Senegal: David Diop puts Enlightenment France in the face of slavery – Jeune Afrique

In his new novel, “La Porte du voyage sans retour”, the Senegalese author living in Pau recounts the French botanist Michel Adanson’s trip to Senegal in the 1750s.

After Soul brother, Goncourt Prize for high school students in 2018 and Booker Prize International in 2021, David Diop publishes at Editions du Seuil The Gate of the No Return Journey. In a style totally different from that of his previous book, the writer of Senegalese origin recounts the trip to Senegal, in the 18th century, of the French scholar Michel Adanson (1727-1806). Partly inspired by real characters, this precisely written text tells the story of a man of the Enlightenment shaped by the prejudices of his time and whose certainties are progressively undermined by friendship and, above all, by love.

Jeune Afrique: How did you come up with the idea for this book?

David Diop: I had the idea about fifteen years ago, when I read the travelogue that Michel Adanson published in 1757, recounting his four or five years spent in Senegal at the beginning of the 1750s. Three years after his return, he wrote a text which was to serve as a general introduction to his Natural history of Senegal. I was struck by the originality of his gaze and the quality of his writing. He knows how to tell about his trip and to stage himself with the “Negroes of Senegal”, as he calls them. And as he is learned, he observes their society in a methodical way.

When I read his text and saw words, names, realities that I myself knew in Senegal, it interested me extremely, to the point that it is from him that Part of my idea of ​​creating a research group on European representations of Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. On the spot, he tries to know – it is moreover an instruction which was given to him by the Jussieu brothers, eminent members of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris – what could be the properties of the plants which he had come to describe. .

Michel Adanson is above all a botanist.

Yes, and he tests these plants with his body. It is an attitude specific to the philosophers and scholars of the Enlightenment, experimentation. His other originality is that he learns Wolof because he understood that the properties of these plants are known by a small group of people, men or women, that the translators of the time were not in. able to understand.

How did you work on this very real character to build your fiction?

I took clues. A young Senegalese historian called Ousmane Seydi drew my attention to the fact that at the Paris Natural History Museum there are drafts written by Michel Adanson. Which contain tales and legends in Wolof that he kept in order to write his Natural history of Senegal. For him it was not only a question of classifying plants, but also of describing men and their societies.

Can we find the love story you tell us there?

No, but in his drafts in Wolof transcribed, there are exchanges between a man from elsewhere and a young girl who refuses his advances in a very modest way. Obviously, this fact gave me the freedom to imagine that he might have fallen in love. But it’s a pretext, because I wanted this love story so that this young philosopher of the Enlightenment could put his humanist representation of the world to the test in contact with the harsh reality of slavery. The best way to confront him with this reality was to make him fall in love with a young woman promised to slavery.

With a little study, the Negroes would make excellent astronomers

He is a man ahead of his time who begins to see black people as humans.

In his travelogue of 1757, he says, I quote, that Negroes are “neither cruel nor uneducated”, as they are presented in his traveller’s library. He claims to have discovered on the spot that what he had read was false. In another passage, and it is moreover an ambiguous sentence, loaded with the prejudices of his time, he observes that the people of the village in which he is found have a good knowledge of the constellations. “With a little study, Negroes would make excellent astronomers,” he said. So that it will be spotted, later, by the French abolitionists, in particular the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, who will consider that it is a precursor. These passages will be highlighted by the abolitionist Quaker Antoine Bénézet, who will use what Adanson writes on the Negroes to add it to his argument against the slave trade.

This does not prevent the French from participating in the system …

Yes, he is employed by the Senegal concession, whose main income is slavery. He himself will think that it would be wise not to send any more Negroes to the Antilles and to employ them on the spot. He has a somewhat strange formula, on the fringes of an article in his encyclopedia, where he maintains that voluntary slaves should be found – funny formula! – to work locally on the cultivation of sugar cane. It would be more effective for him than sending people to die by the thousands on the road to the Antilles.

I bring readers into this ancient Africa that the general public does not know

Besides his love story, Adanson lives a very strong friendship with a young boy, Ndiak.

This Ndiak is not mentioned in the actual travelogue published in 1757, but it happens to be cited in Adanson’s drafts. Who affirms that it is the son of a great dignitary of the kingdom of Waalo, aged 12 and who was given to him as a “passport”. I made it a sort of alter ego of Michel Adanson, a “fixer” which allows him to travel within Senegal.

You talk at length about the social organization of Senegal at the time.

I wanted to tell about the discovery, by a young 23-year-old scientist, of absolutely different societies and ways of living. I used his botanist’s eye and the fact that he was trained to describe. It is also important to specify that he writes for his daughter and that he wants to open up an unknown world to her. We too often forget that there were people, long before our time, who had their entry into radically different and often caricatured worlds. In this way, at my modest level, I bring readers into this ancient Africa that the general public does not know.

If your imagination is playing full swing, you are nonetheless very precise.

I admit that not everything is quite correct. But, for example, the location of cities or large villages that I am talking about is precisely done by Michel Adanson, who produced a map of Senegal that can be seen on the cover of the book! It is with this card that I worked. I then inquired about how the cities and kingdoms were organized at that time.

You also make room for local beliefs.

In the Cape Verde peninsula, the Lebous practice the Ndeup, an exorcism ceremony where we try to discern what torments men and women who feel bad from a psychological point of view. They speak of “rab” or “rapp”, that is to say of entities which invest our body and can torment us, in particular by jealousy. It seemed important to me to place the triumphant reason of the Enlightenment before the irrational, but rather the supernatural, which may seem natural in some civilizations.

If you read Father Labat’s travel accounts, New West African relationship, published in 1728, or New trip to the French isles of America, published in 1722, you discover that everything he calls fetishes, like animist beliefs, are for him works of the devil! It is the usual European conception that he expresses there. I wanted to go back on a missed appointment. And fiction allows it in complete freedom.

This book is written in a radically different style from that of Soul brother.

Writing is born out of constraints that we set on ourselves. For Soul brother, I imposed on myself a character who could not write a letter because he did not speak French. Which led me to make an inner voice heard which, in principle, is hidden.

This time, the subject is different since I propose a journey to the reader through the intermediary of a man of the Enlightenment who has a beautiful pen. It is a secret notebook written for his daughter, an intimate, frank notebook, animated with a concern for clarity and precision. This presupposed a certain register of language. But I didn’t want to pastich 18th century writing with a language that would be too far removed from what we are used to reading or hearing. There are no better writers in the 18th century language than the 18th century writers themselves!

What relations do you have with Senegal?

I lived in Dakar mainly, even though my family is from Louga. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, I have not been able to go there since February 2018, when I organized a colloquium at Cheikh-Anta-Diop University on Africa for scientists from the 17th century to Twentieth century.

In the book you write “Cape Verd” and not “Cape Verde”. Why ?

It is a coquetry on my part. This is how Michel Adanson wrote it and I allowed myself this “d” because the scholar took up the writing style of the time, which came from the Portuguese name of the place, “Cabo Verde”.

You have received the Booker Prize International. It’s a hell of a distinction!

I did not understand, before arriving among the finalists, the importance of this prize. I was extremely surprised by the enthusiasm it arouses. And I realized that it opened to me, thanks to the excellent translation of the poet Anna Moschovakis with whom I share it, the doors of the Commonwealth. Now I have readers from the former British colonial empire, especially Indians, telling me about it. It is truly extraordinary luck for me.

The door of the journey of no return, by David Diop, Seuil, 258 pages, 19 euros.

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Senegal: David Diop puts Enlightenment France in the face of slavery – Jeune Afrique