Françoise Vergès

on Treasure Island

Treasure Island 069

Françoise Vergès

on Treasure Island

Treasure Island 069

Islands are full of ghosts and wandering souls. If you, visitors, expats and tourists, are careful, you will glimpse their silhouettes in the sugar cane fields, in the tea, tobacco or banana plantations, in the streets of cities built by colonial power. In mountain trails, you would see the traces of the women and men running to escape slavery, you would hear their sound of their running feet, and you would perceive, on the top of the mornes, the women and men encouraging them and waiting to welcome them in the maroon communities they had built. You will catch in the winds, their cries, their murmurs, their shouts in tongues that you never bother to learn because they were never taught in your schools since they were not considered full of rich and poetic meanings. But most of the time, you will never even suspect their presence, because you are the children of a world that taught you to be deaf and blind to its crimes. It taught you to have no question about your innocence and your sense of entitlement to visit the world as if it were your property.

So, when you read Treasure Island as a child, and there was a high chance that you were a boy, it filled you with dreams of adventure, of treasures hidden by sailors, pirates, or captains. It read as a fantastic adventure, you loved to be afraid but you also imagined you as a smart and clever boy finding the treasure. If you were a girl of Europe, literature would teach you to dream of Virginie who felt pity towards the enslaved but nonetheless asked an enslaved girl to return to the white man who possessed her and had flogged her and to pardon him (Paul et Virginie by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre). What child does not like adventure? And then, both of you watched movies and read novels about islands, these lands where the sea is blue, the sun is always shining, flowers have fascinating colors, fruits are always delicious and natives smiling. So, when you both visited islands for tourism or business, you had an image of what you should expect, lands of delights, of coconut, rum, beaches, turquoise lagoons and music. How could you hear ghosts and wandering souls? 

You would learn a lot about your own world though. They would tell you that your ancestors arrived in ships loaded with weapons. Though they yearned so much for paradise, when they landed they only knew to spoil them. If there were inhabitants, they tricked them, enslaved them, killed them or brought them back to Europe to exhibit them like rare birds. True, it happened that they had some fascination towards the people they met, they could even admire their cities, be impressed by their technologies, but they could never overcome an ingrained fear towards anyone who was not like them, who did not speak their languages and was not Christian. And that fear made them mean, cruel, merciless. They murdered in the name of their God.

 They said they were searching for treasure, but they did not see it even when it was under their eyes, the cultures, the cities, the villages, that peoples had built. They killed the birds, emptied the rivers, uprooted trees, dug mines, created plantations, and imposed laws that dispossessed people and forbade the making of kinship. They wanted to navigate the oceans and discover worlds, but their mental world was so narrow, so circumscribed that, even when they were amazed by the delicate world they found, they only wanted to possess it.

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The treasure was not some forgotten pieces of silver. It was white gold, sugar or cotton, or brown gold, tobacco. They enslaved men, women, and children to produce these treasures and with the fortunes they amassed, they built in their world, greater cities and palaces and filled their libraries and their museums with stolen art. Their women wore silk, pearls, diamonds, gold, and silver, that carried the stain of the blood that the whip had drawn from the black and brown bodies in the colonies. They erected statues to colonial soldiers and governors, all guilty of terrible crimes, they renamed rivers, mountains, seas. They were prisoners of their insatiable desire for possession and domination of the entire world.

In the fight for domination among European powers, islands occupied a special place. Indeed, besides being sites to live exotic sexual fantasies, to enrich oneself, or to reinvent oneself away from the demands of Europe, they became military outposts, inescapable prisons for political prisoners and exiles, camps for refugees and migrants. This has not changed much. In the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia, an island of the Chagos archipelago, whose entire population was deported by the British, is home to the largest military maritime US base. States are making islands into camps for refugees. Islands are threatened by rising seas and oceans, the result of climate disaster caused by the economy of extraction and fossil energy. The afterlives of slavery still hover.

Oh, but some of you are not the children of these criminals! That is true. But you live in a world that was made wrong, where humanity was historically divided between lives that matter (the few) and lives that do not matter (the many). To change this, you must understand how the world you live in was made first and foremost by the dispossession and exploitation of million of indigenous, black, brown and Asian peoples. Then, you will listen to the voices of the ghosts and wandering souls who were murdered. And finally, you will join the struggle of the billions who, for centuries, are working towards making the world human.

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In his artistic contribution to Treasure Island, Mauritian-born artist Shiraz Bayjoo, evokes the ghostly presence of those who have been forgotten by national narrative or have been made into commodities by the tourist industry. The statues of colonial governors, the images of their ships, of their maps that drew borders of inequality, haunt the world. But he also brings images of those made into ghosts, and they are more powerful than the stone vigils of colonialism, because they embody an aspiration and a desire that are always stronger, for freedom and equality, against racism and for love. The blue that spreads over the pages remind us of the blue of an ocean that was not only the space of deportation, but also the space upon which ideas, languages, sounds, music, rituals circulated; yellow is the colour of the day that brings new hope. By offering with his art a sanctuary to the ghosts and wandering souls of islands, Shiraz Bayjoo contributes to the rewriting of a her/history and a visual culture that celebrate life. 

Françoise Vergès is an activist, public educator and author of many books including A Feminist Theory of Violence and A Decolonial Feminism.

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