Nils Mattsson Kiöping on Madagascar and Réunion

Here’s another chapter of my ongoing translation of Nils Mattsson Kiöping’s 1667 travelogue. I’ve introduced a paragraph division for legibility.

Chapter 9: Madagascar and Réunion
Madagascar or Saint Lawrence is an island located in Africa under the Tropic of Capricorn [Madagascar’s southern point, where NMK is likely to have landed, is indeed just south of the Tropic.] which is considered to be at least as large as England and Scotland, its inhabitants being completely black and Muslims. It is a fertile land with abundant cattle, sheep and goats. Instead of bread they eat a kind of root which they call patatas. These they boil and they taste like parsnip.

We could not go far from the shore before they stole our people away, because two boatswains got too daring and went ahead of us high up on the beach, and were gone. For this reason the Captain kept all the natives on the ship locked up until he received news of our boatswains. Only one of these Kaffirs or black Africans he sent out to tell what the case was with his brothers, that is, that 18 were imprisoned on the ship for two Christians. The people who had abducted the boatswains took them straight to the King, who resided in a town named Manapatan. When the messenger reached the King and told him all about his brothers’ circumstances on the ship, then the King was very angry about this and immediately sent, as they said when they came back, a message to another King, who lived eastward in the land at Arpoat, to ask him for advice whether he should keep these two Christians and abandon his own people, or no. And since the Frenchman has his meeting place there on the land, for this reason the Frenchmen who were employed by the King advised him that the two Christians would be of more use to him than 30 or 40 of his own people if he could only persuade them with kindness.

In the meantime we captured more and more of the natives, and so the King had to release our Christians. To show them his tyrannical heart, however, he had all the hairs that they could see on their loins pulled out before they left him. Let everyone consider the pain they suffered, because they said that only one hair was pulled out at a time. When the Captain and crew saw the tyranny that had been committed against these poor people, it was decided that as retribution we would keep 16 healthy individuals of the natives that we had imprisoned, which were then sold. Four pairs were tied up back to back and thrown overboard into the sea. One had his nose and ears cut off and was then sent back to the King. They told us that this king had many elephants walking around his court. As far as I could tell, it was a populous and fertile land with all sorts of foodstuffs. We collected large fine oysters there from trees on the shore, and from the same tree we took sour limefruits which we ate with the oysters.

The French have a settlement here with a little fort named Saint Apollonia [Réunion, not on Madagascar’s mainland.]. They do no work here on the land, but lie here and pass the time until the Persians and Mughals [Mogoller: people from the Mughal Empire in India.] sail across the Persian Gulf and into the Red Sea to Muhammad’s tomb. Then they go tacking, taking the goods, sinking the vessel and killing the people. Then they sail into Arabia and sell the goods, and live at Dilpe and Roszciel.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

7 thoughts on “Nils Mattsson Kiöping on Madagascar and Réunion”

  1. That last paragraph was confusing at first, because it was not immediately obvious who “they” were. On first read I thought it referred to the Persians and Mughals, who are mentioned in the preceding sentence, but sinking their own vessels makes no sense at all. It didn’t help that “tacking” is the technical term for how you sail a ship in a direction other than downwind–I presume the intended word was “attacking”. I eventually realized that “they” were the French inhabitants of Réunion, whom NMK is basically accusing of being pirates.

    The part about Madagascar was also revealing. We now know that Madagascar was settled by people related to the Polynesians, but (1) NMK would not have known that and (2) it is quite possible that either descendants of the original settlers or some third party (e.g., Arab traders) brought people over from Africa. Islam presumably came either with any people imported from Africa or the third party traders who brought them there. Not to mention that what passed for diplomacy in the 17th century would not fly today.

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    1. Eric, I actually do mean tacking: the original Swedish text has krytza. Looking it up in the main Swedish historical dictionary SAOB, I realise that the word acquired the sense “to tack” only in the early 19th. In the mid-17th it meant “to sail on no particular course in a region of the sea to patrol it”. Thank you for helping to set me straight!

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  2. The Austronesians who migrated to Madagascar came from Sumatra in what is now Indonesia. There was another wave of migration to Madagascar from the African mainland (i.e. not slaves) some time after the Austronesian migration. The two mixed to varying degrees in different parts of Madagascar.

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  3. More on Madagascar – the Malagasy people are not Muslims, and never have been – they mix Christianity with traditional religions, and are not ‘completely black’, being bi-racial in various proportions of Austronesians and Bantu-speaking people who migrated from mainland Africa. So where he got “its inhabitants being completely black and Muslims” from, who knows? (It’s almost like he has done a ‘reverse-Marco-Polo’ and got Mogadishu confused with Madagascar.) Also interesting that he evidently did not know what potatoes are.

    The most recent paper I can find on the Austronesian migrations is here:

    Razib Khan analysed the DNA of two people with Malagasy ancestry who sent him their DNA raw data files, and in both cases he concluded that the Austronesian component aligned closely with ‘Malay’ and the African component with ‘Bantu’.

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  4. Trying to reconcile his writing with reality, it is like he is recounting things he has been told in the first person, as if he had personally experienced these things. He correctly locates Madagascar geographically, and that it was favoured by the French, who ultimately colonized it after invading in 1883, but then gets the phenotype of the people and their religion completely wrong, as if he was describing people from Mogadishu instead of Madagascar. (Marco Polo did the opposite – he thought Mogadishu was Madagascar, so I’m wondering if maybe he even drew on Polo’s writing.)

    None of this changes anything – he wrote what he wrote.

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  5. Seems I’m wrong about Sumatra, though – they have identified the Austronesian source population for the dispersal across the Indian Ocean as being the Banjar people (identified as belonging to the ‘Malay race’) from south-east Borneo. They did subsequently also move into Sumatra, but that’s something different.

    Liked by 1 person

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