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One of my projects this year is to prepare an article devoted to the history of women in Martinique, more particularly women of free colour when prejudice of colour was deeply in society (1750-1833). To feed my reflection, I read research conducted on this theme in the Caribbean. I have notably browsed Enterprising Women, Gender, Race, and Power in The Revolutionary Atlantic by Kit Candlin and Cassandra Pybus.
During my reading, I discovered Marie Rose Fedon, born Cavelan, descendant of a Frenchman from Martinique in the 1750s. I am still subjugated by the geographical mobility of Martiniquans in the Caribbean; and, in this month of March when we celebrate the struggle of women for their rights, I could not resist the pleasure of sharing a woman’s story. Today, I speak to you of Marie Rose Cavelan Fédon mixed with one of the bloodiest rebellions that Grenada experienced in 1795-1796. But his story begins long before that. In February 1787, the British authorities in Grenada arrested Marie Rose Cavelan, 34. The reason? She was a woman of colour.
Marie Rose Cavelan Fedon, rich woman of free colour in the 18th century
To understand this case, we need to look at the background. Marie Rose Cavelan was a woman of free colour. As such, she was subject to prejudice of colour. However, she belonged to the elite of colour of her island. Daughter of a Martiniquan settled in Grenada around 1750, Marie Rose Cavelan was born free around 1752 in Martinique, or more certainly in Grenada. She was educated, could sign and took part in her couple’s transactions. She had married a man of colour named Julien Fedon, also descended from a Martinican family. The couple was known and recognized in society.
Inheritors of their white fathers, Marie Rose and Julien Fédon had themselves made their business grow. They owned the « Lancer » house, a moderately sized plantation with a dozen slaves, now located in the parish of Saint-Mark. The house « Lancer » was sold around 1791 to buy another coffee and cocoa house called « Belvedere », located in the present Saint John parish. This included « 450 acres of land, buildings, 16 cows, 5 horses and 80 slaves ». The couple, permeated by the ideas of freedom promoted by the French Revolution, freed some of these slaves. But the Fedon were not only rich owners of colour , they were also French and Catholic on an island dominated after 1763 by English Protestants.
You have to remember that Grenada island was dominated successively by the French and the English. At the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the French ceded Grenada to the English, among others. From 1779 to 1783, the French temporarily re-appropriated the island before it returned to English hands. Also the policy towards the population usually living on the island varies according to these successive changes of colonial power. People are dealing with it as best they can. Unlike other Frenchmen in the territory, the Fedon couple decided to stay on the island and accepted an Anglican wedding ceremony in 1774 because they could not celebrate a Catholic ceremony; they nevertheless performed a second Catholic ceremony this time, in 1780, taking advantage of the temporary domination of the French.
The arrest of Marie Rose Cavelan Fedon
But back to the 1787 arrest. The previous year, a rule required anyone of the island’s free colour to prove their status to the capital authorities in Saint-Georges, under penalty of being arrested and sold as a slave after 6 weeks if unable to prove freedom. Coming from the elite of colour, until then never worried by this type of measure, the Fedon had not bothered to go to the city.
Thus Marie Rose is stopped at home, embarked for the city of Saint George 14 miles away and incarcerated for several weeks. You will notice that it was only Marie-Rose who was arrested, whereas her husband was in the same situation… I don’t know if there were any other cases of this type: were other people of colour from the elite arrested at the same time? Were they only women of colour? I have no answer, but I wonder why she was chosen, Marie Rose Cavelan.
To solve the problem, her husband Julien Fédon turned to their network of rich white planters, including Joseph Verdet, also a witness at their wedding, and François Philip. Both wrote letters testifying to the freedom that Marie-Rose legally enjoyed. While he could have required a baptismal certificate, Justice of the Peace John Hay accepted these simple letters to sign a certificate of freedom that allowed Marie Rose Fedon to be released. If I specify to you the administrative indulgence of John Day with regard to the papers provided, it is because a few years later, it will save his life!
Still, if Marie-Rose Fedon was finally released after a few weeks, the measure had been particularly insulting and had enough to worry the whole elite of colour.
The Fedon’s Rebellion 1795-1796
The return of English domination to Grenada in 1783 had been accompanied by the reaffirmation of the racial and religious superiority of some over the others; the French and Catholic free of colour particularly bore the brunt. It is therefore not surprising that the Fedon were aware of the ideas of equality and citizenship propagated by the revolutionary struggles. All the more so as the French side had the support of the French revolutionary Victor Huygues, then governor in Guadeloupe, who surely saw there a way to break the English domination.
In March 1795, a bloody insurrection broke out against British supremacy. The figures vary greatly from one website to another, but we are talking about several thousand free of colour and slaves gathered to fight with Julien Fédon as their leader. The governor’s house was attacked and no less than 40 prisoners were brought to the home of the Fedon couple. The accounts of British witnesses attest that Marie Rose was invested with her husband in the revolt. One of them even mentions his « cold indifference » when Julien Fedon decides to execute the governor and 45 other prisoners. John Hay was one of the prisoners, but the couple, sensitive to his attitude a few years earlier, made him spare. Almost 30 years later, John Hay had his account of events published in A Narrative of the Insurrection in the Island of Grenada which Took Place in 1795 (London, 1823).
It took 16 months for the English authorities to overcome the revolt. The rebellion ended in June 1796. The plantation of the Fedon was confiscated. The couple had fled. Marie Rose Cavelan and Julien Fedon were never captured and the mystery is still complete as to what they became dead at sea during their flight or refugees on another island. Remains in the history of Grenada this fight that bears their name « Fédon’s rebellion ». The French literature on this major episode of Grenadian history is not very developed, but you will find a lot of reading in English on Julien Fedon.
By the way, I found this beautiful map of Grenada Island on the BNF dated 1763 with numbers referring to a legend containing the names of the plantations but this list of estates is not associated with the map. Do you know if this legend has been preserved? Do you have a reference for me to consult?… In short you will have understood it, I will be very curious to see if the Estates « Lancer » and « Belvedere » appeared on it!
Kit Candlin & Cassandra Pybus, Enterprising Women, Gender, Race, and Power in The Revolutionary Atlantic, University of Georgia Press, 2015, p. 21 & seq..
Curtis Jacob, The Fédon of Grenada, 1763-1814, conference paper, 2002.
On wikipédia : Marie Rose Cavelan, Fédon’s rebellion, Julien Fédon.
Peter Saint Paul put online a list of pictures of material sources on the Fédon. You can see here the baptism of the couple’s daughter (in French).
Summary of the rebellion by la Grenada Cultural Fondation.