Interviews January 7, 2015
Wendy Wilson-Fall on Malagasy Americans

Dr. Wendy Wilson-Fall has made a groundbreaking study of the Malagasy diaspora in the United States going back to the 17th century. It’s a fascinating, little-known story, and one with personal resonance for Dr. Wilson-Fall. Her research will appear in a book called Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic from Ohio University Press in fall 2015.  Banning Eyre spoke with Dr. Wilson-Fall about her work, for the podcast “Madagascar’s American Diaspora,” part of Afropop Worldwide’s Hip Deep in Madagascar series. Here’s their conversation.

Banning Eyre: Introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about the nature of your work.

Wendy Wilson-Fall: My name is Wendy Wilson-Fall. I am a professor and chair of Africana studies at Lafayette College in eastern Pennsylvania. The college is about midway between Philadelphia and New York City. And my work has been on exploring the possibilities of a Malagasy diaspora that existed in the Atlantic world—let’s say before the Civil War.

I understood from somebody else that I interviewed that you actually have a personal connection to this—that this is actually your ancestry. Is that right?

Well, that’s true. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was the grandchild or the great-grandchild—up for debate—of an immigrant who came from northwestern Madagascar to the United States as a free agent, perhaps as a merchant, and who settled in Baltimore, which at that time, of course, was a center of trade. Maryland imported a lot of tortoise shell and spices and so forth, as did Connecticut. So he came to the U.S. in the 1820s and that part of my family settled in Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland, where they had a fairly large community of people of Malagasy origin. But when I was growing up, I just thought that we were the only ones with that history—a unique history that didn’t exist in many other places in the United States, until my aunt Sheila Gregory Thomas and I participated in a conference given by the Washington Historical Society and we presented a paper about ancestors from Madagascar and lo and behold, nine different people showed up to listen to the paper who waited for us at the end who also claimed to be of Malagasy descent. So after that I became aware that this was really a much larger thing than my singular family story.

That was a long time ago. This is actually a project that I worked on for a long time—one reason being that for several years I thought of this as a very personal project and I wasn’t sure that it was credible as a scholarly endeavor. I was a little bit self-conscious about bringing my personal material forward for a scholarly project. But what happened is that I actually moved to Senegal to work there and I started a website and an e-list for people who said they had ancestors in Madagascar, and then it just grew and grew and grew from there. People started writing me, telling me their family stories. A lot of people didn’t really know the history—the contextual history of their family’s story. They had very scant information. So I saw that one service I could provide would be to make available more data from the historical context in which people could think about their family stories. And then in 2001, we had a conference with the support of the Library of Congress—at the Library of Congress--with a Malagasy scholar, Emmanuel Tehindrazanarivelo. We had the support of the Embassy of Madagascar and we had some scholars from there, as well as Americans, and some everyday Americans with very different, entertaining, and very compelling family stories. We shared our information and I think at that point I started taking it more seriously and started thinking how I could compile this data; how I could organize it; how I could make these stories accessible to other people, because these are stories nobody’s ever heard of.


Let’s just back up and talk history for a minute. What do we really know about the coming of Malagasy people to the United States, both during the slave period and afterward? And what do we know about numbers and time periods?

OK. I’m going to talk about four or five different periods, although in my particular research, I’ve really focused on three of those periods. But I would say that the first period was the 17th century where you have records of Malagasies being brought in as slaves, both to Canada and to New York under the Dutch. And at that time it was the Philips family who were extremely active in bringing slaves from eastern Madagascar to New York, presumably to sell them in the northeast area, perhaps to Canada, perhaps down as far as Delaware. There’s certainly a record of that, although I haven’t seen any reckoning of the numbers of people. But then you get to the 18th century and you have to see this also as an evolution of the British attitude toward Americans having access to East Indian Ocean trade. So it’s a little bit like what caused the Boston Tea Party. Americans were not allowed to trade in the Indian Ocean. If they wanted something that was an Indian Ocean product they had to buy it in London or Bristol. They weren’t supposed to go directly, but because of their lobbying, there were two periods—I think between 1670 and 1693, and then 1712 to 1721 or so, when the British parliament actually legalized direct trade to the Indian Ocean. So, one of the results of that was several boats that left with the explicit intention of going to Madagascar to pick up labor and whose investors were mostly the big Virginia planters like Robert King Carter and John Randolph. John Baylor would be another. So they invested; they worked out the itinerary with their contemporaries, their financial advisors in London and Bristol, and the ships went directly to Île Sainte-Marie (Saint Mary’s Island) in the northeast of Madagascar. We have one record that between 1719 and 1721, 1400 people from Madagascar were imported into Tidewater, Virginia, which is actually a very big number for three years. It works out that almost about every 22nd or 25th captive would have been of Malagasy origin in that region.

If you look at the other research on Virginia, for example by Lorena Walsh, who’s a historian at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, you realize that not only were they coming to Virginia, but of those 1400, fully a thousand of them went to one major river port, which was the York River. This suggests that there was a critical mass of people of Malagasy origin in a fairly delimited geographic area, who were owned and managed by a rather small and rarified group of people, which increases the likelihood that they would have met each other carrying out tasks for the various plantations they ended up on—perhaps seeing each other as messengers, as horse drivers, as boatmen. So those people were able to sustain at least some idea about having ancestors from Madagascar, and that Madagascar was a unique geographic place. It was not the same as the African continent.

The next group of people show up in the 1820s, and from the 1820s on, it’s kind of ironic. It’s the people coming in as slaves from 1719-1721 for whom we have a record of their arrival, because they were unfortunately classed as commodities. Even though we don’t have lists of their names, we know what ships they were on, we know who the captains were, and to a great extent, we even know who bought them. So we can say they were most likely at X, Y and Z plantations. That wasn’t true later.

The people who came in the 1820s to the 1830s belong to two different groups. One group I class as freed merchants. These were people who had white sponsors—you could say a trading partner or boss. They worked on their ships or they were sailors on their ships or perhaps they were linked to a particular commodity that these people were importing from the Indian Ocean. I have stories like that from South Carolina, from Alabama, from my own family in Maryland. And it appears that at least two of these families refer to Cape Town, South Africa, which makes sense because most Indian Ocean trade had to come through Cape Town. I have this category of people who appear to be free, at least by the time they came to the U.S. I do admit that it’s possible that some of them may have been what they call affranchi (manumitted) either in Mauritius or in Cape Town, so that’s always a possibility. In any case, they show up in the U.S. as free people.


The second group is people who appear to be brought in through an illegal, clandestine slave trade. And here’s the reason I think this. While I was collecting stories, I used the Internet, genealogical sites, and word of mouth, and I kept getting these stories where people only counted back to the 1830s. At first I thought, “No, this is impossible because the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808, and most of that was achieved by 1812, 1814, 1817. Could this be true? Maybe these people have confused the way they’re counting back their generations.” But when I got so many of these kinds of stories, I realized that I just had to be a little bit more flexible and allow the possibility that it was me who didn’t understand, that there’s something here that maybe hasn’t come to light before. And I was even able to identify geographic clusters of people in the United States, geographic clusters of stories of people who have ancestors who arrived as slaves after 1825. One difference with this group is that they don’t seem to have arrived in a great big boat full of people from Madagascar. They seem to have been isolated in areas where there aren’t other people from Madagascar, so they ended up sort of on their own in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio. Those are all areas where these stories are coming from.

That’s very interesting. So in this 1820s, 1830s time frame, people like your grandfather came as freed merchants, but then there is this other group who were brought as slaves in small groups. Do you have any idea what the mechanism of that illegal trade might have looked like?

No. There’s no record because it was illegal, if in fact it existed. But what I tried to do was to compile data from Florida and Cuba and Brazil. There’s a resource created by David Eltis and others called the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. The good thing about that fantastic database, which is located at Emerson University, is that it provides lists of ships and captains and where they were coming from when they arrived in American ports. I think they cover about 70 percent of all slave trading that took place. What I tried to do was compile a list of ships coming from southeast Africa to Cuba and to Brazil, knowing that southeast Africa was most commonly referring to Mozambique, but we don’t know if people were trying to cover themselves in periods when they weren’t supposed to be in Madagascar and then I looked at studies. I did a sort of historiographic review of studies of slave trade to the United States. Nobody has really agreed on the numbers, but we know that somewhere between 12,000 and 50,000 people were brought into the U.S. after the slave trade was officially closed directly from Africa.

There are actually two autobiographies that were written at the turn of the century by people whose parents came from Madagascar. And in both cases their parents worked on ships or in a port in the U.S. So the last group would be people who came during or right before the French colonial period in Madagascar, which started in 1895. I’m assuming people in this group were generally connected to missionaries. I do have some stories of people who came in the 1860s and they generally came through Cape Town as well. In some stories there’s a reference to Dutch people. In other stories there’s a reference to creating churches and so forth. So there’s definitely a whole other group of people, and I didn’t do much study of this, so this is a whole other area of study that needs to be done on the emigration of people from Madagascar through Christian missionary support. I also have some people like that from the 1830s, but I couldn’t find an explicit example of a relationship with a missionary group, say in Virginia--perhaps Quaker, perhaps Church of England—that had a specific relationship or written contract or even correspondence with people in Madagascar. But of course that kind of contact is absolutely possible. Perhaps somebody among your listeners will know something about that.

Wendy Wilson-Fall Wendy Wilson-Fall

So those are the four or five groups you mentioned. I didn’t realize it was so multifaceted, or that so many came in these unusual ways, quite apart from the slave trade.

That’s right. And of course Andy Razaf is the greatest example. He was an early blues player and at that time the U.S. government had sent an African-American to be the ambassador to Madagascar. His name was John Waller, and Ambassador Waller became extremely involved in highland Antananarivo politics, so much so that his wife and daughter were on intimate terms with the royal family, and eventually his daughter married a prince—a Merina prince from the royal family, and Waller himself was accused by the French of meddling in Madagascar politics. The daughter fled to Washington D.C. where Andy Razaf was born, I believe in 1895. Waller had to wait for Grover Cleveland to extricate him from a very difficult situation.

So there was this trickle of movement back and forth between Madagascar and the U.S. for a very long time—since the time of the pirates right up to the end of the 19th century.

And you really wonder how much people knew each other. I can’t tell when I look back at the records and I listen to the stories people tell if people intentionally knew each other as people of Malagasy descent, or whether, coincidentally, these were also people who knew each other because they were educated and found out that they were of Malagasy descent. It’s hard to say. But they do show up in some of the same milieu, whether it’s in New York or Washington.

Andy Razaf

Andy Razaf

You’ve given us a great picture of who came and when. Now I’m curious as to what we know about their descendents. It seems like that group that went to York River where about a thousand went. That was in the 18th century?

Eighteenth century. Yeah 1719-1721.

So what do we know about their legacy?

I’ll take the oral history point of view first. What drew my attention to Virginia is that I kept talking to people who said, “Hi, I have an ancestor from Madagascar and I’m from Virginia.” And I started thinking, Wow! Either this is a really big family or I’m learning something here. And it became clear that there was a large number of slave descendants in Virginia who claim a Malagasy ancestor and they also have an idea of what people from Madagascar look like. They all have stories about explicitly learning that they have an ancestor from Madagascar and being sat down with their grandmothers—mostly grandmothers—and being sort of instructed to know that they have ancestors from Madagascar; they should never forget that they have ancestors from Madagascar; they should be proud; they should carry themselves a certain way because of this. So there are certain names that you can even associate with these family clusters, like the Bundy family, the Lee family; Carter would be another one.

Is there any fragmentary remnant of language that these people were able to preserve?

Not that I know of. Not from that particular generation, but what I do write about in my book--which is going to come out next fall [2015]--it’s called Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic, and will be published by Ohio University Press. One of the things I talk about is the social environment that really didn’t encourage these people to talk about being different. There’s a general pressure in the black community, because of the problems they were living with, for people to be silent about their differences, so that people could unite for their own survival. It wasn’t an environment that really encouraged people to institutionalize their differences.

Secondly, there is a sort of halo or a little mist of a prejudice that follows these stories because Malagasy people were different; they looked different; they insisted that they were different, and people didn’t always like that. From what I’ve been able to tell, looking through the records, it hasn’t been very clear or very easy, but it seems like, because they came in a big clump of people, because they were not West Africans, and because they were sort of exotic in that situation, it’s very possible that they were sort of conspicuous. They got placed with duties that were more obvious, so that whites could show, “I’ve got a couple of Malagasies. Don’t ask me how I got them.” So people have a lot of stories about being around the white family that they were with; they have stories about being coachmen; they have stories about being freed early, for example. And most of these families—right up to the present—are continuing to pass the story on. In each generation—whether it’s at a Thanksgiving, at an Easter celebration—I found this to be true. Same thing for the people who came in the 1820s and 1830s, but in that case, I did find some Malagasy names used within the family. I know in my own family’s case, that there are quite a number of traditions and rituals that they refer to, that they would do in July and September, which are special months for reverence of ancestors in Madagascar.

Queen's Palace in Antananrivo (Eyre 2014) Queen's Palace in Antananrivo (Eyre 2014)

Can you describe any of them? That’s fascinating.

Well, like any good descendant of a Malagasy, it makes me nervous to talk about it. [Laughs]. I can say that my cousin told me that in Frederick, Maryland, they used to have family get-togethers in July where the men would wear sashes, the women would undo their braids and they would sing particular songs; they would dance in a circle, and that they had a flag that had particular colors. They had even a sword that was “from home.” And I actually went back to talk to a neighbor to see if I could hear about this from somebody else. My cousin who I was talking about is in his 60s, so he’s referring perhaps to the 1940s when he’s remembering this. He said they wore something like turbans around their heads. And the neighbor said, “It’s true. And my mother was very frightened of them. She wouldn’t let me go over there. I had to watch from a hole in the fence.” So I was able to get some triangulation in terms of the credibility of that story. He also talked about things that really you could only know if you were from Madagascar, because they didn’t really exist in the U.S.—connected with those July celebrations.

This is very interesting. I’m curious, though, to understand better why there would be such sensitivity about these sorts of things.

Well, because in Madagascar, as people probably know, all of Madagascar—90 percent of the people in Madagascar are Malagasy, so they really belong, you might say to a meta-ethnic group. And it’s only within that ethnic group that you have subgroups. All of those people speak Malagasy and all of them share a very diverse cultural and biological heritage from Indonesia and Africa, and also a little bit from the Arab countries. All of the people in Madagascar have reverence for their ancestors. In all Malagasy cultures, you believe that your ancestor is living somewhere. You can’t see your ancestor, but your ancestor can impact your everyday life, so funerals become very, very important. There are particular periods in the year when there are ceremonies connected to ancestors and also to royal ancestors.

For example, September is one of those months. This is true in northwestern Madagascar, among the Sakalava and the people who are connected to the Sakalava or Boina dynasty as it used to exist in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century. Also with the Tsemihety and Antaloatra, and other populations who are part of that political space, July was a very important month because of particular rituals that were done for the royal ancestors. There are, along with these beliefs, certain taboos in terms of what different people’s roles might be in these commemorations, and also things you would describe publicly, as opposed to things you would consider private. And I guess, on one level, if people are nervous, it’s because deep down somewhere you believe that if you don’t do it the way you’re supposed to, there’s some kind of repercussion. Someone somewhere in the spirit world could hear you or something like that.

That’s so interesting. Would you say that kind of sentiment would be more prevalent for people who descend from the 1830s, 1820s groups, people who have some names and language, as opposed to the ones who descended from the slave trade in the 18th century?

Certainly. Certainly. It’s very sad, but it’s a very graphic example of the kind of pressure that people lived under when they were enslaved, and the lack of freedom to congregate and so forth. It seems like people in the north had a much better life, and these differences could make such a big difference in the end. I have a story of a woman named Rakekata and she came from her family from Madagascar in the 1830s, seemingly, to Virginia—to Richmond—and the man who was in their memory “the captain.” He helped them get to Elyria, Ohio, and it was a very interesting story because on one side of the family they talk about the church—they were the major actors of this black church in Elyria. There were even visitors who came to see them from Madagascar. They talk about furniture they brought with them. They talk about how their parents wouldn’t let them play with other children much, like, “You can’t just go play with anybody. You’re from the royal family of Madagascar.” And another relative from that same family—and this is in the 20th century—said that she was walking with her mother once, and she asked her mother, “Mommy, what religion do you have?” And her mother looked around and said, “I see people that other people don’t see. I belong to the church of the living dead.” So you can see that because they had created community, they still had visitors coming; they still had beliefs that remained. Even though all the practices didn’t remain.

Dr. Wendy Wilson-Fall and family members Dr. Wendy Wilson-Fall and family members

I’m sure you’re aware of this, but when you’re in Madagascar today—speaking about culture and these kinds of practices and ancestor worship—especially urban people who’ve been heavily affected by Christian missionaries and churches have really complex feelings about these things.

Yes. Sometimes very contradictory.

And it’s a huge topic of conversation among traditional musicians. Some of them are openly hostile toward Christianity, because they really see it as something that has divided Malagasy people from their culture.

Yeah, and diminished the importance of traditional practices.

And then you find others who have seemingly found ways of reconciling both belief systems so that there is no contradiction for them. But many people live these kind of schizophrenic lives where they go to church and then they practice the famadihana or other ancestor-oriented rituals. I think that this whole thing really goes back to the arrival of Europeans in the first place. Because so many of the first ones who arrived were missionaries.

Yes, and unfortunately the very—if I may say, the very violent responses of Queen Ranavalona against these missionaries left a sort of a wound in the society, in terms of the whole appearance of martyrs. People had to fight to become Christian and the bad things that happened to them during that transition period still resonate.

All these stories really bring home how these terrible events in the past really continue to resonate in the present.

And I think that’s also true on the continent of Africa. There’s a sort of syncretism where people practice traditional beliefs, but they also consider themselves very, very serious Muslims or Christians, and so you sort of have to look at this as cultural practice, rather than religion, per se. But I think it is kind of a sticky problem for many people.

Coming to music, I often note that American ears are much more attuned to West African music because there were such a large number of West Africans here and they had such a big impact on the creation of our popular music, from blues to jazz to the present. Even when someone who knows little of the history can hear music from Mali and kind of get it. There’s some mysterious, deep thing that’s communicated that has to do with our whole, deep cultural familiarity with West Africanness.

I really agree with you. Absolutely. It’s to the point where it’s almost unconscious. People don’t even know, “Why does this strike me so much?” This music from Mali, this kora music, you know, but it’s because it’s directly related to American music. The relationship between the banjo and the ngoni, for example. The way the voice is used, the phrasing. So many different things. Even a sense of humor sometimes, I think, reflects the West African sense of humor. It’s just a part of American culture at this point.

Absolutely. And when you look at the kinds of communities that you’re looking at, and there are other examples we could look at of small groups of people that have come.

Like Cape Verdeans.

Yes. And I’m glad you mentioned sense of humor. I think that’s really interesting. That’s something that can be communicated without any instruments or rituals or anything like that. It’s just people interacting, regardless of the power relationship. And I think these more modern groups of immigrants coming in are also having their impact. It’s not going to be as profound as the impact of the West African slaves coming.

Which was so much earlier, yeah.

I think it’s really interesting because ever since I first heard it, I’ve been very attracted to Malagasy music—the harmony, rhythm, phrasing, all these sorts of things. Such engaging music. But it always puzzled me that when records of that Malagasy music started coming out here, they just didn’t succeed that well, and the bands really struggled when they toured. I mean it was always a struggle for the African musicians who came here, but the West Africans just had enough more of a foothold that they’ve been able to build something, whereas many of these other groups haven’t.

What I’d like to ask you is this. OK, so these descendants of Malagasy don’t have language; they don’t have exact memories of names or rituals or stuff like that, but there is something they retain, right? Do you feel like there’s some sort of intangible thing, maybe in that blurry area between nature and nurture, that does survive despite all of that right up to this day?

I think so. I think so. And again I’ll say sense of humor is one of them. Sense of what is proper, and possibly music. I mean it would require—I would love to be able to do that. It would require another effort of research—for example, I did work on John P. Clark of Hanover and Ashland, Virginia, and his wife, and in the end, it seems as though both the wife and he were from Madagascar—the family story being that he danced across the Atlantic, which would have been in the 1820s. And Lucy Ann—his wife who arrived, and we do find her being brought in to this free black community in 1834 at the age of about 16. John Clark in the end established seven or eight different churches, so certainly it would be interesting to see how they sing. The same thing goes for an apparent relative of his who was in Tappahannock, Virginia, and created I think five churches. This suggests that in the early 19th century, there must have been some group of well-to-do whites who facilitated, if not the travel of Malagasy, the integration of people from Madagascar into the local church hierarchy among the Baptists.

Another question is, “Did they do it on purpose?” Did they say to themselves, “Gee, I remember old Auntie Mama who was my nurse when I was a little baby was from Madagascar—maybe we need to get some more Madagascans.” I don’t know what happened. But I think that there’s a lot more research that could be done in Virginia, in particular. Because I agree with Lorena Walsh and others who say that even in the United States, there are pockets of particular cultural influence. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall has been able to work on that, as you know in the case of Louisiana. And it may be that there’s a particular way that chordophone instruments are played in the Chesapeake that reflects the presence of Malagasy people. There is a scholar named Harriet Oppenheimer who believes that there’s an influence of Comorian music in Mississippi blues, and for me, some Comorian music is not very far from Malagasy music. So there’s a big cultural complex there. I think that it’s not too late for more research on the subject which would certainly also require the participation of ethnomusicologists, it would seem to me.

Malagasy grandmother of one of Dr. Wilson-Fall's subjects Malagasy grandmother of one of Dr. Wilson-Fall's subjects

Yes. Indeed. What about the Americans who facilitated the coming of these merchants and missionaries and various people from Madagascar? They themselves may have been to Madagascar and acquired the same kind of fascination that people have now. And they may have thought, "Wow, this is a really special place. I want to help people from here come and contribute to the American experience."

Yeah, or become really good friends with a few of them, just in the course of trade.  Believe me, I wish I knew who those people were. I’m looking for them. I don’t know if they’re afraid to talk, that I’m going to come after them with an accusing finger that they did something or other that I probably don’t even know about.  But certainly at one point in the 19th century, American ships were the most numerous ships in Mauritian ports, and I think it had to do with whaling and with the spice trade. In the 1840s and up to the 1870s, they were very present in ports in Mauritius, and there was an American company in Mahajanga with the Peabody, West, and Pingree families. At any rate, they went back and forth all the time to Mahajanga, so those people do exist, and we really need people to come forward and share their family stories. Probably even Connecticut, which was known as the Nutmeg State, has stories about the western Indian Ocean.

Wow. That’s so interesting. Obviously I know there is much more work that has to be done and hopefully it will be. Do you know of other people with this history who have been interested in it to the point that they’ve gone back to Madagascar?

Oh yeah, several of them. The family that I just mentioned in Virginia where they started all those churches—one of those daughters who’s in the generation after mine has already been to Madagascar and has studied Malagasy dance. The people that were in Ohio—some of their people have gone to Madagascar.

That creates the possibility of a whole new sort of chapter being written, which is interesting when people trace themselves. It’s a long way to go, as you know. You have to really want it.

Yes, that’s true. But it’s amazing how much people did go back and forth in the 19th century. Quite a lot actually. And I think that you talked with some historians who talked about the presence of the Malagasy in the Indian Ocean in the maritime systems, like my colleague at John’s Hopkins. He really makes a great job of showing how something we need to study more is the importance of the Malagasy language and Malagasy sailors to that whole growing maritime network, which was of course building up as part of the British presence—the British global presence.

Yes. Absolutely. Well I’m so happy we’ve had this chance to talk. And I look forward to your book. That will be great.

Well, thank you very much. It’s supposed to come out in fall of next year. And it should be available online and on the website of Ohio University Press. And I would also like to make a little shout-out to Lafayette College’s program. Because Lafayette College has a program in Madagascar. We take students every year to help students in high schools in Antananarivo to fill out college applications as is required in the U.S., and right now we have two students from Madagascar here at Lafayette.

That’s wonderful. Good luck with everything. We will stay in touch.

Thank you so much.

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