Mapping Manioc: Grounded Relations in the Caribbean
“Mapping Manioc” looks in the ground, taking the dense, starchy, and lively materiality of a root tuber as a lens through which to read human relations of domination and reciprocity in the French colonial Caribbean. Borrowing fertile and intersecting methodologies from French and Francophone studies, Africana studies, ecopoetics, decolonial ecologies, food studies, geography, historical anthropology, and history of science, the project divests the vegetal of its connotations of lethargy to frame the manioc root as an active “plant witness” to historical tensions between colonial exploitation and practices of earth-based sustenance. In dialogue with anglophone theorists of the “Plantationocene,” recent criticism from France’s Outre-mer regions contends that present-day extractivist paradigms producing differential vulnerability to environmental harms stem from the racial taxonomies of plantation societies. This dissertation returns to the epochal shifts at the heart of French colonization in the Caribbean to uncover how one plant was harnessed to feed both the plantation’s devaluation of life and thriving configurations of human and nonhuman being beyond its reach.“Mapping Manioc” relies on a reading practice that breaches the surface of colonial archives to excavate the frictions between Indigenous and Afro/descended peoples’ nonextractive relations with a nurturing earth, on the one hand, and the exploitation of manioc’s carbohydrate calories to fuel settler colonialism and chattel slavery, on the other. This corpus attuned to plant liveliness spans a long eighteenth century, and consists of missionary accounts by Raymond Breton, Jean-Baptiste Labat, and others; lay travel narratives such as that of the anonymous mariner of Carpentras; botanical treatises and natural histories by figures like Guillaume Silvestre Delahaye; planters’ manuals, ships’ logbooks, habitation daybooks, and legal ordinances; and visual materials including engravings, watercolors, "plans d’habitation," and cartography. To evoke counterhistorical visions of human freedoms grounded in ecological flourishing, the project interweaves the colonial archive with Caribbean and Black feminist theorizations of geography and subjectivation; with perspectives from anthropology “beyond the human” and sensory ethnobotany; and with Caribbean literary and visual engagements, including novels by Édouard Glissant. Engaging these sources and artifacts, “Mapping Manioc” tracks embodied meetings of skin and starch across colonial Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint-Domingue, and French Guiana. This approach routes ancestral life through plant life, attending to the patterns of existence of subjects who forged solidarities with nonhuman beings against plantation epistemologies and their devastating afterlives. By illuminating a genealogy of earthy resistance to colonial extractivism and dispossession, the project points to the role of ancestral food plants in resurgence, solidarity, and self-determination in the Outre-mers, foregrounding the contributions of French and Francophone studies to planetary climate justice, Caribbean climate resilience, and climate cuisine movements.
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