhabitants whatsoever. By the seventeenth-century not only was their inhabitants but there was colonialism. The motivation to inhabit the small Indian Ocean Island was for potential possibilities of sugar plantations.

Verges ultimately wants to examine the differences of this locale but also points out the “emancipatory discourses disciplined there” (xi). Verges gives warning to the reader that this narrative focuses on male identities and citizenship, and is not about female history or even entirely non-fiction.This becomes the biggest problem of this book. The back and forth narrative of fiction and non-fiction could confuse readers. Especially readers that are not well versed in history but captivated by the title. I think this is a huge failing of this monograph. For the sake of this book review I will focus on the non-fiction narrative Verges offers.

The main themes that come out of this history of Réunion is the creation of class and race out of the sugar plantation industry. Until 1848 the way of life for colonial subjects was slavery (xiv).

So why is nostalgia of the days of French colonialism so prevalent to the history of Réunion? It is not uncommon for colonial spaces to have nostalgic thought and feeling. But the nostalgia in Réunion’s history is not only of  “fantasy” of colonial success but that of resistance and anti-colonialism. How verges tackles these abstract notions in colonial history is by relying on what he notes as the “family of romance” narratives. Verges notes the two different manifestations of this kind of narrative. The first is the “‘cololinial family romance’” which relied on this notion of “imaginary parents” and the ties to French empire (3). Second, “‘métissage was a term that spoke of the cultural and social matrix of diversity born of colonization and assimilation” (8).  This is another key attribute, the métis was the signifier of rebellion,  categories like these personified what kind of a person you represented in society. What ultimately came out of this category was fear of rebellion (by colonizers) but also that of hope for resistance. Verges discusses the “discourses of emancipation” that came out of Réunion and the nuances as well as the mimicry of Enlightenment discourse in France. After 1848, the abolition of slavery, the discourse had a new word that would come to mean so many different things—freedom.

This resistance and work towards emancipation was now the new fraternity, becoming a sort of new citizenship between colony and metropole. Another example of colonial contradictions, that Verges highlights,  is demonstrated through “blood politics” (Chapter 3). Verges calls upon Laura Ann Stoler to elaborate on this notion stating, “the ‘symbolics of blood’ and its reoccupation with legitimacy, madness, and pure blood,” was at the heart of the next step of colonial forces—the medical establishment (97). Unfortunately,  this history fails to meet certain nuances in providing an equitable narrative for women and men. Although that was not the project Verges set out to do, I feel the historical narrative falls flat, and leaves the reader wanting much more.  I would recommend this monograph to historians,  women and gender studies majors, as well as others who want to complicate their own historical knowledge of colonized and colonizer. Great book for book groups that can discuss the abstract concepts in these pages.

7/10

 

 

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