One word, one story : Chabin, Chabine

Tanlistwa, photographie en noir et blanc d'une jeune martiniquaise en costume local (jupon blanc, robe à motif, coiffe madras à trois pointe, collier et boucle d'oreilles) debout dans un jardin, souriante

 Reading time: around 10 minutes.
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Recently, I published la couleur de l’autre : l’altérité au travers des mots dans les sociétés coloniales françaises... [the colour of the other: otherness through words in French colonial societies…], an article in which I am interested in the use of stigmatizing words in the 17th and 18th centuries: nègre [negro], mulâtre [mulatto], sang-mêlé [mixed blood]… Words that still make sense in our society.  However, there is a term often used in the Antilles nowadays that does not appear on the list studied: Chabin, Chabine*. And for good reason, this word seems to have appeared much more recently. Today, I am talking to you about the words chabin, chabine, which, in our vocabulary in the French Antilles, refers to a person who as very light complexion, but whose phenotypic features are reminiscent of a African person.

What is a chabin or chabin in the French Antilles?

Photo réalisée par Michelle Marshall pour le projet photographique MC1R

When we speak of the chabin or chabine in the French Antilles, we usually refer to a light-skinned person (with or without light eyes), but whose traits recall African people: shape of nose and lips, and more particularly curly hair type (often blond or red color)…. As Raphaël Confident wrote, chabin, chabine, belong more to descriptions of phenotypic fetures than to racial ones. Indeed, the vocabulary inherited from the 17th and 18th centuries was rather intended to express the perceived or supposed result of different generations of mixing between Whites and Blacks, particularly according to the shade of the skin. . Chabin and chabin correspond mainly to particular phenotypic characteristics; Michel Leiris thus defines chabins and chabins as « individuals with light skin but African traits, derived from two Caribbean parents, and sometimes with light eyes and hair, characteristics that are quite rare because of the recessive nature of the European colour genes in the eyes and hair. « (p. 161) So I began the research by asking myself when these words with this meaning first appeared in historical sources, because in the archives of the 17th and 18th centuries and even at the beginning of the 19th century, I never saw them used. However, until the 1833s, official documents (birth registration, marriage, notarial deed, etc.) stigmatized non-white people.

When did the words chabin and chabine first appear in the French Antilles?

While consulting the digitized books in the Manioc Digital Library, I found the word chabin in old publications, but it was used as a family name at the time. This is the case in Loix et constitutions des colonies françoises de l’Amérique sous le vent (p. 152) by Moreau de Saint-Mery, published in 1785, or in Histoire générale des Antilles by Adrien Dessalles, published in 1847, which lists Henry and Charles Chabin in a list of unarmed inhabitants, among the first settlers on the island of Saint-Christophe (now Saint-Kitt) (p. 425).

For now, I found the oldest mention in 1892, which could correspond to the current definition of chabin for a person. Jacques Riquier, born on January 25, 1872, to the Saint-Esprit, a cultivator, is nicknamed Chabin in his military number sheet made in 1892. Nevertheless, the physical description section of the form is not completed, so it is impossible to check if it is his body that gives him this nickname.




In fact, this nickname of chabin would correspond quite closely to the emergence of vocabulary in the literature! Indeed, 11 years earlier, Edgar La Selve (born in France and who seems to have arrived in Haiti at the end of 1871) published in 1881 a book entitled Le pays des nègres : voyage à Haiti, ancienne partie française de Saint-Domingue…; he relates the executions of Rigaud’s supporters (probably during the 1799-1800 Knifes war) and recalls an assassin who « recounted how skilfully he whitened/killed the chabins » [racontait avec quelle dextérité il blanchissait les chabins] (p. 345). It is difficult to know here whether chabin is not used as a synonym for mulatto, because it is confrontations between Blacks and Mulattoes that this passage refers to. Then, in 1895, in Trois ans à la Martinique, Louis Garaud also spoke of a chabin, but this was the name of a fighting rooster (p. 94).

However, no doubt is allowed in the employment that Lafcadio Hearn, who spent 2 years in Martinique from 1887, does. In his book Two Years in the French West Indies , published in 1890, he described a population made up of « mulâtresse, capresse, griffe, quarteronne, métisse, chabine« , rethinking the « two chabines,—golden girls: the twin-sisters who sell silks and threads and foulards; always together, always wearing robes and kerchiefs of similar color,—so that you can never tell which is Lorrainie and which Édoualise. » and tells the adventures of « Stéphane, nickmanem Ti Chabin, because of his bright hair« . His writings are then translated into French. We find the story of Ti Chabin « à cause de la couleur de ses cheveux » (p. 5) in L’Antillaise. Petite revue littéraire et scientifique in 1904. The elements on the twinsisters are taken up Esquisses martiniquaises, in 1924, : « les deux chabines, les jeunes filles dorées, ce sont des jumelles qui vendent des soies, des fils et des foulards ; elles sont toujours ensemble , et portent toujours des robes et des mouchoirs de même couleur, de sorte qu’on ne peut jamais dite qui est Lorrainie et qui est Edoualise » (p. 41). The description of the population is given in Un voyage d’été aux tropiques, published in 1932 (p. 63).

In the 20th century, the chabin and chabin were more present in literature. Thus, in 1907, the chabin was mentioned in Oeuvres of Léon Belmont ; the narrator was introduced to people under the name of M. Châbin, which was not his real name, and it seems that he considers this to be a offensive name (p. 82). J. Tripot refers to « a white quarteron, a chabin«  [un quarteron presque blanc, un chabin]  (p. 47), in Au pays de l’or, des forçats et des Peaux-Rouges : la Guyane…, in 1910. Then in 1927, J.F.L. Merlet described the eldest of the Fortinent brothers as « son of white and chabine (light Creole with red hair) » [fils de blanc et de chabine (créole claire aux cheveux roux)](p. 135), in 13.904 : roman d’un forçat. In 1928, in a folder containing several posters and leaflets on the Affaire Galmot, a text was written to be sung to the song Gadé chabine là (p. 5). I can’t resist the pleasure of sharing a link to the song I found on Youtube.

As for song, there is also mention of Aïe, ça ki pas connaître, Bello chabin (p. 80) in the book on Le carnaval de St-Pierre (Martinique)… Victor Coridun, published in 1930. The explanation of the song can be found in 1935 in Les Antilles filles de France…  by Marthe Oulié, who tells the anecdote of the « famous and all black restorer, Belo » [restaurateur célèbre, et tout noir, Belo] and writes that « The lightest of the mulattos, they were called « chabins » and even, here, by the way, the « chabines » with their red hair were considered the most gaily… » [Les plus clairs des mulâtres, on les appelait des « chabins » et même, tenez, soit dit en passant , les « chabines » avec leurs cheveux roux passaient pour les plus gaillardes…] (p. 55).

There is still mention of the chabin in Cristalline Boisnoir ou les dangers du bal loulou, in 1929; Thérèse Herpin describes « the Martiniquais of all skin shades, from neg’ – Guinea, (…) to the chabin with the tow mane » [les Martiniquais de toutes les nuances de peau, depuis le neg’ – Guinée, (…) jusqu’au chabin à la crinière d’étoupe] whose note states that Chabin is a blond mulatto [mulâtre blond] (p. 33).

In 1930, in Galeries martiniquaises, Césaire Philémon observed « the whole range of colours: mulâtres, quarterons, capres, chabins, griffes calazazas, etc…  » [toute la gamme des couleurs : mulâtres, quarterons, capres, chabins, griffes calazazas, etc…](p. 84), evoked « the Creole song symbolized by pretty women, black women with satiny skin, cabresse with sapodilla skin, chabines with an orange complexion…. » [la chanson créole symbolisée par de jolies femmes, négresses à la peau satinée, cabresse à peau de sapotilles, chabines au teint orange…](p. 263) and is still interested in :

« the range of tones that makes the complexion of blacks so difficult to reproduce. It goes from the white complexion of the mulattress with flat hair, to the matte black of the negress with a thick and perfectly curly fleece, passing through the bitter blond of the chabine, the brown cinnamon colour, all the rich tones of precious wood and the sapotilla colour of the capresse »
[la gamme des tons qui rend le teint des noirs si difficile à reproduire. Elle va de la blanche carnation de la mulâtresse aux cheveux plats, au noir mat de la négresse à la toison épaisse et si parfaitement frisée, en passant par l’aigre blondeur de la chabine, la brune couleur de cannelle, tous les tons riches de bois précieux et la capresse couleur de sapotille] (p. 304).

Finally, in 1931, in Madinina « Reine des Antilles », William Dufougeré described the « chabine: An near-white woman with yellow curly hair. » [chabine : Femme presque blanche dont les cheveux crépus sont jaunes.] (p. 129).

In written documents, the word chabin to refer to certain Creoles was used from the 1880s onwards, and then expanded in the 20th century. Until at least the 1930s, the criterion of hair colour (blond or red) seemed inseparable from the definition of chabin or chabine; therefore, Michel Leiris’ definition in 1955 (and ours still today) was a little less restrictive, because hair colour was a possible factor, but not indispensable to characterize a chabin or chabine. However, none of this tells us where the term comes from.

And the word chabin, where does it come from?

Like other words describing the people of the French Caribbean (mulatto, caper), I suspected that its origin would have to be found in the animal world. The word was mentioned as early as 1803-1804 in Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle :

« Chabin, so called, in some of our islands in America, the animal produced by the mating of the male goat and the female sheep; this mule has the shape of the mother and the hair of the father. It is said to be fruitful, but there is still no known intermediate race between the goat and the sheep, which would certainly happen if, as it is claimed, the chabin had the power to generate and multiply » (p. 566).
[ Chabin, l’on appelle ainsi, dans quelques-unes de nos îles de l’Amérique, l’animal produit par l’accouplement du bouc et de la brebis, ; ce mulet a les formes de la mère et le poil du père. On le dit fécond, cependant l’on ne connoit point encore de race intermédiaire entre la chèvre et la brebis, ce qui ne manqueroit pas d’arriver si, comme on le prétend, le chabin avoir la puissance d’engendrer et de se multiplier] (p. 566).

In 1836, the Dictionnaire abrégé de l’Académie française made it a kind of goat (p. 179). In 1843, in the Encyclopédie catholique, it is stated that the chabin is « the alleged product of the union of the goat and the sheep » [le produit prétendu de l’union du bouc et de la brebis] and the Chabine « (ancient geography), a mountain in Happy Arabia, to the northwest » [(géographie ancienne) , une montagne de l’Arabie Heureuse, vers le nord-ouest] (p. 303). There is a whole literature on the veracity of hybridity and animal selection mechanisms. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend in particular the Recherches sur l’hybridité animale… (p. 551 and following) by Paul Broca in 1860, some press lines on the Chabin dans Mémorial de la Loire et de la Haute-Loire 8 juin 1869 or the article Chabin dans Le Rappel du 3 février 1889.

In any case, the sale of chabin sheepskin can be found in the newspaper Le Progrès de la Côte-d’Or 26 juin 1873 and, in Charles Noellat’s 1859 Compte rendu de l’Exposition universelle de Dijon, it states « this industrialist exhibits sheepskins made from wool. We noticed a travel chabin, red and white sheepskins, white skins… » [cet industriel expose des peaux de moutons passées avec de la laine. Nous avons remarqué un chabin de voyage, des peaux de moutons rousses et blanches, des peaux passées en blancs…](p. 120). I always wonder what a « travel chabin » is, perhaps a piece of clothing?

But it is the definition presented by Jaubert’s 1855 glossaire du centre de la France that I found most interesting! Jaubert defines chabin as curly wool or long, coarse wool, « chabin » or « chabine wool » (p. 218). He explains that it is also a kind of fur so called because it was part of the costume of the former aldermen. And above all, he notes that « Chabin is also a nickname or sobriquet by which we designate a person who has curly hair » [Chabin est aussi un surnom ou sobriquet par lequel on désigne une personne qui a les cheveux frisés]. Thus, Chabin was already a nickname given in central France in the 19th century. In 1875, this somewhat modified definition was repeated in Germaine Laisnel de la Salle’s Croyances et légendes du centre de la France: « Chabin is also a nickname that we frequently use to designate a person whose hair is frizzy or curly like wool » [Chabin est aussi un surnom dont nous nous servons fréquemment pour désigner une personne qui a les cheveux crépus ou frisés comme de la laine] (p. 214).


Thus, the chabin he once referred to as the hybrid between a goat and a sheep, a variety of goat or sheep, was at least since the middle of the 19th century, and certainly for a long time already, a nickname by which a person with curly hair was referred to in central France. In the Caribbean, it probably emerged after the legal repeal of the prejudice of colour. For me, written sources would tend to place its emergence in the last 20 years of the 19th century; nevertheless, many other books and archives should be consulted to ensure that there are no previous references.

And you, did you know the meaning and origin of this word? Have you met him in older documents to evoke the characteristics of Creole people? Have you ever seen postcards, photographs or old paintings of chabins or chabines? I ask you this question about archival sources because I have struggled to find an illustration on this theme. The postcard at the top of the article is one of the few that is not legendary as a mulattress and whose person could perhaps have been described as a chabine. Finally, there are several French studies conducted on the more recent representations associated with chabins and chabines; I put some links in biography if you want to know more about them.

*In Creol, the spelling is chaben, chabine


  • Raphaël Confiant, Le mythe du « Chaben », 2000
  • Michel Leiris, Contacts de civilisation en Martinique et en Guadeloupe, 1955, p. 161.

If you want to know more about the representations associated with chabins and chabines, you can read two articles by Stéphanie Mulot.
Chabines et métisses dans l’univers antillais, Entre assignations et négociations
Quand la race croise le genre : le fondement des sociétés antillaises

Bibliothèque numérique Manioc

Bibliothèque nationale de France

Projet Gutenberg



Banque Numérique des Patrimoines Martiniquais


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