About the Project

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Researcher: Wendy Wilson-Fall, Africana Studies

Project Description: This digital humanities project was born out of the realization that mapping would be a great way to document the geographic locations of the family narratives and plantations tied to planters who bought Malagasy slaves between 1719 and 1721, as discussed in my book, Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic (Ohio University Press, 2015). As I came to the end of that book project, I also realized that I could perhaps learn something more from a visualization of the human geography of the Malagasy migration experiences of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

For these reasons, I turned to Lafayette’s digital technology staff  at the Skillman Library.  Several discussions with the Director of Digital Technologies, Eric Luhrs, helped me to understand more about the digital humanities, and I was encouraged to work with a newly hired Digital GIS Visualization specialist, John Clark.  John and I spent many hours and had numerous meetings to discuss the possibilities that a digital humanities approach could bring to further exploring the subject of African American narratives about Malagasy ancestors.  We also spent a lot of time talking about and researching American trade in the Indian Ocean.  Eventually, we applied for a series of grants.

Through support from a Mellon Grant for Digital Humanities that was awarded to Lafayette, we joined other colleagues who had embarked on digital humanities projects. We organized a meeting with Reber Dunkel, formally a professor at  Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Reber is well versed in local Virginia history and was instrumental in helping me to gather information from families in the Ashland-Hanover area. Second, I reached out to interested students, and in June 2015, two student assistants, Jethro Israel and Clara Randimbiarimanana ( a student from Madagascar), John Clark and I traveled to the Peabody Essex Museum library in Salem, Massachusetts to spend several days poring over ship logs, captains’ journals, and business notes from the sailing community of New England during its heyday of Indian Ocean trade. This effort led us to the current stage of the project: exploring the conditions and networks that would have made it possible for Malagasy sailors and merchants to travel with American ships to the United States between 1790 and 1850.

Created in partnership with Skillman Library's Digital Humanities and Digital Scholarship team.
DSS invites contact from Lafayette faculty members interested in discussing potential projects.

Map 1. Madagascar (showing Saint Mary’s Island, Boina, and Fort Dauphin)

Madagascar is a large island, almost a thousand miles long and about 350 miles across at its widest point. The eastern coast of the island faces the Indian Ocean, while the western coast is on the Mozambique Channel. The Malagasy language is spoken throughout the country, with some regional variations. In addition to much Bantu vocabulary of East African origin, there are also Arabic loan words in Malagasy, especially for days of the week and words connected with astrology, arithmetic, and divining. Maps are taken from Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic (Ohio University Press, 2015).

madagascar map

Madagascar, showing its proximity to mainland South and East Africa and to the islands of Réunion and Mauritius.

This map identifies major cities and trading centers of the period including the infamous pirate haven at St. Mary's Island.

Map 2.   Plantations near the Rappahannock River

Though they were not all sold right away, the Malagasy were sold in the immediate vicinity of their arrival along the waterways of Chesapeake Virginia.30 Maps 2 and 3 show planters’ names and the location of their plantations. Ten plantations are associated with the Carter family, five Burwell plantations are noted, and we find two Carter family–affiliated plantations on the southern bank of the James River (Burwell) and, further west, Brandon, which belonged to the Randolph family. Further northwest are two Carter plantations and another Randolph plantation. Both of these families intermarried with the Carter family, and thus some slaves inherited by Carter’s daughters traveled to other family properties when the daughter married, or were shifted between family-related plantations for special work duties. In the area shown there are two Carter plantations (including the famous Rosewell plantation) and four Burwell ones. Overlooking the York River, Rosewell was built by Mann Page (1691–1730). He was married to Judith Carter, the daughter of Robert “King” Carter, in 1718. As shown on map 3. the Rippon  Hall plantation, belonging to the Carter family, is just north of Williamsburg and across the river from Rosewell, on the southern bank of the York, as was the plantation of Cole Digges (in charge of customs when the Malagasy arrived), although that plantation is not depicted here. The three peninsulas of the Virginia tidewater can easily be identified. The map suggests how much river traffic must have shaped the life of the region. Maps are taken from Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic (Ohio University Press, 2015).

rappahannock map

Northern Tidewater Virginia, selected plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries classified by family ownership.

The plantations of Robert "King" Carter and his descendents were largely concentrated along the Northern Neck between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.

Map 3.  Plantations on the York and James Rivers

york james map

Southern Tidewater Virginia, selected plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries classified by family ownership.

The plantations depicted here along the York and James Rivers include those affiliated with the Carters and other powerful kinship networks.

Submit Your Story

We invite you to contribute to this project. 

If you have family stories that are related to the American presence in the Western Indian Ocean or to the arrival of people from Madagascar between 1790 and 1850, please enter the information here. We will get back in touch with you and if your material is used we will ask for your prior permission.

Once the material is reviewed and your permission is received, we will upload the data onto the website. More information from our visitors will help us build the larger story of the networks that tied the United States to Madagascar during this period. 

Cover image for Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black AtlanticMemories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic

Wendy Wilson-Fall
University of Ohio Press, 2015

The approach of the book is not statistical but rather focuses on historical context and memory. It addresses the problem of family historical narratives as received testimonies of a past that has been embroidered and otherwise transformed in narratives stretching over successive generations. The meaning of narratives of Madagascar is explored, therefore, as an example of the complexity of memory work as it affects group identity. These memory ‘stories’ are then contrasted with, and contextualized by, the historical record as it appears in the archives.

My analysis showed that authenticity is not a concern of the family oral narrative insomuch as families accept that they are not pure Malagasy, but do argue that they are of Malagasy descent. Their focus, which they clearly admit, is on their identities as people of a mixed heritage that includes an ancestor from Madagascar. This is an aspect of the narratives that is approached in various ways throughout the book, as I sought to understand why the “Madagascar” lineage was remembered or otherwise noted, especially in contrast to other less visible or forgotten stories, such as those on continental African descent. 

Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic is now available from the University of Ohio Press.




“Wendy Wilson-Fall has skillfully turned intriguing memories of ancestors' origins into a fascinating, well-researched story informed, notably, by history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic shows us a new, exciting way of researching, interpreting and writing the complex history of enslaved people in the Atlantic World and beyond.” -Sylviane A. Diouf, author of Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons

“This innovative study marries two very divergent sources of knowledge—historical documentation from the era of the slave trade with the narratives of remembrance of ancestors from the present—to reveal a compelling story that links Madagascar with colonial North America and the struggles of the descendants of Malagasy immigrants to retain an identity that was endangered through slavery.”- Paul E. Lovejoy, Distinguished Research Professor, York University

“This outstanding and original book offers highly significant interventions: it connects Madagascar to the Atlantic world instead of the usual Indian Ocean trade; it broadens our knowledge on points of African originations en route to the United States; and it shows how to use non-archival sources to construct narratives about enslaved people. Combining memory with autobiography, the engaging analyses create new pathways to the understanding of the African diaspora and the survival of accumulated traditions while providing, for the first time, the uniqueness of the Malagasy experience and identity, the relevance of naming and families, the heterogeneity of the African American population, and the use of ethnic identity as a signifier of difference.” - Toyin Falola, President, African Studies Association, and Jacob and Sanger Mossiker, Chair in the Humanities, University of Texas at Austin



Current Research

To continue research into family narratives and the historical record, I  returned to the family narratives of those who I refer to in my book as “free, undocumented immigrants.” A few of these narratives explicitly referred to white American families that had acted as sponsors, associates and even friends. From the small number of stories that I had in that set, I chose three. These were the Townshend story, the Gregory/Mahomet/Mahammitt story, and the story of Ali ben Ali “Butcherknife, from the Brown family.   We would follow up on the history of the white families who appeared in those stories; respectively the Townshend, the Delaplaine, and the Puckett families.In view of the importance of copal (a form of dried tree sap that resembles amber) to the American-Indian Ocean trade, it was decided that we would use copal as a search term, and follow that commodity as an important link to Madagascar.  Majunga, in northwest Madagasar, was an important source of copal and cowhide for American merchants in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Jethro Israel continued to research free black families in Salem, and to continue his work on another digital humanities project on Lafayette’s black students during the nineteenth century. Clara Randimbiarimanana, a Lafayette student from Madagascar, carried out considerable research on the Townshend and Delaplaine families, two families mentioned in narratives of Malagasy descendents.  She discovered several references to the Townshend family and copal trade networks from South Carolina to Baltimore, New York, and Majunga. She also found that the Delaplaine family, of Frederick and Baltimore, Maryland and of New York, were also involved in the copal trade, and in the late 1870’s one family member is recorded as visiting Majunga. Research is now underway on the Puckett family of Natchez, Mississippi; mentioned by the descendents of Ali ben Ali as important to their emigration and work as horse grooms in Natchez in the mid-1800’s. The Puckett family now owns an agricultural equipment business near Natchez, perhaps an outgrowth of their earlier business dealings.

Thanks to the work of an extraordinary team that now included Emily McGinn who has been a Mellon Fellow in the Digital Humanities at Lafayette over the last year, the project is moving along and gathering momentum. By September 2016 we hope to upload more information on the merchant families that figure so importantly in some of the African American family stories about sailors and traders of Madagascar who settled in the United States and eventually became part of the African American community.