☞ The current curator of the Colonial Museum of Marseille collection finds himself frequently garbage-picking. At its prime in the first decades of the 20th century, the museum, operated by the Colonial Institute of Marseille, became the unnatural home to thousands of accumulated materials, mostly plants, from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and South America. Drawing huge crowds and attracting the attention of industrialists to the museum and Marseille’s Colonial Expositions in 1906 and 1922, these objects became material symbols of French control of lands, territories, and people. The joint forces of colonialism, nationalist propaganda, and scientific capitalism would designate Marseille’s ports as a semi-permeable boundary between France and its declared possessions, resulting in an ever-growing accumulation of looted rocks, skulls, tools, birds, mammals, reptiles, and shells brought back in suitcases for scientific analysis. When the First World War commanded a global captive audience, however, the Colonial Museum of Marseille and its research institution fell into disrepair. A revival before the Second World War was short-lived and futile. The institute would soon fade into shameful obscurity during liberation and decolonization movements of the 1960s through the 1980s. Natural history and ethnographic museums, full of stolen objects and artifacts from former colonies and overseas “departments,” became sites of politicized epistemic debates.
Rather than respond to the demand to categorically interrogate French imperialism, and with the scarcity of post-war funding, many scientific-colonial research institutions and museums closed. The National Museum of Natural History closed its doors due to safety hazards in 1965, and the roof of a museum in Toulouse caved in before the end of the 20th century. But the 1990s saw a revival of many of France’s museums, undergoing identity shifts to demonstrate recognition of their foundational colonial ideologies, or strategically appear to do so, marked by the re-opening, rebranding, and re-appropriating of objects between the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Man in Paris. Most infamously, however, was the 2005 opening of Quai Branly—an ethnographic museum dreamed up by former French President Chirac—which amassed hundreds of thousands objects from the natural history and anthropology museums to form a “new” museum that resonates more with the classical systematics of colonial collections than the revamped historic institutions. Through this political and aesthetic shuffle, many smaller collections and museums struggled to redefine themselves or assert new missions, falling out of national and regional focus, and others avoided formulating a post-colonial museum ethics completely.
In Marseille, like many other cities beyond the Paris bubble, the historic collections have been periodically picked through by niche researchers, colonialists with commemorative nostalgia, and amateurs impassioned by the exotic, but mostly, they have been fated to decades of mistreatment in damp storage closets. With irreparable damage and disorder, an untrained eye might dispose of a crumbling specimen, believing it to be trash that affixed itself to the autumn leaves that blew in with the mistral, the uncomfortably cold Marseille wind. Of course, there are also those who round up these objects for dumpsters on purpose. Some are fueled by embarrassment, subscribing to a genre of magical thinking that believes purging evidence of injury settles past ordeals. Many others do not see value in holding onto this history, and do not prioritize funneling money into its preservation.
At once pleased that I was led to Marseille in my inquiries into the reach of Madagascar's phytomedicine, the curator and conservator of the archives also immediately cautioned that finding viable sources would prove difficult. In direct struggle for the limited space of the overcrowded classrooms and laboratories of Marseille’s local science university, the remains of France’s first colonial institution have been squeezed into a few small rooms that have entirely reached capacity. In one room, I sift through leaflets folded and stuffed with dried leaves, twigs, flowers, and seeds that fill floor to ceiling lockers. Spillover from uncatalogued herbarium specimens are housed in 19th-century antique museum display cases and organized by territory and potential industrial application, making them a bit easier to navigate as a researcher. In both rooms, objects are fated to a perpetual, losing game of Tetris: a crisis of constant rearrangement in a crowded cemetery of colonial nostalgia.
The threat of time on recent memory and museum preservation is omnipresent for the museum's keepers, who often oscillated between conveying pride and defeat in our discussions. Presently, the once celebrated, then hidden, now deteriorated objects of the Colonial Museum of Marseille are being recovered and inventoried by overcommitted staff and volunteer retirees in an attempt to symbolically recover this “lost” heritage: “lost” implying the paternalistic possession of objects that were never meant to be so far from home.
The founder of the Colonial Museum of Marseille, Doctor Édouard Marie Heckel, never set foot in Madagascar, but considered himself an expert.
While he may have never proclaimed himself as such, his actions speak volumes, and those who honored him throughout his career vehemently agreed. During the antecedent to a medical school-resume-padding gap year, Heckel left France and headed to the Antilles. Not unsurprisingly, as often happens, the group of colonizers fell ill. Rather than take a hint, they persisted, often in desperate conditions fueled by greed, fear of losing nationalist clout, and facing the failure of their paternalism. Somehow surviving an epidemic of yellow fever, Heckel outlived his colonial buddies, claiming to have used local botanical samples which subsequently oriented his scientific interests towards the possibility of colonizers using local plants to heal themselves abroad.
At 22, barely out of adolescence, Heckel was appointed chief of colonial naval pharmacy in New Caledonia and he would later go on to be awarded a medical degree and doctorate in natural sciences in France, between trips to places such as India, Java, Senegal, and Australia. Starting around 1875, Heckel began his eventual retirement project of methodically mining, organizing, and appropriating medical knowledge from French colonies, slowing circling in on his opportune interest in Madagascar, France’s prized acquisition of 1894/5. Because France’s 1895 invasion of Madagascar is considered one of the worst medical failures in the history of European colonization due to the calamity of disease-caused deaths, Heckel was able to opportunistically demonstrate patriotic benevolence through his dedication to researching tropical medicine.
In 1893, just one year before the French invaded Madagascar with intention to colonize by any means possible, Heckel politicked enough funds to found France’s very first colonial institute for scientific research: the Colonial Institute of Marseille. Enticed by the possibility of the “unknown” of Madagascar’s highly specified and unique endemic flora, Heckel recognized potential to profiteer by filling the space of not-knowing with his own scientific-colonial mythologies. Under the veneer of improving the colonies through scientific development, or “mise en valeur”, Heckel sold the exotic dream of Madagascar’s pharmacopeia for personal and national exploitation to local merchants and politicians in Marseille.
Examining plants under a microscope, Heckel sat in his armchair in the soap industry capital of France, some 8,000 kilometers away from the country’s novel colonial possession of his interest. He claimed to determine the usefulness and validity of these plant materials to cure colonizers, despite never having had any personal contact with Malagasy healing practices. So it should come as no surprise that Heckel never recognized the plants as functional lines of communication with Malagasy ancestors, portals only permeable to an attuned beholder.
By using the technology of the encyclopedia—the 19th century natural history database system—Heckel published authoritative texts on Malagasy “medicinal and toxic” plants. Pieces of Malagasy plant knowledge were written on scraps of newsprint wrapped in dried leaves, providing clues that Heckel would use in his determination of usefulness. It was through his network of colonial administrators, merchants and botanists that he was able to extract information from Malagasy people, situating himself as an aggregator and filter of what knowledge was “true” or “useful.” Meanwhile, the Malagasy people who were both interrogated for, and shared, this knowledge would remain uncited, nameless, and invisible contributors in Heckel’s scientific papers. (That is, except for one man, Gershon Ramisiray, who was one of the first French-accredited Malagasy doctors and therefore recognized as meritting citation, despite Heckel’s colleague and prominent natural historian Grandidier omitting Ramisiray’s “Dr” prefix in print.) The outcome of this pervasive and strategic politics of non-recognition is such that Heckel continues to be widely cited to this day and celebrated for his massive undertaking to amass, rename, and record “useful” plants from France’s colonial. But Heckel is no hero. Nor did he invent Madagascar’s pharmacopeia. The salvation narrative of scientific progress has traditionally glorified the encyclopedic aims of colonial botany, slipping into the hagiographic genre of scientific forefathers.
How can you learn an epistemology of something as intimate as healing from a distance? Concerned with cataloging cures and remedies, publishing verbose encyclopedias, and obsessively authoring himself into historical significance, Heckel did not realize the limits of becoming expert in something he knew nothing about. He indexed this information without regard for sovereignty of the knowledge already existing in a structured form of its own, superimposing his own terms and categories. In re-authoring knowledge and dismissing local epistemologies, Heckel overlooked the true potency of Madagascar’s pharmacopeia.
Any encyclopedia created by a French scientist with no knowledge of Malagasy ancestors is conveniently mistranslated and misinterpreted, a reenvisioning of Malagasy medicine as a fetishized cure for France’s futile colonial economy, as something it is not—something weak, something containable in materials alone.
☞ Tucked away on a dirt-road passage a few blocks from the central open-air market, vendors of Malagasy medicine, or pharmacie gasy, as it’s called, go about their daily affairs of sorting dried plants, arranging bottles of oils and diagnosing clients. Maudeline laughs and gossips through closed teeth as she flosses using the stem end of a leafy twig, a confident gesture that, according to her son, lures in potential business. Whether or not this is the source of her success, I do not know. But I do know that on any given day, Maudeline, also known as Mody, is one of the most eminent vendors in the capital city of Madagascar's northernmost province.1
Mody is first and foremost a salesperson—her time is spent gathering bundles of plants into marketable sheafs measured by wrapping two hands around the girth and stringing ody beads onto fishing line to hang from the wooden beams. In Madagascar’s ancestral practices, healing includes the medico-botanical. But more significantly, healing spans beyond a Cartesian segmentation of time and space—the motions of material and social exchange of Malagasy medicine begin, and end, long before and long after the point of sale.
Fiscal, familial, and bodily concerns are all of equal gravity and can always be traced to a spiritual cause. As a pharmacist of “traditional” medicine, Mody is a broker of protections. She keeps the ancestors pleased and the work of evil spirits at bay. The daughter of a migrant from the southern regions of Madagascar (well known for healers and diviners) and growing up around a pharmacie gasy stall herself, Mody has built a loyal clientele over 30 years through word of mouth and reputation for her competence in both inherited and acquired knowledge.
Holding the foundational beliefs of Malagasy traditions and taboos, she is simultaneously an avid church-goer, placing her in the profitable position of appealing to clients through the joint logics of Malagasy beliefs and Catholicism. Anything she cannot diagnose herself, she refers to those who can call directly upon ancestors, such as healer-priests, witches, and some midwives, who consult the wise spirits often for a fee (a sacrifice of livestock, an offer of cigarettes,or present of libations, depending on the situation and spirits being indulged). Each of these providers work individually with clients depending on their spiritual and physical needs, ranging from misfortune to spirit possession to cancer—illnesses which are all not necessarily unrelated in a cosmology that often locates the root causes of ailments in ancestral discontents.
Malagasy medicine is incredibly site-specific in its origins, applications, and emergent strategies. Many elders go so far as to contend that pharmacie gasy does not work away from the sea-bordered red island simply because the ancestors are not there. In addition to the highly unique flora of the island—much of which exists only in Madagascar—and the perimeter of pharmacie gasy influence, people must physically go to Madagascar to heal themselves. And many do. Clients from surrounding islands and even neighboring continental habitants come to Madagascar seeking the cures of pharmacie gasy, usually as a last resort for ailments that defy biomedicine’s bisections of the social/physical and material/spiritual logics. It is in this space of Malagasy homeland—the tanindrazana—that the island’s highly endemic and specialized plants and epistemologies of healing work for those who believe its power. As long as the materials remain in Madagascar, they can easily reach the ancestors. The pharmacie gasy epistemology of healing is in the intentionality of the plant usage, its connection to the land, the ancestors, the healer and of course, the specific needs of the patient. In this worldsense, the material is a portal, not a pill.
Vendors like Mody have a consistent location, fixed in position that holds the materials of a system of knowledge static for a moment that is already otherwise in perpetual motion, only visible during moments of impact, like evidence of the atomic structure captured by the Rutherford gold foil experiment. Heckel and his colleagues only saw the evidence directly before their eyes, missing the real magnitude of pharmacie gasy beyond the scale of their microscopes.
Maudeline is aware of the centuries-long history of forced migration of plant materials across borders. She attributes it to a global need for pharmacie gasy and to the lucrative quality of medicinal plants, or what pharmaceutical interests have deemed “green gold.” “We offer a health service, but this is also a business for us,” Mody described her work, “and some people are profiting more than others.” On the other hand, Mody conceded, even if people are unaware of the root causes, “There are people worldwide who need pharmacie gasy, especially if they are possessed by evil spirits.” Even in defense of the global need for pharmacie gasy, the skewed relationship between Mody’s economic precarity and vital expertise pose the relevant questions: At what cost? With what understanding? And at whose expense?
The 500 Ariary ($0.15) it costs to buy a plant from Mody is not the going rate in Global North economies. The same materials can be found in luxury age-defying cosmetic products at a price point 500 times that amount and containing mere drops from the extracted plant. With France remaining the final destination of more than half of the essential oils derived from Madagascar’s plants, the diaspora of plants for profit across national borders reveals the ways that, once removed from context, healing epistemologies become lucrative along centuries of well-grooved economic routes of colonial power.
Completely void of any Malagasy understanding of what is being healed, the causes, and the suitable metrics of success, pharmaceutical, natural health, and cosmetic brands fashion pharmacie gasy materials into culturally inappropriate, fetishized tools for profit. Aided by the fact that Madagascar is deemed a “biodiversity hotspot” in which most of the flora and fauna is endemic, Madagascar is depicted as a Garden of Eden which belongs to all humankind, thus avoiding the neocolonial truth of the treatment of the Malagasy people and their epistemologies of healing in a localized context.
With pharmacie gasy, it is about plants, but also about diagnosis. The diagnosis can be identified once the cause is pinpointed, embedding the entire process in social relationships with the spirits of royal ancestors, nature, and lost souls, including the dynamics of faith entrusted in the tradi-practitioners themselves. Depending on the belief system of the patient, different protections and risks of exploitation throughout the healing process are present. In the marketplace of pharmacie gasy, patients have options regarding the approach they wish to take depending on their situation, beliefs, and finances. The origin of an illness itself also dictates how one might seek out proper care; for example, when afflicted by certain metaphysical illnesses, one cannot go to a biomedical doctor to be treated because they are not experts in addressing malevolent spirits.
If pharmacie gasy prioritizes determining individualized social and (often invisible) spiritual causes to imbue phytomedicine with healing intention, biomedicine defines medical care as visual diagnostics based on a generalizable patient and the repeated use of pills. Biomedical treatment is a set of discrete, standardized practices grounded in material cures that possess physical matter with the potential to heal. This emphasis on materiality in biomedicine attempts to sterilize networks of social and spiritual relationships that are central to pharmacie gasy. This epistemology of healing explains biomedicine’s obsession with isolating the specific “active” elements of the plant, which then undergo enhancement through privatized European technology. The concretization of the material and monetary occludes the connections between the material and immaterial world, an undeniable aspect of all ecosystems of healing in all of its personal, symbolic, material, political, transnational, intergenerational, and economic complexity.
Epistemic violence of the isolating and mono-narratives of healing uphold the delusion that it is possible to heal in a vacuum. How does anyone experience healing if not in relation?
There are too many centuries of testimonies and evidence to dismiss the power, relevance, and ubiquity of pharmacie gasy. No data or statistics exist to demonstrate how pervasive the practice of pharmacie gasy is in Madagascar precisely because it is undeniably omnipresent. Figures of speech, logics of local government, pregnancy and birth practices are all bound to the presiding ancestral cosmology. Regardless of political and religious beliefs, the ancestral realm reigns in Madagascar, especially when it comes to health. Healing can both take place at church with an ancestral ceremony and at a biomedical clinic depending on a number of factors: the root of the illness, a client’s financial situation, and the interactions between multiple overlapping belief systems. Even those in Madagascar who choose not to practice pharmacie gasy are believers in their own right, and skepticism is often a form of reverence and trepidation. Not practicing does not indicate disbelief or doubt, but quite the opposite: calling the ancestors into play is power, at times with considerable consequences that can touch any aspect of life.
All use of “charms and talismans” of “traditional medicine” was banned in Madagascar from 1904 to 1947 under France’s Code de l'Indigénat in an attempt to control the Malagasy population and criminalize healers. The forced assimilation policies made it so that Malagasy people were mandated to comply with biomedicinal standards imposed by the Western world—a masked humanitarianism initiated by the French governor-general of Madagascar at the time, Joseph Simon Gallieni. Gallieni used biomedical rationale to channel Madagascar’s growing population into an exploitable labor force used to build colonial infrastructure. Acting as a riptide, colonial legislation and medical imperialism evacuated Madagascar of its healers, occupying the vacuum with authoritative stances on corporeal autonomy; the calculated undercurrents pulled Malagasy medicine into French laboratories for closer examination and forced Malagasy healers to retreat further into secrecy. (Even after “independence” from France in 1960, Madagascar’s political and ethnic elite instated health policies closely aligned with those installed by the French, requiring all practitioners to have formal, standardized university knowledge in order to practice, confining healers and practitioners into a tight space of illegality.)
But “out of sight, out of mind” often proves illusory. pharmacie gasy, much like witchcraft and occult practices, can obfuscate political control by drawing upon sources which cannot always be named or reside in a concealed presence. Despite the legal enforcement of epistemic violence and exploitation, Malagasy healers persisted under French colonialism, continuing to either apprentice with elders or answer to convocations from spirit guides. Pushes for Malagasy national independence from colonial strongholds have always been grounded in tenets of access to ancestors and land, the same two central aspects of pharmacie gasy. The strength of the Malagasy people defending their land throughout history is insurmountable.
Historical accounts confirm their successfully pushing away multiple waves of potential colonizers, including the Portuguese, English, as well as many shipwrecked pirates and wanderers who mistook Madagascar as their own. In 1895, just two months after the pronouncement of formal French colonization, the Menalamba (or “red shawl”) revolt was led by a cult of hidden ancestors. Revolutionaries in this anti-colonial and anti-foreign influence rebellion wore fabric sanctified with smears of red laterite soil from the island’s highlands. Despite France’s response of replacing the island's civil governor with General Joseph Gallieni, exiling Malagasy Queen Ranavalona III to Réunion Island in the process, the movement successfully destroyed many European churches and inspired a resistance throughout the island. Twenty years later, Malagasy French-trained doctors Joseph Raseta and Joseph Ravoahangy, in a secret society at medical school, mobilised students to build a nationalist movement against French colonial rule called the Association des étudiants d’origine malgache (AEOM). AEOM gained traction in response to the 1921 plague outbreak, eventually forming a political party in 1944 called the Mouvement démocratique de la rénovation malgache, or MDRM, which claimed sovereignty for the Malagasy people.
France rejected the MDRM’s formalized attempts at legal liberation. The insurrection against colonial rule that followed began in Moramanga and Manakara as a few Malagasy ambushes of French military bases and plantations, and soon spread throughout the south and central highlands. The French tripled down on military presence and the subsequent events of 1947 has been delicately documented by Malagasy author and poet Jean-Luc Raharimanana, who collected testimonies from the few elders who survived. In an atrocity against humanity, an incalculable number of Malagasy people—most of whom were unarmed—were massacred by French troops by a profusion of terror tactics in response to demands for freedom. In Raharimanana’s interviews, survivors recount the rifle charm that saved their lives, “rano, rano” (water, water)—an ancestral technology which transmuted bullets shot by French colonial forces into droplets of water upon contact. Protecting the body as the bullets passed through like a river required a revolutionary shift in reality, one which traded the manufactured reality of colonizers for a more liberatory future. Echos of this revolutionary call sent waves throughout the Francophone world, its reverberations undoing this particular iteration of colonialism.
While the initial French interest in Malagasy botanical knowledge was economic, as much of it still is today, it is wrapped up in an unresolved ethics of colonial exploitation and epistemic justice. Today, museums catalogue and re-catalogue items according to public debates over the history of the “metropole”; they continue to re-shuffle objects and reproduce violence through taxonomy, avoiding the deeper epistemic work of reexamining questions of ownership, categories, names, locations, and material histories. Meanwhile, vendors throughout Madagascar, like Mody and her family, continue to develop botanical solutions acknowledging the presence of ancestors in all generative possibilities of past, present, and future.
In qualitative research broadly, and ethnography specifically, the standards of anonymization have inspired recent debate. Institutional ethics guidelines almost universally require researchers to anonymize data in order to protect vulnerable human subjects. However, in addition to the fact that true anonymity is often impossible in the data collection and analysis process, anonymization also poses a fair share of troubling ethical concerns. Operating on a paternalistic model of protection and privacy, it has reproduced dynamics of epistemic violence in which information is extracted and presented as if the information does not have a traceable source, preventing fact-checking in many situations.
For the purposes of my own research, I believe it is important to not just identify and critique hagiographic figures in science history but to also name knowledge producers whose contributions have been violently and systematically silenced. With the consent from informants, interlocutors, collaborators, and friends, after discussion of associated risks and confidentiality, I use real, identifiable names when I can, and when I have been given permission.☝︎