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Race, Gender, and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century La Rochelle: Local and Trans-Atlantic Black Networks

Jennifer Palmer





Free blacks and slaves formed a small but visible population in the port cities of France in the eighteenth century. In spite of their slight numbers, royal authorities passed a series of laws that strictly regulated the presence of slaves in France, with legislation in 1777 finally forbidding the entry of any slaves or free blacks, and subjecting those who already resided there to deportation and sale if they did not follow the letter of the law.


My dissertation research focuses on the presence of people of color in one such maritime community, La Rochelle. La Rochelle was a thriving international port in the eighteenth century with a large community of merchants who profited greatly from both the triangular and direct colonial trades. Many of these merchants owned slaves, who they had brought from the colonies themselves or had received from friends or relatives who lived across the Atlantic. Although this practice was of questionable legality, many Rochelais incorporated slaves or free blacks into their households, and a black community thrived in La Rochelle.

Slaves or free people of color interacted seldom with Rochelais authorities, so documentation about their lives is rare. However, legislation of 1716 required that slave owners register their slaves with admiralty officials, and declare their reasons for bringing them into France. According to the law, the only three acceptable reasons were for them to act as servants on the long Atlantic voyage, to instruct them in the Roman Catholic religion, or to have them trained in a trade. In their official declarations, slave owners often deployed all three of these reasons in the vaguest way possible. For example, Anthoine le Moine, commander of the king’s troops at Fort St. Pierre in Martinique, brought three slaves with him to France in 1732. His declaration specified that he had brought Jean Baptiste, Zephir, and Pierrot “to serve him on the crossing, to have them learn trades, to bring them up in the Roman Catholic and Apostolic religion.” Slave owners continued making these declarations throughout the century. A 1763 survey of blacks conducted in La Rochelle and the 1777 Police des Noirs legislation called for more in-depth declarations, and slave owners and free blacks gave lengthy statements to municipal and royal officials.

Legislation also specified that incoming slaves had to be baptized in the Catholic Church, and many slave owners, even in Protestant La Rochelle, complied. Parish records therefore provide another valuable source for reconstructing the black community and the relationships between slaves and their owners. Although religion has been identified as a site for slave resistance in the Americas, slaves in La Rochelle participated very little in the Catholic community. After their first obligatory baptism, arranged and presided over by their masters, who often named themselves their slaves’ godparents, few traces of participation by blacks exists. Some slaves or free blacks were buried in the Catholic graveyard, but only very few baptized their children in the Catholic Church, and virtually none married under the auspices of Catholicism. Likewise, although virtually all prominent Rochelais Protestant merchants owned slaves, I have found no traces at all of black participation in the Protestant church.

Papers of prominent slave-owning families often discuss slaves, but almost always in the context of the colonies. The papers pertaining to Paul Belin des Marais’ estate, for example, include several reports on the slaves on his plantation in Saint-Domingue, including their names, ages, ‘nations’ of origin, occupations, and estimated values. Letters from agents in the colonies also might report the behavior of slaves to absentee landowners. The firm that administered Belin’s estate in his absence, for example, wrote in 1790 that “the blacks are well behaved,” considering the increasingly tense political situation. In spite of the long list of slave-owning families in this flourishing sea port, however, they basically never appear in household records. Slaves do occasionally turn up in notary records, particularly when an owner posthumously freed a slave, or left him or her a legacy. Occasionally a notary act certified a former slave’s freedom. On at least one occasion, a Rochelais notary ratified a slave’s sale in France.

In the context of these diverse sources, created by French officials, slave owners, or their agents, how, then, is it possible to reconstruct a community of blacks in eighteenth-century La Rochelle? My research suggests that blacks not only formed a cohesive community in Rochelais French society, but that they also maintained a presence in cross-Atlantic networks. Further, gender played an integral role in how these networks functioned and in determining how people of color who lived in France engaged with them. Through examining slaves and free people of color in France, moving from a domestic context to consideration of their embeddedness in a broader community, I engage in the question of how a trans-continental community of blacks affected understandings of both race and nation.

Questions:

  • How do considerations of gender affect the study of black Europeans?

  • How can studies of slaves in the context of Europe challenge dominant academic understandings of slavery, which are usually based on a model of slavery in the Americas?

  • How does focusing on blacks in Europe (versus in the Americas) affect understandings of Atlantic history?

  • Blacks have been present in Europe for hundreds of years. Yet in the Early Modern period, virtually all sources that mention blacks at all were produced by whites. How is it possible to conceptualize a Black Europe from the point of view of blacks rather than whites?


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