Creole Gardens: Growing Otherwise

Creole Gardens: Growing Otherwise

[Originally published in Hans Ulrich Obrist and Asad Raza (eds.) Mondialité Or the Archipelagos of Édouard Glissant, Brussels, Skira/Boghossian Foundation Villa Empain, 2017. Also translated into French for the French edition].

The question of how to live amongst plants must emerge peculiarly in those times and places experiencing what could be called a crisis of relations with the vegetal (or nonhuman) worlds. In places like Réunion, where much of her anthropological and theoretical work is concentrated, Françoise Vergès argues that nothing is in fact ‘native’—birds, volcanoes and tropical weather all ceaselessly bringing in species from elsewhere. When the French were the invasive colonial power importing enslaved and indentured humans from Africa and India, indentured women passing through the quarantine stations were said to have hidden curry leaves under their dresses to smuggle in the smell of their land. As ‘living’ matter circulated both within and outside of regulated passageways, bodies of knowledge were also undergoing considerable shifts in ownership and mobilisation.

On these islands something else was happening in the 17th century: creole gardens (known also as slave gardens or jardins de case) were innovative forest permaculture systems kept by displaced African slaves, where familiar edible and medicinal crops could be grown for food and trade, permitted by colonial authorities keen to reduce costly and poor quality imports from France. Biodiverse, closely integrated with their tropical environments and passed down between generations, these gardens represent a form of craft knowledge and care that has since largely disappeared, though their traces can still be found in places such as Martinique and Guadeloupe, and in the literature of writers like Patrick Chamoiseau.

According to Catherine Benoît, such gardens problematise Glissant’s distinction between atavistic and heterogeneous societies, the former based on a distinctly rooted identité-racine by which terre becomes territoire, and the latter on an identité-rhizome of interconnected others that returns territoire to terre. Benoît notes (with Glissant) that creole gardens, via the way they were worked and the relations with the world that they enact, are fundamentally rhizomatic— even as they effect a territorialisation of soil, operating under the most oppressive living conditions from the beginnings of colonisation.1

In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016), Donna Haraway describes creole gardens as ‘an underexplored world … for the travels and propagations of myriad critters’.2 Anthropologists including Haraway and Elizabeth Povinelli speak of the urgent need for new ways of being-with-the-world, arguing that the task now is to collectively cultivate ‘epochs to come’ that can replenish rapidly disappearing ‘refugia’ in which assemblages of diverse species on the run can flourish. Benoît’s extensive study of creole gardens in Guadeloupe highlights their inverse relation to the monocultural plantation fields (where those who tended them laboured without pay), as spaces holding in place complex reciprocal relationships of care and contingency—taking citronella for tea during the night required shaking the leaves three times to wake the plant softly, planting and harvesting cycles were linked to the moon—despite no-one (animals, plants, people) being ‘at home’.

What happens if we read such a scenario via Haraway’s concept of the Chthulucene, an entanglement of ‘myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages—including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman and human-as-humus’? In a climate-changed globe where being ‘on the run’ becomes increasingly the norm, fashioning new ‘ways of living and dying together in a thick present’ may mean building places of refuge not unlike the creole garden, radical multispecies assemblages that are generative of flourishing in hostile circumstances, supporting diverse forms of knowledge, being and identity that are shaped in relation to one another and to the worlds they co-produce.


  1. Benoît, Catherine, ‘Le Jardins de la Caraïbe : Lieux d’histoire et de territoire ? – L’exemple de la Guadeloupe’ in JATBA Revue d’ethnobiologie, 1999, vol 41. 221-249.
  2. Haraway, Donna 2015. Staying with the trouble; Making kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, N.C., Duke University Press. p. 162