Pier M. Larson – Historian, Johns Hopkins University

Board of Directors – African Studies Association

It is with great sadness that we announce the untimely death of a dedicated ASA member and historian of Africa – Pier Larson of Johns Hopkins University. He passed on Saturday, July 25, 2020, following a heart attack. He began his study of history at the University of Minnesota (1985), and completed graduate study for master’s and PhD in African history at the University of Wisconsin. (1987, 1992) He taught at Johns Hopkins as an assistant professor since 1998, an associate in 2003 and a professor in 2008. He has also held a number of visiting positions both in the U.S. and in Madagascar. He was a visiting professor in the Department of History at Stanford University and at Institut d’Études Politiques de Madagascar, Antananarivo.

Larson’s commitment to African studies was also expressed in his generosity and devotion to the African Studies Association, where he has been a consistent member who tirelessly worked to strengthen and grow the Association. In 2013 he was co-chair of the Local Arrangements Committee, whose members represented the myriad of universities and colleges in the Baltimore area, and organized the ASA Annual Meeting in Baltimore. As noted by the ASA secretariat, “Pier was a long standing member of the ASA, always ready to support the association as a volunteer, and to support, recognize, and honor those in the field. He was a vocal and engaged supporter of the ASA, and we were lucky to benefit from his generosity of his time, energy, and knowledge.”

Pier was one of the scholars that helped to bring Indian Ocean studies into prominence within the field of African history. He was a foundational scholar of the history of Madagascar and the extension of the history of the African diaspora to include the Indian Ocean. Madagascar was a country that he knew well. He was born in Paris and grew up in with parents who were teachers and missionaries in Madagascar. This experience of growing up in Madagascar gave him an intimate knowledge of the people, languages and culture of the island and its diaspora that has dispersed throughout the islands in the Western Indian Ocean.

In the last few decades studies of the slave trade with Africa have become a fertile area of research which was initially focused on the Atlantic world. Due to the initiatives of scholars like Larson, this subfield has expanded to include the Indian Ocean, a process that has documented the history of the African diaspora in Arabia, Iraq, India, among other areas. Larson’s work played an important role in the development of Indian Ocean diasporic studies and in bringing the Indian Ocean slave trade into dialogue with the Atlantic scholarship. The significance of Larson’s work to the broader field of the African diaspora studies was acknowledged when his second book, Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora (2009) won the 2010 Wesley-Logan Book Prize in African Diaspora History, an award usually given to Atlantic-focused studies, sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Larson’s scholarship on Madagascar reflected his command of Madagascar’s linguistic traditions which have enabled him to project special insight into the complex cultural syntheses that make this island a melting pot of Africa, India, the Middle East and Arabia. In his first book he used oral histories collected in the country as well as 18th and 19th century Malagasy manuscripts in archives to bring new insights into the role that Malagasy slaves and migrants, among others, forged new, complex ethnic identities. He used the rich oral traditions of local informants to craft a compelling narrative of the East African slave trade’s impact on Malagasy politics, society and culture in History and Memory in the Age of Enslavement: Becoming Merina in the Highland Madagascar, 1770-1822 (2000). His second book Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora focused on the Malagasy diaspora that dispersed throughout the coast and the islands. Some were slaves who worked the plantations under French and later British colonial rule. Ocean of Letters uses linguistic analysis to trace the development of a ‘pan-Malagasy identity’ promoted by the Malagasy-speaking diaspora scattered through the western Indian Ocean in the 18th and 19th centuries. He argues that unlike the African diaspora’s experience in the Atlantic world, where the western cultural and demographic presence was more dominant, Africans drawn into the Indian Ocean slave trade found a cultural environment with a stronger influence of Africa, India, Arabia and the Middle East. Examining this multiethnic Indian Ocean context Ocean of Letters, foregrounds the ‘speech forms’ brought by Madagascan immigrants and slaves which he argues is an important historical source for analyzing the emergence of a ‘proto-Malagasy national identity.’ These cultural communities merged dialects into a creole language and kept alive the memories of the island’s culture. In this respect Larson’s analysis of islands like Mauritius challenges the idea, prominent in studies of Atlantic slave diasporas, that slaves lost their languages and/ or formed a lingua franca that creolized European (French) language. Creating a new theory of cultural identity formation, which he calls “créolité-as-versatility” he argues that Malagasy languages and the identities that they help to create, co-existed, interacted and competed with other languages in mid 19th century Mauritius. With this innovative theory Larson describes a complex process of cultural and linguistic synthesis in the western Indian Ocean in which the Madagascar’s immigrants played an important role.

In addition to his scholarship Pier Larson also played an important role in institution building at Hopkins. He was an important colleague in the community of Africanist scholars that have given Johns Hopkins its standing in world and African history. He has held a number of positions in international studies at Hopkins: director of Krieger School’s International Studies Program (2013-14), vice dean for the humanities and social sciences. Director of the International Studies Program and executive board member of the Center for Africana Studies (2003-12) In addition to contributing to the development of African Studies at Johns Hopkins University he was also an inspiring teacher who brought many undergraduate and graduate students into African history. He was also a generous colleague, serving on many committees, mentoring junior faculty and graduate students and cultivating strong international links with scholars in Europe and Africa.

We will greatly miss his presence in the African Studies Association and in the promotion of the field of African Studies.

Gifts in support of graduate work in African Studies may be made in Pier Larson’s memory to the Johns Hopkins Department of History. Visit the Krieger School Online Gift Form, select “Department, Center, or Institute” from the drop-down menu, and specify “History in memory of Pier Larson.”