French Prejudice of Colour #2/6 The Stereotypical Image of Blacks

tanlistwa, peinture sur fond sombre représentant un jeune garçon noir de face, visage rond et jonflue, regardant vers le peintre, il porte une chemise claire simple, surmontée d'une étoffe sombre, il semble sourire légèrement

 Reading time: Around 12 minutes.
 –> Lire la version française de cet article  flag-fr-1

This week, we continue the series on prejudice of colour with episode 2. In the previous post, I quickly detailed the sub-categories of racist systems developed by Pierre-André Taguieff’s theoretical model: ideology (world view), prejudice (opinions, beliefs), discrimination (collective behaviour leading to exclusionary measures). In my PhD thesis*, I chose to start the study of colour prejudice by analysing the predominant representations that the white Westerner had of the black African; we are, here, rather faced with opinions and beliefs, therefore in the sub-category « racial prejudice » of the theoretical model. It seemed to me that this was a good starting point, because this image of Blacks pre-existed the transplantation of men and women to the Caribbean. Today, I am speaking to you about the image of blacks, because it has nourished not only social attitudes, but also legislative decisions, which constituted the prejudice of colour, at the highest levels of the State. I’m going to focus on just two vectors of representation: the chroniclers whose writings reported on travels and were intended to address a wide audience of readers, and the drafters of laws whose texts put the prejudice of colour at the legislative level.

The « darkness » of black people

The image of Blacks does not begin its history in the colonial space; it already had foundations which, without going back to antique writings, were anchored in the voyages of time of the great European discoveries. As early as 1450, captives bought in Africa arrived in all the ports of Portugal and Andalusia. To explain the enslavement of the Blacks, the collective attitude was satisfied with very general justifications; they were pagans, heretics, Orthodox, outside the Christian community.

The whites questioned themselves, in contact with the blacks, on the place of the African in the order of Creation. However, the European travellers were more marked by the similarities between the different African peoples than by their singularities; these similarities (black skin colour, paganism, customs…) made them black, inferior beings, perceived as very distant from themselves.

As you can guess, the documents did not praise the men and women encountered on the African continent. Blacks were mostly reduced to savages; some people were described as « wanton brutes, without reason, without intelligence« , « great idolaters« , « very cruel« , « rough and wild nature« .

With the colonization of the Americas and the Caribbean, and the forced cohabitation of both, negative representations of Blacks became even stronger and more widespread. The African was first decried for the colour of his skin. The words written, published and spread by the accounts of religious missionaries who served in the West Indies, such as Labat or Dutertre, are harsh towards those who were deported and then reduced to the status of slaves. Father Dutertre was seriously astonished at :
« some of our Frenchmen who love their negresses in spite of the darkness of their faces, which makes them hideous, and the unbearable odor they exhale, which should in my opinion extinguish the ardor of their criminal fire« .
[quelques-uns de nos François qui se portent à aimer leurs négresses malgré la noirceur de leur visage, qui les rend hideuses, et l’odeur insupportable qu’elles exhalent, qui devraient à mon avis éteindre l’ardeur de leur feu criminel]
Yes, he really did.

I will spare you the description of Guillaume Coppier, a poor white French boy involved in the early days of French colonization, which I quote in the dissertation and which, according to my sensitivity, wins the prize for the most filthy and hurtful racist description.

As is often the case in situations of domination, the dominant (in)consciously defines himself as the point of reference, the valued norm. As literature professor Léon Hoffman notes, « the causes of the whiteness of whites do not seem to have worried anyone. The European is the norm, the coloured man the abnormal« . The same is true of the other criteria for characterizing non-whites for Norbert Dodille, a specialist in colonial literature: the European physique was considered by Europeans to be a perfect example of the facial angle**.

Motivated by their religious conceptions, Europeans also saw the colour of black skin as a factor in explaining the corruption of the soul, to which were added the notions of idolatry and witchcraft. The fact that Africans were associated with a morally reprehensible practice of belief by Christians justified the « civilizing » mission of missionaries and settlers, and helped to reinforce the idea that Blacks were at least morally inferior. Slavery then became an obvious motive for bringing these black men and women to a « wiser » path.

In addition to these general negative representations of Blacks, there were also more specific, but not exclusive, negative representations of mixed-race people. « Mulattoes » were particularly stigmatized, especially since they were most often born out of wedlock. Dutertre entitled one of the chapters of his book « The shameful birth of mulattoes and their condition » [de la naissance honteuse des mulâtres et de leur condition]- that is, his aversion to them.

In contrast to the religious community, administrators paid little attention to the reasons for black skin colour; nonetheless, they too associated negative stereotypes to blacks. You can identify them by reading the stated reasons for judgments and orders in the Code of Martinique. In the rest of this post, I will give you the main ones and some consequences.

tanlistwa, peinture, Étude de
« Étude de nègre », peinture, XVIIe siècle, Crédits photos © L. Gauthier

The thief

A key idea, which legitimizes many rules in the colonies, is that of the black thief or fencesman. The stereotype of the black thief is not new. When European merchants were dealing on the African coast, little aware of local customs, they encountered difficulties in their commercial transactions, so they relayed this kind of talk, convinced of the deceitfulness of others. In Martinique, this idea was present throughout the 18th century, from the king’s declaration on « free negroes who hide runaways people » in 1705 to the ordinance of the governor general and the intendant concerning the freedoms given to slaves without government permission in 1768.

Theft was perceived, in the colonies as well as in the kingdom of France, as particularly dangerous. Indeed, thieves threatened property and, because they were supposed to be outside the community, acting with their faces covered or at night, their misdeed was accompanied by a feeling of impunity in public opinion. For the State, highway robberies and domestic theft also posed a threat to the authorities. In the first case, thefts could be perceived as a challenge to royal power; in the second, they were an attack on the power of the master. But the master was, on his own scale, the king in his house. Because blacks were associated with the image of the thief or fence, they became people to be particularly wary of.

The idle vagrant

Idleness was another recurring characteristic supposed to describe Blacks. It must be said that theft, idleness, vagrancy, and begging were intimately linked in common opinion. Thus, the suspicion of theft generally affected people without a confession, those whom no one could recognize as belonging to the community, those for whom no one could vouch. The vagrant, i.e. a person of working age and physical condition, who led a wandering life without a fixed home, seemed to be inclined to stealing, and became a reason for regulation and penalization from the beginning of the 16th century. Along the way, in the 18th century, vagrancy and begging were placed high in the hierarchy of crimes. The State was in fact careful to bring the marginalized into the mould of the dominant values. If the king planned to put the vagabond beggar to work, it was above all because society saw less and less idleness. Physiocrats, for example, supported the idea that the poor had to work, to be productive in order to improve their lot. It seems to me that we haven’t gotten out of that productivity injunction that much since then. So in 1724, the state criminalized vagrancy and begging in the kingdom of France. In Martinique, the fight against begging was the same. Nevertheless, specificity of the colony, the black people being allegedly inclined to theft and concealment, it seems natural that the legislator specified that he forbade « to all hoteliers, cabaret owners and all others, especially mulattoes, negroes and free negresses, to lodge, accommodate or take away from them directly or indirectly, either by day or by night, any of the said beggars  »
[ à tous hôteliers, cabaretiers et à tous autres, spécialement aux mulâtres, nègres et négresses libres, de loger, héberger ou retirer chez eux directement ni indirectement, soit de jour, soit de nuit, aucun desdits gueux mendiants]****.
It is the « especially » that is too much for me, because it makes explicit who was responsible for the disorder, which was the root of the problem according to the writer’s point of view.

In order to guarantee public order, limit idleness and vagrancy, the state chooses to restrict the freedom to come and go. In the kingdom of France, for example, pilgrims, if they left without permission, were liable to the first offence, the penalty of straitjacket, and then the second, the whipping, because they were then, according to the edict of August 1671, considered as vagrants. In Martinique, it was the freedom to come and go of the enslaved and the Free people of Colour that was targeted. Their movements were controlled within the colonial area, mainly in the second half of the 18th century. But it was above all the movement of Blacks towards the kingdom of France that mobilized attention; we will talk more about that in episode 4.

The dishonest one

Like the vagrant, the person of colour didn’t seem trustworthy. Let us take the example of a 1754 ruling by the Sovereign Council on goldsmiths. Goldsmiths could not buy precious materials from just anyone, probably to avoid incentives to steal. Thus goldsmiths could not obtain metals from « soldiers, sailors, white servants, negroes, free mulattos or slaves of either sex, and by unknown and undomiciled persons » [ soldats, matelots, domestiques blancs, nègres, mulâtres libres ou esclaves de l’un et l’autre sexe, et par des personnes inconnues et non domiciliées]. It was obviously necessary to be able to ascertain the origin of the material. Sailors and soldiers were people passing through and the function placed them under an other authority. White or black servants were not transient people, but they remained under the dependency of the individual they served. The ban was aimed at suppliers who were only passing through and those suspected of being able to steal and resell gold, which was the case for servants living near the master’s property. Nevertheless, the Free People of Colour were neither transient nor unknown and homeless. However, without a certificate from the commissioner of the district of residence, a goldsmith could not buy raw material from them. Thus, the Free People of Colour, even if they were known and domiciled, were associated with people who were to be distrusted.

In Martinique, the stereotypes surrounding the « mulatto », and through him all people of colour, were also used as a pretext to ban certain jobs. In 1765, a decision of the Sovereign Council explained that:
« Mr. Nior, Royal Notary in this island, residing in the town of Lamentin, employed a mulatto who was free to send the acts that he passed in this capacity; that even he served as a clerk in his study; that functions of this kind should be entrusted only to persons whose probity is recognized, which could not be presumed to be found in a birth as vile as that of a mulatto; that, moreover, the loyalty of these kinds of people must be extremely suspect; that it was indecent to see them working in a notary’s office, irrespective of the thousand inconveniences that could result from it; that it was necessary to stop such an abuse »
[Me Nior, Notaire royal en cette île, résidant au bourg du Lamentin, employait un mulâtre libre à faire les expéditions des actes qu’il passait en cette qualité ; que même il lui servait de clerc dans son étude ; que des fonctions de cette espèce ne devant être confiées qu’à des personnes dont la probité soit reconnue, ce qu’on ne pouvait présumer se rencontrer dans une naissance aussi vile que celle d’un mulâtre ; que d’ailleurs la fidélité de ces sortes de gens devait être extrêmement suspecte ; qu’il était indécent de les voir travailler dans l’étude d’un notaire, indépendamment de mille inconvénients qui en pouvaient résulter ; qu’il était nécessaire d’arrêter un pareil abus ]
This is not a discussion of counters at the corner bar, no, this is written in a ruling, a court decision that leads to the prohibition of employing free people of colour in the offices of clerks, notaries, prosecutors and bailiffs.

The insubordinate

In the 18th century, the growing black population, free as slaves, encouraged a recurring anxiety about the disorder it could cause. The idea that blacks could be a source of debauchery became entrenched and arguments about their « spirit of independence and indocility » emerged. I had already written this in an article on women’s education: docility is the notion that, regardless of historical and cultural distance, has the power to annoy me. It is generally invoked to describe the good attitude expected from a group. It is recurrent in situations of discrimination. The dominant, presupposing his or her superiority, postulate that slaves, freedmen or women must be docile in order to be « good » people, in other words, they must be willing to subordinate themselves and obey. Here, social organization and ideology affirmed the subordination that slaves and Freedmen of colour were supposed to show in all circumstances; the first because of their servile status, the second because of their origin. Thus, the dominant group expected from Free People of Colour the submission, simplicity, and decency supposedly due to the intermediate state imposed on them. Those who did not conform to the expected behaviour were then called arrogant or insolent.

Conclusion on the image of Blacks

The transplantation of men and women to the colonial space of the French West Indies and the increased contact between white settlers and black enslaved people contributed to the reinforcement of preexisting prejudices at the time of colonization. As it was necessary to convince oneself of the legitimacy of the slavery practice programmed by the necessities of the colonial project, the Whites reinforced their alleged superiority (and neutrality!) and trivialized the idea that slavery of Blacks could represent both a moral and an economic solution. In view of the economic stakes represented by the colonial trade, the negative image of Blacks hardly had any difficulty in being conveyed outside the colonies, starting with all the circles concerned by the slave trade and its business (Bordeaux, Nantes, La Rochelle…).

The negative traits of the subaltern peoples, the vagabond, the beggar… in fact, of all the categories that the elite of the Ancien Régime considered to be sources of disorder, were transposed to Blacks, making them a « race » perceived as abject. The descriptions of religious and other chroniclers, the words of jurists, the words of politicians, made free people of colour a category that everything incited to reject, a category derived from Blacks described as slaves by nature, and a category perceived as composed of thieves, idle, dishonest, insubordinate persons at the end of the century, vile because of the mixing … Not all Whites had such an excessive opinion, especially on the scale of individual experience; but social conformism nonetheless led to the acceptance of this discourse legitimizing the collective construction of a racist public and social order.

Because the preservation of colonial order and interest was a priority, because the negative portrayal of Blacks was constantly being repeated on all sides, the defects attributed to the Blacks became vices or traits of « race » rather than the social structure and living conditions imposed on them. Everyone seems to have wanted to forget that it was more likely the misery of their living conditions and the injustice of their situation that drove some black people, free or enslaved, to theft, idleness, insubordination … not the traits inherent in their origin.

All posts:

(coming up)
French Prejudice of Colour #/6 In People’s Lives

* The first 5 posts devoted to this series on the prejudice of colour are a reworking of the writings taken from my French dissertation defended in June 2015. You can download it here Les Libres de couleur face au préjugé… if you wish to read more about the subject or to get precise references. For this episode, see in particular chapter 2 (p. 37 and following).
Researchers’ quotes in the note are translated from French and may therefore differ from works also published in English.

** There are, however, some fine counter-examples of people questioning the relativity of perceptions, such as Vitellions or Jacques de Vitry in the 13th century or Montaigne and Jean de Léry in the 16th century, to be discovered in the fascinating French article Un ange noir from the blog Actuel Moyen Age.

***There is a whole scientific literature dealing with the stereotypes that have been built around mixed-race people, especially around  » mulattresses  » in the eyes of white men, but it’s a bit far from my goal for this series of posts and it would make me go into too long developments, so I don’t deal with it.

****Most of the laws I quote come from the Code of Martinique, I don’t systematically re-specify the source in this case.

French Bibliography

  • Cohen William Benjamin, Français et Africains : les Noirs dans le regard des Blancs, traduit par Camille Garnier, Paris, Gallimard, 1981
  • Debbasch Yvan, Couleur et liberté : le jeu du critère ethnique dans un ordre juridique esclavagiste, Paris, Dalloz, 1967
  • Dodille Norbert, Introduction aux discours coloniaux, Paris, PUPS, 2011
  • Hoffmann Léon François, Le nègre romantique : personnage littéraire et obsession collective, Paris, Payot, 1973
  • Muchembled Robert, Le temps des supplices : de l’obéissance sous les rois absolus, Paris, Armand Colin, 1992


  • Dutertre Jean-Baptiste, Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les François…, T. Jolly (Paris), 1667
  • Durand-Molard, Code de la Martinique, Saint-Pierre, Martinique, J.-B. Thounens, 1807.


  • Base de données Joconde, Portrait d’un jeune noir, 4e quart du XVIIIe siècle, crédits photos© musée d’Aquitaine
  • Base de données Joconde, Étude de Nègre, XVII siècle, Crédits photos © L. Gauthier

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