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Nantes Noir: Living Race in the City of Slavers

Dwain C. Pruitt

This study locates Nantes and its slaving history within the broader Atlantic World historiography, particularly within the context of the Black Atlantic. It critiques the so-called “Freedom Principle,” which, in theory, resulted in the automatic emancipation of enslaved persons who touched French soil, by shifting focus from the capital to Nantes, the “City of Slavers.”

Centering attention on Nantes reveals a very different, countervailing mindset at work in France: an Unfreedom Principle. Nantes’ experience with persons of color in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries was defined by a hardening of racial attitudes in the eighteenth century followed by a thirty-year period of racial paranoia that culminated with the creation of a legal process that defined racial acceptability. Rather than being the story of racial liberalism, Nantes’ history of race from 1664 to 1848 is one marked by negrophobia.

My dissertation also reconstructs the port’s gens de couleur population through a cohort analysis. Between 1664 and 1848, at least 1424 dark-skinned gens de couleur—Africans, persons of African descent, persons of mixed racial heritage and natives of the Indian subcontinent—passed through Nantes. Nantes’ community of color developed in two distinct waves. The first was made up mostly of racially unmixed male slaves from the French Caribbean. The decade between 1791 and 1800 marked the transformative moment in the city’s racial demographic. The numbers of persons of color arriving increased and the population approached gender parity and became increasingly racially admixed and free. This transformation is central to understanding why the Nantais’ racial paranoia exploded in the early nineteenth century. After the Haitian Revolution, scores of refugees flooded into Nantes. At the same time that Haiti was coming to represent every slaveholding nation’s worst nightmare, Nantes’ population was taking on a Haitian appearance and character. White refugees brought tales of black violence and every gens de couleur was a potential revolutionary possibly seeking to spread black rebellion to France’s other Caribbean colonies and maybe even into France itself.

The dissertation will be the launching point for an extended analysis of the creation of black communities within early modern France. Ideally, the study of Nantes will be followed by closer studies of gens de couleur communities in Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Le Havre, Marseilles and Paris. This analysis also informs my teaching as I am Rhodes College’s Atlantic World historian and teach African Diaspora courses in its African-American Interdisciplinary Studies Program. If I am selected to participate, I would like to be in the Black European Studies curricula workshop.

Among some of my questions:

  1. How best can we incorporate race and the experience of persons of African descent into early modern European studies?

  2. How do we best teach racial/ethnic identity within more traditionally-oriented college and university curricula?

  3. What are the most effective strategies for making this kind of inquiry accessible to students?

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