Being a Family between Freedom and Slavery

tanlistwa, marché, Saint-Pierre, market,Le Mazurier

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Before March ends, I really wanted to prepare an article for you on a deed of donation that I came across during my research on women of colour and that left a deep impression on me. Hang on a little bit because the story is difficult to summarize in a few words, but it is exciting. Today, I am talking to you about Marie Catherine Alerte, widow of Pierre Louis Alcé, who gave Jacques Balisier, grandson of her late husband, a house and two slaves… sisters of the same Jacques Balisier, in 1812. In other words, I will talk to you about strategies that people of colour have put in place to keep a family together despite the legal challenges of the slavery and colonial system.

A special donation

Yes, it’s a little complicated, but we’re going to sort it out quickly. First of all, I propose that I clarify the situation with the various elements contained in the deed of donation and a small illustration of the family relationship. In 1812, Marie Catherine Alerte appeared in front of the notary to satisfy the intentions of her late husband Pierre Louis Alcé. Marie Catherine Alerte was then described as an adult, a free « negress », a childless widow of Pierre Louis Alcé. Pierre Louis had not had a child with Marie Catherine, but he had at least one daughter, named Rosette « negress » deceased slave, with another woman long before getting married to Marie Catherine. Because the servile status was transmitted by the mother, it can be deduced that Rosette’s mother was also a slave. Pierre Louis may also have been a slave at that time, but I don’t know at this point. Rosette had herself had 3 natural children: a son named Jacques Balisier, a tailor,  » câpre « , and 2 daughters,  » negresses « , Marguerite 13 years old and Angèle dite Éloïse 16 years old. Because servile status is transmitted by the mother…, Rosette’s children had also inherited servile status at birth. Nevertheless, Jacques was freed, because it was as a free man that he appeared this day of 1812 in front of the notary of the Lamentin; it was not the same for his sisters who were designated slaves of Marie Catherine Alerte under the community of possessions that existed between her and her husband since their marriage contract established on 5 November 1803 in Saint-Pierre.

The family situation in 1812

How was this possible?

In 1812, perhaps fearing to die herself, Marie Catherine Alerte made a donation to Jacques Balisier of the family home in Le Lamentin and the two granddaughters of her late husband. How can one be black and own family members?
I don’t know how Pierre Louis Alcé and Marie Catherine came into possession of Marguerite and Angèle known as Éloïse; but, two options are possible. Either Pierre Louis Alcé was the owner of the slave with whom he had Rosette and he was therefore the owner of the children born to her. Otherwise, Pierre Louis Alcé did not own the slave with whom he had Rosette. In this case, he had to buy his two granddaughters from their master, the first step in reuniting the family.
But no matter how the couple became the owners of the two daughters, you can legitimately wonder why they were not freed. It should be remembered that at that time, in order to legally free a slave, his master not only had to obtain authorization from the colonial government, but he also had to pay a kind of tax to the « freedom fund » [caisse des libertés]. There is no record of the official prices charged, but historian Anne Pérotin-Dumon estimates that the cost could be between £1,000 and £2,000 for men, £2,000 and £3,000 for women; the higher price for women being explained by the idea of dissuading masters from freeing their concubines. These are large sums of money, because it takes so much to acquire slaves; from what I have observed, prices range from roughly 500 livres (for small children, the elderly or the sick) to over 2500 livres (for those in the prime of life, mixed race, and with particular skills). It is understandable that it was not easy to officially free a slave and that this cost of freeing may have been a limiting factor in freeing all siblings.

The marriage of 1803

As the deed of donation mentioned that the civil marriage contract had been received on November 5, 1803 by the notary Cairoche, I hastened to look for it in the hope of learning more about the family. The description of the spouses’ contributions to the community of property shows that a few days before their marriage, the couple had bought a canoe and 11 slaves for 31,940 livres. I immediately thought that it was perhaps at that moment that Pierre-Louis Alcé and Marie Catherine Alerte had acquired Rosette, if she was still alive, and her children. Unfortunately, the 2 deeds of acquisition are not kept in the Archives of Martinique.

Mariage of Pierre Louis called Alcée & Marie Catherine called Alerte in 1803

If there was a marriage contract, there was necessarily also a marriage to the church, so I then looked for the sacrament in the parish registers. In 1803, the couple did not live in Le Lamentin, but in Saint-Pierre, Notre-Dame du Bon Port au Mouillage parish. Pierre Louis was probably recently freed and perhaps even an African, because his filiation is not specified, it is just indicated that he was « a free land negro » [nègre de terre libre], while Marie Catherine is said to be a native of the parish and « natural daughter of the late Marie Jeanne, a free negress ». As historian Vincent Cousseau reminds us, the term  » land negro » normally refers to a slave assigned to agriculture, but some priests have also used it as a synonym for  » new negro  » [nègre nouveau] to refer to a person who was not born on the island.

Donation: a bet on the future

Marie Catherine faced two problems: inheritance rules and the presence of slave family members among her « property ». Succession rules are a complicated subject, which I don’t have a good grasp of, so I won’t go into detail. But in the absence of a direct link between her husband’s descendants and herself, Marie Catherine Alerte prevented, thanks to the donation, her property from being disseminated outside the family or sold to the benefit of the government upon her death; she also ensured that the two sisters remained within their immediate family. The two girls may have enjoyed de facto freedom on a daily basis, but they were nonetheless officially slaves in legal terms, with all the risks that this could entail. I was also marked by Marie Catherine Alerte’s concern to have it specified in the conditions that the donation of the two daughters was made on the responsibility of Jacques Balisier « to care for and treat as a good brother the two slaves his sisters who have just been given to him« .

Of course, I wondered what happened to the two girls. Had they been freed by their brother? In the 1830s, several measures were introduced to facilitate emancipation. In March 1831, an edict abolished the emancipation tax; it was no longer necessary to pay exorbitant sums to free a slave. The following year, in July 1832, another decree facilitated the conditions of liberation, particularly for de facto free people, i.e. those who lived as freedom groups, but without official recognition. Both measures helped to gradually eliminate this type of painful family situation.

The mystery remains….

Le Masurier (documenté en 1769-1775), Le marché de Saint-Pierre à la Martinique
Huile sur toile – 169 x 234 cm
Avignon, Musée Calvet (donation Marcel Puech)
Photo : Musée Calvet, Avignon

Without success, I searched for the emancipation of the two young girls in the years following the promulgation of the second law. After consulting documents, I realized that the family had returned to live at Le Mouillage in Saint-Pierre, which is why I gave you this representation of the Saint-Pierre market of Le Mazurier, painted in the 1770’s. But here, as at Le Lamentin, I stayed without a trace of the two sisters. Perhaps they were freed before 1832? Perhaps they remained slaves for a long time, but free de facto? All I’ve found so far are 4 emancipations:

  • That of Louis Alcé, 19 years old, residing on rue de la Madeleine, de facto free, who asked for and obtained his liberation in 1833.
  • That of Jeanne, a 23-year-old Creole negress, from Le Mouillage, slave of Catherine Alerte, widow of Pierre-Louis Alcé, residing on rue de la Madeleine and that of
    Marie-Louise, a 13-year-old Creole capress, from Le Mouillage, a slave of the same. Both freed in 1835.
  • That of Adrien, « a 20-year-old Creole mulatto, tailor, requested by his uncle and benevolent, Sir Jacques balisier, tailor« , at Le Mouillage in 1838.

These acts show that the family had returned to Saint-Pierre and lived on rue de la Madeleine in Le Mouillage. Presumably, Louis and Adrien were the sons of one or the other of the two sisters, also born slaves. If this is the case, Marguerite and Angèle dit Éloïse had not yet been freed in 1818 (date of birth deducted for Adrien). But here we are, the mystery remains great and I hope that other discoveries will allow me to offer you a second episode on this family that illustrates the complexity of colonial societies in the Caribbean and the strategies put in place by people of colour to keep the family together and to face unfavourable legislation.

And have you encountered families of colour between slavery and freedom in your research?



  • Anne Pérotin-Dumon, La ville aux Iles, la ville dans l’île: Basse-Terre et Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, 1650-1820, Paris, KARTHALA Editions, 2001
  • Vincent Coucceau, Population et anthroponymie en Martinique du XVIIe s. à la première moitié du XIXe s. : étude d’une société coloniale à travers son système de dénomination personnel, thèse, 2015.


Archives territoriales de Martinique

  • 4Q2/534, donation de 1812.
  • Bulletin officiel de Martinique 3K2/4 et 5.

Archives nationales outre-mer

Archives sur Google Books


  • Le Masurier, Le marché de Saint-Pierre à la Martinique, Huile sur toile – 169 x 234 cm, Avignon, Musée Calvet (donation Marcel Puech), Photo : Musée Calvet, Avignon.
    The illustration of the painting comes from the website of la Tribune de l’Art. Feel free to consult the page, you can find other paintings by Le Masurier including the well-known Famille métisse and also that of theEsclaves noirs à la Martinique.

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