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Victorine's "saisie"

This watercolour by Hippolyte Charles Napoléon Mortier, the Duke of Trevise depicting the 'nénène' ('nanny' in Creole) named Victorine, was discussed in an earlier article.

One detail, however, deserves an article of its own: the "saisie" on which Victorine is sitting.

What, then, is a "saisie" ?

A "saisie"

Détail de l'aquarelle de Hippolyte Ch. N. Mortier, de Trévise, ADR, 40FI52

The detail of this watercolour, preserved in the Archives Départementales de La Réunion (reference 40FI52), shows what is known as a "saisie":

a braided mat made from rabanne (raffia palm) or vacoa (used pandanus leaves)

The word "saisie" will be used the whole article : it can indeed be translated as a "mat" but this mat is so specific that only the word "saisie" seems to name it correctly :)

Here's an overview of the two plants used for weaving

  • Raphia Australis

    (or Raffia palm)

  • Raphia Australis

    (or Raffia palm)

  • Pandanus Utilis

    (said Vacoa in creole)

  • Pandanus Utilis

    (said Vacoa in creole)

  • Pandanus Utilis

    (said Vacoa in creole) Here, the base of the leaves

    The Malagasy word "tsii" is at the origin of the Creole transformation into "saisie".

    The mat is an indispensable traditional object in every Madagascan home, whatever the ethnic group.

    In Victorine's case, it is the sleeping mat that is represented, or that is used to sit on. It can be woven from a variety of plant fibres:


      A variety of raffia, the use of which spread to Europe in the 19th century with the importation of products from the European colonies. The flexibility of Madagascan raffia means it can be used to make hats, cushions and even clothes.

    • VACOA

      Its Latin name is pandanus utilis. It grows easily in the Mascarene Islands and on several sites on the main island of Madagascar. Vacoa leaves, which are less flexible than raffia fibres but stronger, were used to make all sorts of things: bags to wrap sugar or coffee, hats - capelines - and mats!

    The word "saisie" is Réunionese Creole, spelt "sezi" (which makes it sound exactly how it is supposed to sound, like most of words in Creole)

    It is only on Reunion Island, where many Malagasy workers were brought in both as slaves and as indentured servants after 1848, that this word is used to designate the braided mat so specific to the Malagasy tradition.


    Woman weaving plant fibres. Source : blog Le Kanto

    During the day, the mat is rolled up and stored in a corner of the kitchen, for example, in the master's house, for Victorine.

    In the evening, the mat was unrolled and used as a bed: the servant would lie on it, and the woollen shawl folded double over her shoulders would act as a blanket once unfolded.

    For servants living away from the master's house, in a nearby hut or in a hut in the indentured servants' camp, the mat can also be used as a bed rail, or as a mat to lay babies on.

    And what about today?

    Well, the tradition continues: mats are still made in Madagascar, using ancient, tried and tested techniques, and are still used in Réunion and Mauritius.

    They are no longer sleeping mats for the house, but mats for the beach: people take naps on them, under coconut palms or filaos, or, as in the past, they place young children on them.

    Evidence gathered from residents of a nursing home in Le Tampon, on the site of the former Bel Air sugar factory mansion, shows that, until the 1950s, mats were even made locally: Anise's father, a former inhabitant of the Hauts de l'île, taught her how to prepare vacoa fibres and weave them.

    These testimonies also show that this use of the word "saisie" was common in the past, but is being lost in today's younger generations.

    The photograph opposite was taken during an interview with the elderly.

    More details

    • The rolled-up "saisie"

      Unrolled in the evening for sleeping, the "saisie" is rolled up in the morning, either to be stored in a corner or, if moving, to be transported. A piece of string tied around it and slung over the shoulder does the trick.

    • The unrolled "saisie"

      The "saisie" here measures 140 cm x 165 cm. It is made up of three hand-woven pieces, sewn together.

    • Stitching details

      The colour patterns are traditional. Today, colours are obtained either by hand, using plants, or with chemical dyes, developed by German and French industry from the end of the nineteenth century.

      The three photographs were taken on a floor made from Bois de natte - mimusops balata, family Sapotaceae - a tree endemic to Réunion and Mauritius, whose very resistant wood was once used to make floors, beams, partitions and even furniture.

      A poem about "saisie"

      A lovely poem from the collection "Poèmes d'outre-mer", by Pierre-Claude GEORGES-FRANCOIS - 1869-1933-, published by K'A, reveals the origin of this strange word for a mat:

      Madagascan song in French

      Tresse le raphia au seuil du tamiane

      en regardant la mer rouler sa natte;

      puis de ton rouleau de claire rabane,

      fais une tsii toute fine et plate

      Tresse tes cheveux autour de tes tempes,

      et fais-en deux coques sur tes oreilles;

      tu seras ainsi belle sous la lampe

      quand ton front poli est lourd de sommeil.

      Tes jours et mes jours aussi tresse-les,

      bien étroitement, en un tissu fort,

      pour que dans leurs fils doux et rassemblés,

      on nous couche un soir quand nous serons morts.

      Mais avant que vienne ce grand souci

      qui fait tout à coup que le coeur a froid,

      O Sakaisa-Ko, tresse bien ainsi

      tes petits doigts d'enfant avec mes doigts

      Madagascan song in English

      Braiding raffia on the threshold of the tamiane

      watching the sea roll up its mat;

      then from your roll of clear raffia,

      make a thin, flat tsii

      Braid your hair around your temples,

      and make two shells over your ears;

      you'll look beautiful under the lamp

      when your polished forehead is heavy with sleep.

      Braid your days and my days too,

      tightly, into a strong fabric,

      so that in their soft, gathered threads,

      we shall lie down one evening when we are dead.

      But before that great worry comes

      that suddenly makes the heart feel cold,

      O Sakaisa-Ko, weave your childlike fingers

      your little fingers with my fingers

      For further information

      Read Paul Michael Taylor's article:

      Ancestral braided mats from Madagascar, in the Arts et Cultures catalogue (downloadable in French, English, at the price of 12CHF), Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, of the year 2018

      This video in french from the Rites d'ailleurs YouTube channel talks about a rite in which our "saisie" plays an important role. The rite is called "Bat sézi", which means "to beat the saisie" in Reunionese Creole.