Essentialism, secrecy, and the fear of losing ‘clean’ status: Insights into the legacies of slavery in Madagascar

Essentialism, secrecy, and the fear of losing ‘clean’ status: Insights into the legacies of slavery in Madagascar

Denis Regnier, University of Global Health Equity


More than twelve decades after its colonial abolition (1896), slavery is still a very salient and sensitive issue in Madagascar. Slave descendants are often stigmatized and suffer from various kinds of discrimination, yet their actual condition and the social implications of being of slave descent differ greatly from one region, or social group, to another. People of free descent, on the other hand, are often very cautious of not doing or saying anything that could lead others to think that they might have slave, ‘unclean’ origins because this could have long-lasting and detrimental effects on them and their descent group. I start this paper by focusing on the Betsileo of the southern highlands of Madagascar, among whom I studied a slave descent group during long-term ethnographic fieldwork and subsequent field visits.[1] I briefly describe and analyze the situation in which I found them, and highlight the issue of social essentialism, i.e. the belief that certain social categories (here, the category of slave descendants) mark fundamentally distinct kinds of people. In the second part of the article, I explain how the legacies of slavery still strongly shape social life in Madagascar, leading to secrecy, fears of losing status, vigilance about origins, and, in some contexts, to racialization.


Essentialism among the Betsileo

Prior to my ethnographic study,[2] some accounts had already stressed the poverty and subaltern position of slave descendants among the Betsileo, who were described either as land-poor peasants making a living as sharecroppers on the land of their former masters or as destitute migrant laborers being exploited by free descent families.[3] I chose to focus, by contrast, on a local descent group of people who, in spite of being regarded as slave descendants, possessed land and cattle and were not in an obviously inferior socio-economic condition. In fact, they were even among the richest families by local standards. Yet, despite their relative wealth in land and cattle, they were unanimously considered by the free descent families as ‘unmarriageable’ people because they were andevo – i.e., ‘slaves.’ Having checked that ‘mixed marriages’ (i.e., marriages between free and slave descendants) had been indeed very rare, if not inexistent, since the initial settlement of the region, I decided to try to understand why people were so reluctant to marry slave descendants.[4]

People of alleged slave descent in the southern highlands are often referred to as olo tsy madio or olo maloto (i.e., ‘unclean people’ or ‘dirty people’).[5] The simple fact that free descent families, who form the vast majority of the population, call slave descendants ‘unclean people’ might seem a sufficient reason for not marrying them.[6] Across cultures, ascribing a kind of ‘uncleanliness’ to a social group is indeed a powerful way to keep it outside the pool of potential marriage partners, and such an ascription often goes hand in hand with social and spatial exclusion forcing outcasts to live at a distance from ‘clean’ and superior people. In Beparasy, however, I was struck by the fact free and slave descent households lived together in the same villages, and often had excellent social relations with each other. They collaborated on a daily basis and engaged in various collective tasks in connection with agricultural work or ceremonial activities such as family gatherings or funerals. Sometimes these excellent relations were made even stronger and officialized through a ritual of ‘blood bond’, during which two individuals (e.g., a free and a slave descendant) promised a life-long, indefectible mutual support.

Asked about slave descendants, free descendants often denied any real social difference, stressing that slavery was ‘a thing of the past’ and that nowadays all people living in Beparasy have similar socio-economic status. ‘There are no nobles, no commoners and no slaves anymore,’ I was told, ‘only poor peasants who try to make a living on their land.’[7]This situation has been analyzed as a ‘fiction of equality’ among the Betsileo,[8] which makes it possible for people to live together because talking about slavery is discouraged – because one can be fined an ox for publicly saying that someone is of slave descent – and the equality of the members of the community is regularly stressed in the local leaders’ speeches. But if this kind of ‘egalitarian discourse’ has some strength and value in daily life, one could ask, why doesn’t it lead sometimes to ‘mixed marriages’ between free and slave descendants?

The main reason that free descent families do not allow their members to marry slave descendants is because they apply a principle of hypodescent and ascribe the most inferior social status (i.e., slave status in this case) to the offspring of ‘mixed’ couples. In other words, the children of these unions will always be considered as unclean by free descent families, and since they are unclean the children won’t be allowed to be buried with their kinsmen in the ancestral tombs (fasandrazana). This is an extremely serious issue for the Betsileo (and for the Malagasy in general) since being reunited at the time of death with one’s family and ancestors is of paramount importance for all the societies of Madagascar. From the point of view of a free descent family, accepting a marriage with slave descendants would therefore mean accepting the idea that the descendants of the couple will never be reunited with their free descent kinsmen and ancestors in a tomb. They will have to be ‘abandoned’ to the slave descent group, which will bury the children in their tombs. In consequence, someone explained to me, in the case of such a marriage the couple’s descendants will be ‘lost’ (very) forever for the free descent family. This prospect is deemed totally unacceptable for free descent families and constitutes the strongest reason why a marriage with a slave descendant should be avoided at all costs.

The other main reason why free descendants refuse to marry slave descendants is that free descendants perceive the status of slave descendants as ‘irredeemable,’ They explain that there is nothing to do about it, slaves will remain slaves forever.[9] For free descendants, it is not conceivable that a child born from a mixed couple could become a ‘clean’ person because she has been raised, for example, by a ‘clean’ family in a free descent village. And they categorically deny the possibility of changing someone’s status by ritual means, even though such cleansing rituals were commonly used for manumission in the pre-colonial period and are still performed to cleanse various kinds of pollution today. In the past these rituals allowed the ‘transformation’ of a slave into a free person and thus of an unclean individual into a clean one.

The free descendants’ view bears the signature of psychological essentialism.[10] They essentialize the social category of ‘slaves’ and think that slave descendants have a hidden essence that makes them what they are and cannot be changed. If free descendants today seem to strongly essentialize slave descendants, was it already the case in the past? As I have just explained, there is historical evidence that in the precolonial era, people could move from the status of a slave and unclean person to that of a free and clean person, provided they could be cleansed with the appropriate ritual. In other words, it seems that free people did not essentialize slaves as their descendants do today. Clearly, a shift in thinking about ‘slaves’ has occurred. But when did it occur, and why?

This shift in the way people construe slave status, I argue, is a consequence of the colonial abolition of slavery. However, the French abolition decree did not meet the requirements of a ritual able to transform unclean people into clean persons. As a result, I suggest, many people in Madagascar – and in particular in the Bestileo region – continued, in the aftermath of abolition, to view the newly liberated slaves as ‘unclean’ persons who had been improperly freed. They avoided marrying them, and even avoided marrying the former slaves who did not stay on their former master’s estate, started to cultivate land from scratch and resumed living a free life as independent peasants in the colonial era. In consequence, former slaves had no other choice than marrying other former slaves. Their endogamous practices in turn fueled and reinforced the prejudice against them. Free people, on their side, increasingly relied on a number of cultural practices (such as funerary speeches and pre-marital investigations) which made sure they keep and constantly update their ‘memory of origins’, i.e. folk sociological knowledge about people’s village of origin and genealogies, allowing an ascription of clean or unclean status to any potential marriage partner.[11]


Secrecy about slavery and fears of losing ‘clean’ status

The social implications of the stigmatization of slave status in Madagascar are various and wide-ranging. The construal of slave descendants among Malagasy groups such as the Merina, the Betsileo, the Zafimaniry, the Betsimisaraka, or the Tanôsy is far from being identical because it is the outcome of different local (albeit interrelated) histories. In urban, multiethnic, and more “politically conscious” Antananarivo, as in the Malagasy diaspora and the media, the representation of slave descendants is also different. To make sense of these differences Regnier and Somda have tried to provide some analytical tools. [12] They have highlighted in particular three processes that account for the ways slave descendants are viewed in different Malagasy contexts. While the Makoa tend to be ethnicized as a group with “external” histories of slavery (i.e., as people whose ancestors were forcefully brought from continental Africa to Madagascar), southern Betsileo and Tanôsy slave descendants tend to be essentialized as people whose servile history is “internal” to the island and even to their ethnic group. In the capital Antananarivo and among the diaspora, the most salient aspect of the problem is an increasing racialization—arguably a specific case of essentialization that draws on both internal and external aspects—of the differences between “slaves” and “nonslaves,” since in these contexts Malagasy people with dark skin and frizzy hair are often implicitly assumed to be of slave descent.

Another important implication is the widespread secrecy or relative ‘silence’ about slavery on the island.[13] I have already mentioned that among the Betsileo talking about slavery is discouraged, and people can be fined an ox by the communal assembly (fokonolo) for publicly saying that an individual or a family is of slave descent. It is considered a grave offence since it amounts to insulting people’s ancestors. As a result, when free descendants discuss the slave status of other people they do so in very discrete ways and ‘safe’ locations, using many euphemisms.[14] But this silence or secrecy has an important consequence insofar as it allows the perpetuation of ‘fiction of equality,’[15] an ideology dissimulating the true nature of the inequal social order, i.e. the statutory superiority of free descendants over free descendants, and making it difficult for slave descendants to escape this inferior status.

Their difficulty is reinforced by the fact that these differences in status are deeply inscribed in the social and spatial geography, both in rural areas[16] and in the capital Antananarivo, where divisions between free and slave status groups had political significance[17] and still permeate the representations of poverty and insecurity.[18] A recent study has also highlighted how the legacy and idiom of slavery shape the economic conditions and everyday power relations between employers and domestic workers, who often run the risk of ‘sliding down’ and being labeled and treated as ‘slaves,’ even if they are not of slave descent.[19] In my own work among the Betsileo, I have stressed what I called the very sensitive ‘vigilance about origins’ that is often exerted by free descendants, in both formal occasions (e.g., speeches at funerals) and everyday communication, because they constantly need to update their folk sociological knowledge in order to avoid mistakenly engaging in marital alliances with slave descendants.[20] This is partly because, I argued, by marrying slave descendants they and their descent group would become a group with ‘unclear’(tsy mazava) origins and status, which in practice is equivalent to being labelled ‘unclean’(tsy madio, i.e. ‘slave’) since other free descent families would become in turn reluctant to marry them. The point made by Gardini, from a different perspective, is equally important since it shows that free descendants of low socioeconomic status, such as domestic workers, always need to be ‘vigilant’ in not giving reasons to others for thinking of them as andevo and behaving towards them as if they were ‘slaves.’ The economic migrants described by Evers,[21] for example, seem to be stuck in a situation where free descent families systematically ascribe them slave status, no matter what they do or say, and no matter what their ancestry (raza) actually is.



The discrimination against slave descendants in Madagascar is usually not framed as a racial issue, even though racialized views are becoming increasingly common, especially in the urban context of Antananarivo and within the diaspora. Historically, the relations between status groups have more often been discussed by scholars in terms of ‘caste’ rather than of ‘race,’ even though the concept of caste, while not entirely relevant, appears to be problematic when applied to the Malagasy context. Whether or not the seemingly peculiar stigmatization of slave descendants observed in Madagascar is similar or easily comparable to cases of slavery-related social discrimination found in continental Africa and the Middle East still remains much of an open question.




Evers, S. (2002). Constructing History, Culture and Inequality: The Betsileo in the Extreme Southern Highlands of Madagascar. Leiden: Brill.

Freeman, L. (2013). Speech, silence, and slave descent in highland Madagascar. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19, 600-617.

Gardini, M. (2015). L’activisme politique des descendants d’esclaves à Antananarivo: Les héritages de Zoam. Politique africaine, 4(4), 23-40.

Gardini, M. (2020a). The risk of sliding down: Domestic work and the legacies of slavery in the highlands of Madagascar. American Ethnologist, 47, 264-275.

Gardini, M. (2020b). Fear of the Dark: Urban Insecurity and the Legacies of Slavery in Antananarivo, Madagascar.Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage, 1-18.

Gelman, S. (2003). The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Graeber, D. (2007). Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery of Madagascar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jackson, J. (2013). Political Oratory and Cartooning: An Ethnography of Democratic Process in Madagascar. Oxford: Wiley.

Kottak, C. (1980). The Past in the Present: History, Ecology, and Cultural Variation in Highland Madagascar. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Larson, P. (2000). History and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Becoming Merina in Highland Madagascar, 1770-1822. Oxford: James Currey.

Regnier, D. (2014a). Les esclaves morts et leur invocation dans les rituels du Sud Betsileo. Études Océan indien, 51-52, 253-276.

Regnier, D. (2014b). Pourquoi ne pas les épouser? L’évitement du mariage avec les descendants d’esclaves dans le Sud Betsileo (Madagascar). Études rurales, 194, 103-122.

Regnier, D. (2015). Clean people, unclean people: the essentialisation of ‘slaves’ among the southern Betsileo of Madagascar. Social Anthropology, 23(2), 152-168.

Regnier, D. (2016). Naming and name changing in postcolonial Madagascar. Pacific Studies, 39(1-2), 201- 215.

Regnier, D. (2019). Forever slaves? Inequality, uncleanliness and vigilance about origins in the southern highlands of Madagascar. Anthropological Forum, 29(3), 249-266.

Regnier, D. (2021a). Slavery and Essentialism in Highland Madagascar: Ethnography, History, Cognition. LSE Monographs on Social Anthropology. Abingdon: Routledge.

Regnier, D. (2021b). Funerary speeches and marital investigations in highland Madagascar. In J. Fox (ed.), Austronesian Paths and Journeys. Canberra: ANU Press. Pp. 77-91.

Regnier, D., and Somda, D. (2019). Slavery and postslavery in Madagascar: An overview. In T. Falola, D., R. J. Parrott & D. Porter Sanchez (eds.), African Islands: Leading Edges of Empire and Globalization. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press. Pp. 345-369.

Scupin, R. (2021). Explaining slavery and essentialism in Madagascar. Reviews in Anthropology. Online publication. DOI: 10.1080/00938157.2021.1890884

Somda, D. (2009). Et le réel serait passé. Le secret de l’esclavage et l’imagination de la société (Anôsy, sud de Madagascar). PhD thesis. University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense.

Somda, D. (2014). De la pierre à la croix: Interprétation d’un paysage commémoratif (Anôsy, sud-est de Madagascar).Études rurales, 194, 79-102.

Somda, D. (2019). Les marques du secret: Soupçons et illusions dans une société postesclavagiste à Madagascar. Terrain, 72, 162-185.


[1] My initial fieldwork in Madagascar took place during 25 months from 2008 to 2010 and was followed by three shorter visits between 2012 and 2015. I studied a small community of Betsileo peasants (circa 5,000 people) living in a mountainous and remote region of the southern highlands, which I shall call here Beparasy. I dedicate this article to the memory of Pier Larson and David Graeber, two great scholars of Madagascar who untimely passed away last year.

[2] Regnier 2021; see Scupin 2021 for an extensive review.

[3] On slave descendants among the Betsileo, see Kottak 1980 and Evers 2002. Slavery has probably existed in Madagascar since the earliest period of the island’s human settlement but for historical reasons that would be too long to explain here it increased dramatically in the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to a period that the historian Pier Larson called the “age of enslavement” (Larson 2000). The French annexed Madagascar in 1895 and abolished slavery in 1896, liberating perhaps as many as 500,000 slaves in a total population of about three million Malagasy.

[4] The mixing through marriage of two very different ancestries (raza), i.e. free and slave ancestries, is the initial wrongdoing that sparked the series of events leading to the ‘disastrous ordeal’ carefully described and analyzed by David Graeber in his Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (2007).

[5] The term ‘caste’ is sometimes used to describe the different social groups that made up pre-colonial Malagasy society (e.g., nobles, commoners and slaves) and still have importance today. Given that some of these groups were endogamous, descent-based and that ideas of uncleanliness were also present, they seem indeed to be ‘caste-like’. Nonetheless, I prefer to use the Weberian term ‘status group’, mainly because ‘caste’ evokes the South Asian context where a complex hierarchical system of many castes and subcastes is based on occupational differences and is justified by religion. These features are not clearly present in the Malagasy context, and therefore it seems to me that the use of ‘caste’, while not entirely irrelevant, would obscure my account rather than illuminate it.

[6] Among the Betsileo, slave ancestry is never framed as a racial issue and people’s phenotype is never used as a clue to infer ‘slave’ status.

[7] Nobles (hova), commoners (olompotsy) and slaves (andevo) were the main status groups in precolonial Bestileo society.

[8] See Freeman 2013.

[9] Regnier 2019.

[10] See Regnier 2015, 2021. Psychological essentialism has been explored in the last decades by cognitive, developmental and social psychologists (see Gelman 2003).

[11] Regnier 2019, 2021b.

[12] Regnier and Somda 2019.

[13] Somda 2009.

[14] As I recall in my book (Regnier 2021a, chapter 2), conducting research on this topic has therefore been quite challenging and took quite a lot of time since free descendants were, at first, very reluctant to discuss issues of slavery and slave descendants with me.

[15] Freeman 2013.

[16] See for example Somda 2014.

[17] Jackson 2013.

[18] Gardini 2015, 2020b.

[19] Gardini 2020a.

[20] Regnier 2019. This vigilance and the need for a social memory of ‘origins’ are further exacerbated by the naming practices of the Malagasy. Since the transmission of a patronym is not obligatory and names can be changed (Regnier 2016), it is not possible to track down someone’s clean or unclean status through his name.

[21] Evers 2002.