Roads from Rome
Shipwreck to slavery
Editor Simon Denison
Shipwreck into slavery
In 1729, the Englishman Robert Drury published an account of his captivity on Madagascar. For years it was dismissed as fiction. But archaeology has now shown that it was true after all. Mike Parker Pearson reports
How many people were fooled by Robinson Crusoe when it was first published? That book - one of the world's first novels - claimed in its preface to be 'a just Story of Fact' and was snapped up by an audience for whom the idea of fictional books was very novel indeed.
Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and, ten years later, the book-reading public were puzzling over another story of shipwreck on a tropical island - Madagascar: or Robert Drury's Journal during fifteen years captivity on that island. This book also purported to be 'a plain, honest Narrative of Matters of Fact' whilst admitting 'of no Doubt of its being taken for such another Romance as Robinson Cruso'. Was this story of warlike tribes, kings and slaves a novel, a true story or, like the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a bit of both?
Unlike Alexander Selkirk, whose story of solitary survival inspired Defoe, the hero of Robert Drury's Journal was shipwrecked on an island with some very dangerous inhabitants. Selkirk only had goats and Man Friday for company and was very much in charge. Robert Drury and his fellow sailors washed up on the shore of the great island of Madagascar and fell into the hands of the warlike Tandroy (or Antandroy) people who still inhabit the deserts and spiny forests of the south.
In April 1703 the East Indiaman Degrave, returning from Bengal with a cargo of textiles, sank on the reefs of Androy, a name which means 'land of thorns'. The crew of 180 men were marched from the coast to the capital, Fenno-arevo, where the one-eyed king informed them that they would not be leaving. He was conscripting them into his army, to fight in the unending wars with neighbouring kingdoms.
Already trapped in Fenno-arevo when the Degrave sailors arrived was a small party of Scottish slave traders who had also had the misfortune to be cast away on Madagascar's inhospitable south coast after an encounter with pirates. Together the crews plotted an escape. In a swiftly executed uprising, they took the king himself hostage and fled eastwards towards the river which divided the country from another kingdom which they hoped would be more hospitable to Europeans.
It was a desperate decision. They were heading across a waterless semi-desert towards a land ruled by a pirate king - a despot originally from Martinique - but they had no choice.
Pursued by an army of 2,000 warriors, the terrified sailors marched for four days and managed to make it to the frontier. During a parley they were tricked into releasing their valuable hostage and, as they waded the river and holed up on a sandhill on the other side, the Tandroy army was on their heels. The seamen kept their attackers at bay until nightfall, by which time their powder and shot were exhausted. Under cover of darkness, a group of 30 men slipped away, abandoning their comrades to their fate. One of these escapees was John Benbow, son of the famous admiral after whom Stevenson named the inn in Treasure Island.
Benbow made it back to Britain. After four years in south-east Madagascar, he was rescued by a Dutch slave ship which took him to Cape Town where he made a full deposition of his adventures.
The men who stayed on the sandhill all died. The Tandroy army slaughtered them all, with the exception of four boys, the Degrave's midshipmen, of whom the 15-year old Robert Drury was one. For Drury, his nightmare was just beginning. Separated from his shipmates and dragged back through the woods and sand dunes to the village of the king's grandson, Mevarrow, he began eight years of captivity as the man's personal slave.
Life was hard. The Tandroy people survive in this arid country by raising cattle and Drury spent many years as a cattle-herder. As he grew up, he became a trusted member of the household. He was soon old enough to be given a gun and sent into battle. Drury knew he had to escape but was in a dilemma. He had fallen in love with a fellow captive, the beautiful daughter of a defeated neighbouring chief.
Slaves were bound to their masters, it was said, by magic spells which killed all runaways, and the girl was too afraid to leave. Alone, Drury walked out of Androy. Three weeks' journey to the north-west lay a kingdom where Europeans lived as free men and English ships occasionally called for provisions. Drury thought that he had reached safety but he was captured again, this time by the army of the Sakalava, a kingdom that controlled the western half of Madagascar.
On the west coast, Drury's captivity was less harsh than in Androy and he was able to accumulate his own small herd of cattle. Rescue finally arrived. An English ship turned up to trade for slaves and his master allowed him to leave on the long voyage home. In London there was not much call for his skills of spear-throwing and cattle-herding - and nobody except the slave traders needed a Malagasy interpreter. Within a year he was aboard a ship bound for Madagascar, returning to ply his new trade as a slaver.
Was the story true?
For the last three hundred years, literary critics have argued over the book Drury wrote after his return to England. Was Robert Drury's Journal true? Or did Defoe write it? Many have judged it to be fiction or, at best, a merging of half-truths and seamen's tales cobbled into a good yarn.
In 1962 a book published posthumously in America presented the results of a lifetime's investigation into Robert Drury. The author, Arthur Secord, had picked up his trail in London and found proof of his birth and death and information about his early life - strangely, we know more about Drury's youth than we know about Defoe's.
Secord located the Degrave's muster-roll, where Robert Drury's name appears among the midshipmen, and also found a letter from Drury requesting the East India Company to employ him on another expedition to Madagascar - if they couldn't find him a job, he wrote, he would go and work for the Swedes.
Until his death in 1735, Robert Drury could be found frequenting Old Tom's Coffee-House in Birchin Lane in central London. Here he was willing to 'confirm those Things which to some may seem doubtful' and 'gratify any Gentleman with a further account' of anything in the book. He was buried in the churchyard of St Clement Danes in the Strand. This evidence that Drury really had existed silenced many doubters - but not all. Some historians and literary specialists still argue that this story of life in Madagascar is a work of imagination.
None of these critics, however, have ventured into the land of the Sakalava in the west or to the far south of Madagascar, the land of thorns. In 1991, by contrast, a small team of European and Malagasy archaeologists started on a journey of discovery - rather than searching through 18th century documents for more information on Drury, why not look for him in the Indian Ocean?
I'd come across Drury's book during research for an earlier visit to Madagascar and was fascinated by the world he described. After many long evenings telling my colleagues strange tales of shipwrecks and pirates, we set off for the forests of Androy. The project's main aim was to study monumental tombs and funerary practices - a tough enough task on its own - and in the applications for funding we hadn't dared mention the hunt for a shipwrecked sailor.
During our years of research in Androy we have learnt a lot about tombs, and about the history of southern Madagascar from its earliest settlement - the island, which is about the size of France, was uninhabited until its discovery by migrants from Indonesia and Africa in the 1st millennium AD. These colonists probably contributed to the extinction of the Elephant Bird, a flightless giant that survived in Madagascar for over 80 million years until shortly after the arrival of people. We have found the traces of a previously unknown civilisation, which rose and fell before the first Europeans reached Madagascar, and investigated the impact (or lack of it!) of the doomed attempts by Europeans to get a foothold on the island in the pre-colonial period - but this all belongs to another story.
Our journey from the highland capital of Madagascar to the scorched south was a voyage across cultures, leaving the red soil and the quietly spoken rice-cultivators of the highlands to enter the world of the spear-carrying Tandroy cattle pastoralists. With our colleague Ramilisonina from Madagascar's national museum, we began to investigate the region's archaeology, working with Retsihisatse, a Tandroy pastoralist and archaeologist.
Parasites and heat
Together we shared the adventures and the miseries - the parasites (internal and external), the scarcity of water (often muddy and foul), and the baking heat. The local people have proved to us many times that the poorest of people can be the most generous, welcoming us to their villages with gifts of goats and guinea fowl and offering enormous hospitality. And yet people could also be extremely frightened of us - a new rumour in the south has Europeans ('red foreigners') cutting off people's heads to extract brains and find a cure for AIDS. Every outsider, especially those claiming to look for ancient cooking pots, is suspect.
Picking up Robert Drury's trail seemed at times to be an impossible task. Any stories about the massacre 300 years ago are long forgotten. Even the names of Drury's royal masters could not be traced - after death, everyone is given a new name. Someone remembered that there had been a 'red' slave kept by the ancestors of the royal clan, but when and where, no-one knew.
Fortunately Drury's book yielded many clues. As well as describing the way of life, he names mountains and rivers and gives the locations of the various royal 'towns'. Early in our research it became very clear that someone in the early 18th century had spent a lot of time here in Androy. The book was not a work of fiction.
At the back of Robert Drury's Journal, there is even a lexicon which includes, for example, technical terms in bee-keeping that are unique to the Tandroy dialect. Deciphering Drury's phonetic spelling to find Malagasy words and names was a tricky undertaking - especially as Drury was a Londoner, reporting everything through a strong Cockney accent.
But it wasn't long before we were matching his accounts of Tandroy practices with our own observations - for example, how to find the edible tuber of 'Faungidge' (fangitse) by tapping a spear butt on the ground and listening for its hollow sound, or how to make a beehive by hollowing out a tree trunk. Other practices have gone. Many times Drury bowed before his master to lick his feet, but nobody licks anyone's feet anymore (at least not in public) although the concept still survives as a figure of speech.
Drury lived in a landscape shaped by feuding and warfare, in which villages were protected behind natural defences of Fontuoletch (fantiolotse), a remarkably spiny tree found only in the arid forests of southern Madagascar and nowhere else in the world. The villages had no ditches and no ramparts of earth or stone. Only the stone-walled enclosures of a vanished civilisation dating to the 9th-13th centuries have left a clear and obvious mark. Consequently the detection of settlement sites requires large-scale survey and patient fieldwalking.
The archaeological team has now walked well over 100 square km of Androy and neighbouring territories, recording over 700 settlement sites of all periods from about AD 700 to the end of the 19th century (when pottery-making ceased).
One of our main aims was to find the site of the royal capital which Drury calls Fenno-arevo. At first misled by Drury's overestimates of distances, we eventually narrowed down the search area. As we fieldwalked the region's cactus-hedged fields, we learnt that the royal clan's principal lineage still live where their ancestors lived. They could point to the site of a royal village of the 19th century and the name of Fenoarivo still survives as the name of the residence of their last great king, who died in 1888.
We found the 17th and early 18th century settlements which were the precursors of the 19th century royal village - but the site that dates to Drury's day is now protected within a sacred forest. We collected sherds from the surface to date its period of inhabitation, but any disturbance, such as digging, is taboo.
We were, however, able to excavate the later village on the outskirts of this sacred forest, where we revealed the earth floors of the insubstantial wooden houses that stood here in the 19th century. Tandroy houses were (and still are) very small - around 8ft by 6ft - and leave few traces for the archaeologist. Today, each house is burnt down after the householder's death. Only the tombs, where one spends eternity, are made of stone and built to last.
After five seasons' work, we had found three of the royal villages mentioned by Drury but had not located the village of the king's grandson Mevarrow, where Drury had been a slave for eight years between 1703 and 1711. But by now we knew that there were certain clues to finding royal villages of the past 500 years. Generally they lie in areas where lineages of the royal clan still live today. Whereas all other clans have one ancestral area, the royal clan has many, at regular intervals across the country.
Secondly, these royal villages were placed on hilltops (always just off the crest), intervisible with each other, from where the ancient kings would have had spectacular views of their domain. So, armed with this information, we set out two years ago to find Mevarrow's village.
Drury fixes its location in terms of hours on foot from the capital Fenno-arevo and from the great mountain Angavo. The survey area was large, but we found the site of the village, below the crest of the area's only hill, just as predicted. The royal clan living in the vicinity confirmed that this was one of their ancient villages. Unfortunately Drury never mentions the name of his home village. Would we ever be certain that Mionjona ('Ascending') was the place where he had lived?
After we had started digging the site, finding postholes of a defensive palisade and a house-floor inside the enclosure, I remembered that Drury had given us one final clue. He tells us that five miles to the east of his home there lived another of the king's grandsons, whose village was called 'Merhaundravarta' (Mahandrovato). No such place is marked on the modern map but I had to ask if anyone had ever heard the name. 'Oh yes,' replied one of the local guides. 'It's 8 km to the east - but it isn't called that anymore.'
We think we have also found the site of the wreck of Drury's ship, the Degrave. Two iron cannon of the period lie on the reef and lobster-divers report seeing several others and an anchor on the sea bed. Some years ago the local divers recovered part of an English ship's bell whose style dates it to before 1750. Somewhere on the bottom lies the rest of the bell and it may well have the name of the ship on it, or the Company's mark.
Looking for Drury has not just been an archaeological validation of surviving texts. It has also been an adventure into the formation of the modern world, understanding how the period around 1700 was the moment at which the world 'went global', with London the beating heart at its centre.
We have a new knowledge of long-term processes of settlement and society in Madagascar of which Drury was wholly unaware. Mionjona is located in an area of Androy uninhabited before the 18th century, and reveals the ancient kingdom's political growth as well as settlement expansion into new, waterless terrain. As the emergent kingdom established its power on the dry plains away from the war-torn but fertile river valleys, so the tough and distinctive way of life of today's people came into being.
We have found exaggerations and errors in Drury's story, but we now know that it is a largely accurate account of Madagascar in the early 1700s. In its introduction we are told that Drury's manuscript was 'put in a more agreeable Method' by an anonymous editor. Who was it? The text reveals the editor was a Dissenter, a political commentator, and a verbose scribbler - almost certainly Defoe!
Mike Parker Pearson is Reader in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. His book, 'In Search of the Red Slave: shipwreck and captivity in Madagascar' (written jointly with Karen Godden) has just been published by Sutton at £14.99.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005