This month, although remaining in French territory, we move far beyond the modern day Hexagone, to trace the shocking history that binds France to lands such as Senegal and Guadeloupe. André Schwarz-Bart’s 1972 novel, La Mulâtresse Solitude, whose heroine was a real slave born on the island of Guadeloupe around 1772, is a perfect example of the huge range of experiences, cultures, languages and histories which, combined, constitute francophone writing.

La Mulâtresse Solitude is a novel split into two parts: the story begins in West Africa, recounting the youth of Diola woman Bayangumay, who is married to a much older man as a teenager. However, this strange union is brutally severed when Bayangumay is kidnapped by slave traders and taken to the Île de Gorée, an infamous island off the bay of Dakar, the capital of what is now Senegal. There she is held, along with hundreds of other people who have been snatched from kingdoms from all across Africa. Of all the scenes captured in the book, Schwarz-Bart’s description of these days of imprisonment, the terror of being completely alone, surrounded by screams in alien languages, completely cut off from all that is familiar, evokes an image that will stick with the reader long after they have finished the book.

Eventually, Bayangumay is forced onto a négrier (‘slave ship’) headed for the French Antilles. She will never see her home again. During the voyage, she is raped by one of the sailors, and when she arrives in Guadeloupe, she gives birth to a daughter, Rosalie, who she rejects. The little girl is buffeted through her early life, sold from one plantationto another, with no one to care for her or love her. It is for this reason that she renames herself Solitude. As she grows into adulthood, she witnesses the abolition of slavery in 1794, and then its reinstitution in 1802, an event which will bring have fatal consequences for this tragic figure.

Although this novel may be a difficult read, both in terms of its language and its subject matter, La Mulâtresse Solitude is nonetheless a valuable work that paints an unashamed portrait of a facet of French history that is often brushed aside.

André Schwarz Bart