The repeal of the prejudice of colour in the 1830s

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The history of the Free People of Color in Martinique is my research specialty. The Free People of Colour are those women and men, born free or freed, black or mixed race, who were legally free (unlike slaves), but who were nevertheless discriminated ( unlike whites), notably because of the colour of their skin and/or their servile origin. This socially and legally discriminatory system, which was introduced in colonial society during the 18th century, is called prejudice of colour. Today, I am talking to you about the legal prejudice of colour, but above all about its suppression; because with it, it is my subject of study that disappears from official documents!

In a few words, the history of legal prejudice of colour

In March 1685, a fundamental text was enacted for the colonies: the King’s edict concerning the discipline of the Church, and the state and quality of the Negro slaves in the American Isles, later called the Black Code. The text legislated on the conditions of slavery and consequently also on emancipation. On emancipation precisely, article 59 says: « Let us grant the freed the same rights, privileges and immunities enjoyed by those born free; let us want the merit of an acquired freedom to produce in them, both for their persons and for their property, the same effects that the happiness of natural freedom causes to our other subjects. » [Octroyons aux affranchis les mêmes droits, privilèges et immunités dont jouissent les personnes nées libres; voulons que le mérite d’une liberté acquise produise en eux, tant pour leurs personnes que pour leurs biens, les mêmes effets que le bonheur de la liberté naturelle cause à nos autres sujets.] The law in 1685 then recognized only one form of freedom. If you weren’t a slave, you were free, and that’ s all.

Except that this situation was gradually undermined by local regulations, distinguishing between the freedom of some and the freedom of others. In Martinique, the first regulation making a distinction among free persons appeared in 1720, which regulated and distinguished the clothing of field and domestic slaves, and also imposed clothing limits on « Indian mulattoes and Negroes who were freed or free from birth of any sex ». An intermediate category then emerged between slaves (essentially associated with black Africans) and free subjects (essentially associated with white Europeans): the Free People of Colour. While the law of 1685 fundamentally distinguished a status (free or slave), the colonial order was built by combining the factor of colour (white or non-white). Thus, the Free People of Colour did not enjoy the same freedom as white people.

Then there was a whole bunch of orders, judgments, regulations that accumulated over time to help maintain the order that was initially established. The measures sought to ensure the security of whites, to segregate classes, to control and circumscribe the numerical, financial and social development of the Free People of Color, by discriminating against them. Some texts fell into disuse. Others were not really applied, as the regular recall of certain laws shows. But in all cases, this legislative arsenal remained a constraining pressure tool for the Free People of Colour, sometimes threatening their status as a free person by certain sanctions.

There has always been resistance to prejudice of colour, either individually or collectively, through ideological struggle or armed revolt, but it was not until the 19th century that the challenge to racial discrimination was successful. The 1830s were thus fundamental years for the rights of Free People of Colour in the French colonies. Indeed, it was during this period that several legislative texts modified the organization of colonial societies by repealing local regulations that limited the rights of the Free People of Colour.

The various measures to abrogate the prejudice of colour and grant equality to Free People of Colour

A first text undermined the legal structure established at the end of 1830. Following a ministerial dispatch of 14 September instructing the colonial authorities to repeal all discriminatory local regulations, the governor of Martinique enacted an order concerning various measures relating to free people of colour. The text is interesting because it lists the various discriminatory measures that were repealed. This allows a quick overview of the prohibitions that the Free People of Colour faced over time on the island.

(n°483) Governor’s Order Concerning Various Provisions Relating to Freed and Free People of Color of November 12, 1830

  • June 4, 1720: section of a local by-law indicating which clothes must be worn by freedmen and free from births
  • May 9, 1765 and December 25, 1783: regulation prohibiting public officers from employing free men of colour as writers.
  • January 6, 1773 and March 4, 1774: Order on the prohibition of the use of white names for persons of colour.
  • November 6, 1781: Judgment forbidding the priests and public officers to qualify the Free people of Colour with the title of sieur and dame.
  • December 25, 1783 and November 1, 1809: order and regulation forbidding men of colour from carrying arms and assembling without the permission of the King’s prosecutor or the commander of the district.
  • December 25, 1783: order forbidding free men of colour to buy gunpowder (for weapons) without a permit from the King’s Prosecutor.
  • December 25, 1783, May 8, 1799, September 27, 1802, November 1, 1809 and October 25, 1823: Orders, decrees and regulations prohibiting apothecaries from employing free people of colour in the preparation of drugs.
  • January 3, 1788: Ordinance requiring free people of colour to obtain permits to work elsewhere than in crop cultivation.
  • October 16, 1796: order assigning specific places (paradise) in shows for free people of colour
  • December 9, 1809: Order setting the order to be followed in funeral convoys, free coloured people could not place themselves among the whites.

The text specifies that several of these regulations were no longer in use or obsolete, but that it was important, in order to avoid any ambiguity, to formally repeal them.

It is likely that the 1720 text on clothing was among those that fell into disuse. It stated that « all Indian mulattos and Negroes who are freed or free of births of any sex may dress in white cloth, ginga, cotton, Indian or other equivalent fabrics of little value, with such clothes on, without silk, gilding or lace, unless it is at very low cost; for the latter, hats, shoes and simple headdresses. » [tous mulâtres indiens et nègres affranchis ou libres de naissances de tout sexe pourront s’habiller de toile blanche, ginga, cotonille, indiennes ou autres étoffes équivalentes de peu de valeur, avec pareils habits dessus, sans soie, dorure ni dentelle, à moins que ce ne soit à très bas prix; pour ces derniers, chapeaux, chaussures et coiffures simples.] However, the paintings of Agustino Brunias, Joseph Savart, or Marius-Pierre Le Masurier show us richly dressed free of colour all over the Caribbean in the 18th century, wearing golden buckles on their shoes, imposing headdresses with beautiful textiles, jewels…

While some regulations had fallen into disuse, the same could not be said of customs. Customs are not based on a legal arsenal, but on the practice usually followed by the members of a society. That is why, in addition to these legal rules, the text also repealed customs, in particular those « which prevented or could formerly prevent free men of colour from selling wholesale, from exercising mechanical professions and from taking their place in churches or processions among whites » [qui empêchaient ou pouvaient empêcher anciennement les hommes de couleur libres de vendre en gros, d’exercer des professions mécaniques et de se placer dans les églises ou dans les processions parmi les Blancs].

A few months after the first decree, a second was added to the list of repeals, following a ministerial reminder of 11 January 1831. It completes our knowledge of the diversity of the limitations imposed over time.

(n°582) The Order of the Governor in Council, repealing various prohibitive ordinances relating to free people of colour of April 1, 1831

  • December 25, 178, September 24, 1802, November 1, 1809: Ordinances and regulations forbidding men of color to practice medicine, surgery, and the preparation of remedies.
  • March 15, 1803: Judgment on the verification of the liberty titles of individuals of color.
  • April 27, 1812: order requiring a certificate from the commissioner and two neighbourhood notables for the receipt of birth or marriage certificates of men of colour
  • June 15, 176, February 5, 1768, which does not permit the baptism of any child as free unless the emancipation of the mothers is previously established by acts of liberty with the written permission of the governor and intendant.
    August 31, 1778: Ordinance that stipulates in the baptismal records of free people of color, their condition, their degree of color and prohibits to receive them at the said baptism without having been represented the acts of freedom of their father and mother.
  • October 14, 1802: Order prohibiting the admission of any man of color into the militia unless he proves that he enjoys his freedom .
  • August 20, 1810: notice from the Public Prosecutor’s Office requiring Free People of Color to produce their acts of emancipation when they are admitted to court, or before any public officer.
    To make a long story short, the Free Men of Colour are no longer required to present specific documents proving that they are not slaves; they can now present the same documents as any white person in daily formalities.
  • May 7, 1772: the ordinance forbidding people of color to have any communication, at any time and in any place, with the galley slaves, under penalty of corporal punishment.
  • December 29, 1756, August 9, 1777, July 2, 1802: order, declaration and decree relating to the mobility of people of color, the first one forbade them to leave for France, the other two forbade them to enter French territory.
  • March 1, 1766: Ordinance stipulating that in the event of concealment of Maroon, coloured people would be deprived of their liberty and sold for the benefit of the King.
  • January 6, 1773, March 4, 1774: Orders requiring parish priests and public officers to add to the names of individuals of colour the qualification of coloured people.

Finally, a last text clarifies the equalization of rights for the Free People of Colour.

(n°605) King’s Ordinance granting full enjoyment of civil rights to free people of colour, February 24, 1831 and (No. 606) the Order prescribing the promulgation of this Royal Ordinance on April 29, 1831.

« Considering that it is necessary to re-establish at the earliest opportunity the free persons of colour in the full enjoyment of civil rights » [Considérant qu’il est nécessaire de rétablir au plutôt  les personnes de couleur libres dans la jouissance entière des droits civils], the King’s Ordinance orders the following:

« Are and remain repealed, with regard to the measures that restricted, the enjoyment of civil rights by persons of free colour, The colonial orders promulgating the Civil Code in Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana and Bourbon Island. »
[« Sont et demeurent abrogé, en ce qui concerne les dispositions qui ont restreint, à l’égard des personnes de couleur libres, la jouissance des droits civils, les arrêtés coloniaux portant promulgation du Code civil à la Martinique, à la Guadeloupe, à la Guyane française et l’île Bourbon ».]

In Guadeloupe, the process is more or less the same. First there is the decree of November 11, 1830, which repeals most of the regulations, then a second wave with the decree of April 12, 1831 (to repeal the prohibitions on the practice of medicine and surgery) and the decree of April 15 recommending to colonial public officials the use of « tact and tolerance » in their administrative relations with the free people of color.
The process ends for both islands with the Royal Order of 24 April 1833 granting political rights to the Free Men of Colour.

What does the historian do when the Free People of Color disappear from history?

For the researcher, the definition of concepts is really important, because concepts provide a framework for analysis. For my work, I refer to the use of the stigmatizing markers of the Free People of Color in official documents: the named Madelaine free mulattress, Jean Negro Freed, Louise Dufay free mestive by birth, the named Pierre César free man of color, Anne citizen of color, François free (the list is fictional) . This stigmatization allows me both to study the Free People of Color as such, but also to analyze the perceptions and the construction of categorizations of individuals in colonial society.

With the 1830s, formal legal discrimination disappeared, as did the markers of colour in official documents. My conceptual approach and my usual way of working are no longer applicable in this new context; therefore, I consider that from 1833 onwards, I can no longer speak of Free of Colour. However, the consequences of the social organization built up over the centuries continued after 1833 and, even today, it is difficult not to see in our society the stigmas of this history.

So how’s it going? It’s a work in progress. For the moment, after 1833 (abolition of the prejudice of colour) and even more so after 1848 (abolition of slavery), I’m trying to understand how the social organization of the old regime distinguishing whites, Free People of Colour and slaves, continued to influence men and women after the major institutional changes, thanks to genealogy. Indeed, for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at least, by studying people’s family origins, I can determine to which group they were historically associated; I can thus continue to observe how this inherited origin influences people’s lives several generations after the legal end of the prejudice of colour.

And you, were you familiar with this process that a few years before the abolition of slavery, changed the institutional organization of the colonies? Had you ever thought about the impact of a law on the whole methodology of the researcher’s work?


French Bibliography

Archives territoriales de Martinique, série des bulletins officiels 3K2/3-5

  • n°483 arrêté du gouverneur concernant diverses dispositions relatives aux gens de couleur libres et affranchis.le 12 novembre 1830
  • n°582 arrêté du gouverneur en conseil, qui abroge diverses ordonnances prohibitives… 1er avril 1831
  • n°605 ordonnance du roi accordant la jouissance entière des droits civils aux gens de couleur libres, le 24 février 1831
  • n°606 arrêté qui prescrit la promulgation de cette ordonnance royale le 29 avril 1831.

Bibliothèque nationale de France

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