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Céline Ramsamy-Giancone, Historian Du Jour

Celine Ramsamy-Giancone Diriye Osman

Céline Ramsamy-Giancone is one of the preeminent historians of Réunion, an almost mystical island in the heart of the Indian Ocean. It is a landscape of magical realism and gorgeous folktales with a fraught history coded with colonialism, indentured servitude, slavery, poetry, earth-deep spirituality, oppression and freedom. Ramsamy-Giancone has made it her life’s mission to bring this depth of perception and historical nuance to the light. She shares her remarkable story with Diriye Osman.

Céline, you're now a renowned historian in Réunion, but I want to explore two threads: tell me about your own personal history and what sparked your passion for navigating the expansive textures of the history of Réunion?

I’m a descendant of Indian indentured labourers who left India during the 19th century to work in the sugar cane plantations of Réunion, a French island in the Indian ocean. My parents went to school for a few years, then had to work in agriculture. Later they opened a grocery store and did their best to send their children to school. Like many Indian families, they were very attached to education.

In Réunion a heterogenous population, from very different regions of the world, encouraged the blossoming of a vibrant, multi-faceted culture that was in part informed by a centuries-old Creole way of life. The island’s mélange of Indian, African, Malagasy, and Chinese belief systems, which were all recreated in the sugarcane estates, co-existed in a continuous and dynamic interaction with the prevalent Roman Catholic faith. I lived my entire childhood within this rich and complex interplay of cultures. When young, I was very close to my grandmother, who spoke Hindi and knew a lot of Creole tales, which she told me at night. I learned a lot from her – in particular, the value of respecting all the religions that flourished in Réunion. She told me stories of our ancestors, and this sparked in me a real desire to know more about my roots within the framework of my Réunionese identity. As I began to study the history of indentured workers, I became more and more interested in making connections between different cultures, belief systems, and ideas.

One of the many things I love about your story is the determination and curiosity. If you say you're going to do something, it gets done. You went back to university to complete your PhD after your sons had grown up. How difficult or seamless was that transition?

I have a sense of determination, which seems to be encoded within the fabric of who I am and how I move in the world. For example, after I brought to light the figure of Célimène Gaudieux—a poetess famous in the 19th century, who was born a slave and had to face colonial society—I struggled for a long time to have a bronze bust created in her honour, a statue that was eventually created by a dear friend of mine, the wonderfully talented artist Nathalie Maillot. After the statue was erected, I realised that I had worked on this project for almost ten years.

Thank you for asking me this interesting question. On the surface, my life with my husband and children might appear normative, but I have always been invested in the thread that links the quotidian with deeper cultural matters. Recently, for instance, I’ve been in touch with researchers from Mauritius and India, allowing me to better understand the complex, dynamic global history of diasporas, and make connections. Though I was a French language teacher in a college, I decided to pursue a PhD in history. It was a very intense and intellectually rich period. I spent five years essentially exploring a new field. I was concerned to uncover and put forward documents in perspective; to analyse news sources which allowed me to construct an advanced thesis; and to propose a new interpretation of the contacts and cross-fertilisations that occurred between religious practices in Indian and Creole spaces. This process gave me a lot of confidence and satisfaction. I discovered that I had unexpected resources and energy within me. It was like a spirit was coursing through my mind; I really felt that my women ancestors, who so often had no voice, inspired me to work for this PhD, to write the truth that nobody wanted to see. I wanted to demonstrate the fact that religious and social exclusion have always pushed people to explore alternative identities in every part of the world. Despite my research being far from iconoclastic, it was met with mistrust from conservative leaders suspicious of my studies, especially since I was a woman. I had to scale many mountains in terms of harassment, but, surprisingly and gratifyingly, the more people harangued me to shut up, the more successful I was in bringing my work to the fore. The most fabulous moment was when I started working with the late Professor Brij V. Lal, the pioneering academic researcher in the study of indentured labourers. My PhD studies were simultaneously the most light-infused and the darkest period: a confluence both of wonderful energy and mean-spiritedness coming at me from those who had done everything to render me invisible or erase me – but for me, per Kant, the “Mal” is a necessary part of life. As for the transition from homemaker to committed intellectual—the dichotomy between the domestic and the academic spheres—I would say that I was born a second time. I consider my multiple lives with astonishment, and I never cease to rediscover myself within the duality of this strange adventure. Tell me about your research into the history of the sugar cane in Réunionese culture. My research is focused on the varied religious practices that were evolved by indentured workers in Réunion, and I zoomed in on the plantation sugar cane world. It was a very hard existence: workers were in the fields from sunrise to sunset; there were many crimes committed against women; the indentured workers couldn’t leave their masters and used to run away from the sugar estates. More positively, these immigrants, most of whom had fled difficult circumstances in their own countries, could find better opportunities when their contracts ended: they could open shops and buy plots of land––things they couldn’t have done if they had stayed in India (this was the same for African and Malagasy workers.) The story of the sugar cane plantation is one of negotiation between the social elite and the subaltern, contacts and exchanges between cultures brought on by the immigrants creating a new world. As a feminist, I'm fascinated by your exploration of the powerful role of women in Réunionese history. Do you feel a responsibility to shine a light on the women in your country who have paved the way? For all the reasons I have already described, yes. Having had to face and struggle with male domination in my research fields, I can understand and empathize with women’s issues more generally. I know that my life is inspiring for other women, specially women of Indian origin, because some of them have told me they were proud of me, of my work, and they were happy that I could carry through, as they couldn’t in their own lives. I’m proud to say I inspired a few women to do the same and gave them confidence in themselves. I love sharing and offering opportunities for us to work together. I don’t want to be the only woman to study in this field. Its so wonderful to share and to encourage others. We—the woman of Indian or Creole origin studying our own history—are in a marginal and intersectional position, so we have to stick together. What are you working on at the moment?

I’m studying a fascinating ritual that was created by indentured workers with connections to many parts of the world. It’s a complex body of work, but also uplifting. I’m also writing an article on epidemics from India to the Indian Ocean islands, and it’s fascinating to see how many episodes of human migration have the same motivations: it’s a combination of war, epidemics, famine and economic situations that have changed the face of many countries across the world. It will be the same with ecological sustenance and climate change. Who are the Réunionese artists, writers and musicians that we should all know about?

From the 19th century there’s Celimène, this poetess who was reputedly among the best, but all traces of her compositions have disappeared. She has been preserved by folk traditions and memory-keeping, but she deserves to be widely recognized. Evariste de Parny and Auguste Lacaussade are also great poets of that period. From the 20th century there are many, but I will only suggest two for today: Alain Peters, whose songs are plentiful with dark and skin-deep sensibility, and the woman singer who was his partner for a short time, Françoise Gimbert, whose songs are touching, and reflect the world of folk people; people that nobody is interested in. I love that.

What are your favourite films, bits of music and books?

My favorite film is “Manganinie” an Australian film that speaks with great sensitivity about the issues of colonisation and the rituals of the subaltern (concerning an Aboriginal woman who steals a little white girl and shows her how to survive in the forest.)

My favourite music is by Lizz Wright, India Arie and Cassandra Wilson; jazzy and soulful musicians whose tunes make my heart melt.

My favourite books are “Le rêve mexicain” by J.M.G Le Clézio, “The last brother” by Natacha Appanah, and in the field of history, “La Cité antique” by Fustel de Coulanges. Finally, what do you do to relax after the day’s work is done? I enjoy walking in the bush near my home. It’s a kind of Savannah, with traces of a former sugar estate, eucalyptus and camphor trees. There I listen to nature: leaves blowing against the breeze, birds trilling in the trees.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of “Paille en queue”, a local bird; a kaleidoscope of butterflies. It’s just magical. Nature is medicinal for me and I need it for my emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

I can walk along the beach, go swimming for an eternity, and look deep into the horizon; the place of pure possibility.




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