AUDIO: Chivallon and Howard on Slavery & Memory in Martinique

At the 2013 workshop Caribbean Urban Aesthetics at The Open University, Christine Chivallon (with David Howard) discussed cultural heritage practices in Martinique:

From the CUA website:

3.Locating the memory of slavery in Martinique : landscape versus architecture

Christine Chivallon, CNRS/LAM (Les Afriques dans le monde), Sciences Po Bordeaux (Universite de Bordeaux IV)

Taking as my starting-point Derek Walcott’s famous reference to ‘the absence of ruins’, I will consider ways of making visible the historical experience of slavery in Martinique. Cultural heritage practices of ‘recovering the past’ have intensified over the last twenty years, introducing new and multiple memorial narratives into the public domain. Even the silence on slavery seems finally to have been broken, prompting different practices of ‘telling the past’ in which the figure of the slave appears to be central, in particular as a hero of the rebellions preceding the abolition of slavery on May 22nd 1848. However, as Walcott says, there are no traces – no monuments, no ruins, no artefacts – no material presence to which an awareness of the past can be attached. The figure of the slave has disappeared because slavery was a state of total dispossession, and left nothing apart from the plantations where the very idea of the slave as a human being was denied. So how, in the absence of any material heritage, should the figure of the slave be represented and brought to life in the present?

I propose two very different approaches to the material embodiment of memory, following  Maurice Halbwachs’ concepts of ‘historical’ and ‘collective’ memory. The first is constructed by historians to create a representation of the past based on historical fact; while the second is transmitted from one generation to the next to create a continuity of experience which does not even need to be defined as ‘memory’ to exist as such. ‘Historical memory’ is embodied in public sites of memory such as memorial squares, commemorative plaques, street names etc, which are all new creations; while collective memory embodies that experience of the past which has no physical traces — a form of invisible memory, kept alive in clandestine and hidden ways by the descendants of slaves.

This experience is not embodied in architecture or built monuments, but rather in the landscape itself, occupied by the peasantry created after the abolition of slavery. Memorial registers of land holdings localise specific narratives around the names of ancestors. These narratives do not exactly tell the story of slavery but the story of a deep attachment to “patronymic territories” which constituted an identity totally removed from the alienating plantation. These sites embody a loose idea of heritage, except during commemorative walks across the landscape, so powerfully described by Yarimar Bonilla, in which they are deliberately enacted into being as sites of living memory. In both cases, this embodiment of memory questions the content of the past as a trace to be invented, or to be remembered.

Christine Chivallon is an anthropologist and geographer, and Director of Research at CNRS LAM(Les Afriques dans le Monde), BordeauxShe works in the field of space and identity, from a spatial anthropology perspective. Her research is focused on Caribbean culture, particularly the legacies of slavery. She has studied Pentecostalism among Jamaican migrants to the United Kingdom; the memory of slavery in the historic ports of the slave trade in Europe;  and the memorial registers relating to slavery in the French Caribbean. Her work is also concerned with the concept of diaspora as a tool in the representation of the Caribbean as an extension of Africa. In a more epistemological vein, she is interested in the variations of meaning attached to the concepts of postmodernism and postcolonial studies in a comparative perspective between the French and Anglo-American academies.


She is also a co-founder (with Professors Barry Chevannes, Justin Daniel and Robert Lafore) and co-director of the teaching programme “France Caraïbe”, which links  the University of Antilles-Guyane (UAG-Martinique), the University of the West Indies (UWI, Jamaica) and Sciences Po Bordeaux (France).

With her was David Howard, University of Oxford, CNRS/LAM, Sciences Po Bordeaux (Universite de Bordeaux IV):

Dr David Howard is a University Lecturer in Sustainable Urban Development, and a Fellow of Kellogg College, at the University of Oxford. He is Course Director for the Sustainable Urban Development MSc and DPhil programmes in the Department for Continuing Education at Oxford. He is also CNRS Associate at the Centre Afriques dans le Monde, Université de Bordeaux IV, and the Co-ordinating Editor for the Bulletin of Latin American Research and the associated Wiley-Blackwell book series. He was Chair of the Society for Caribbean Studies (2006-2010), and co-directed the Joint Initiative for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (JISLAC) which supported multidisciplinary seminar networks and seed grants for new research. He is a member of the Latin America and Caribbean Panel at the British Academy, and recently a visiting researcher at EMMA (Etudes Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone), Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier III, and at the Department of Geography and Geology, University of the West Indies, Kingston. He has researched in a number of areas relating to the Jamaican context including the contemporary societies of the Caribbean and Latin America, with a specific focus on urban geography, social sustainability and development in the Global South. Recent research projects have centred on urban violence, urban governance, land rights, housing and tenure, multicultural policy, development and social change.

About the meeting:

On 21st and 22nd May the Department of Art History and Department of Geography (Leon Wainwright and Clare Melhuish) hosted the international meeting ‘Caribbean Urban Aesthetics’, at The Open University’s Walton Hall campus in Milton Keynes. This was a  preliminary workshop to bring together  scholars and professionals from various disciplines and institutions, sharing a mutual interest in this field of studies both within and beyond the Caribbean itself, and to explore the possibilities for future collaborative research. Eight invited speakers presented short papers on their particular fields of interest relating to this topic, drawn across the Anglophone, Francophone, Spanish- and Dutch-speaking areas of the region. These stimulating presentations provided a launching point for wide-ranging discussion across the fields of aesthetics, cultural heritage, memory and belonging, a consideration of how we might define a particular Caribbean urban social imaginary, and what relevance this might have for a broader global perspective on these issues.

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