French Prejudice of Colour #6/6 In The Lives of People

tanlistwa, peinture,représentant Joseph, portrait de trois-quart, son regard semble perdu au loin, il porte une chemise blanche surmontée d'une verste bleur avec épaulette rouge

Reading time: Around 11 minutes.
–> Lire la version française de cet article  flag-fr-1

This week, we end the series on colour prejudice with episode 6. In previous episodes, I have set out the theoretical framework of this racist system, referred to the stereotypes conveyed about Blacks and explained the legal expression of prejudice of colour. There would still be a lot to say about the french colour prejudice, about all the discussions related to the « blood mix » in the correspondences and memories of the french elite. There would be much to say about the construction of colourism in the social space, there would be much to say about legal prejudice in the 19th century (which I did not study in detail for my thesis) until its repeal (I invite you for this particular point to read the article on the repeal of the prejudice of colour in the 1830s that I published in February 2020). In short… There is enough to make more than one thesis on French racism, just by looking at the First Colonial Empire.

Nevertheless, to finish this series, I would like to do what I usually like to do on this blog, talk about people, their individual stories. Because there are the broad outlines of the normative, political, economic, social framework, but above all there are men and women, like us, who lived in another time, who had their own aspirations, who ran their boat as best they could in systems that discriminated against them, run by people who were rarely benevolent, men and women who had no choice but to face and try to take care of them in spite of everything. I prefer the stories that end well; the ones that give me hope for a better world, the ones where I can see the ingenuity of people in the face of an oppressive system, the ones where people got by just about. But the truth is that no matter what, colour prejudice was a racist system; it was rotting people’s lives when it wasn’t just killing them.

Today, I would like to share with you some extracts from the archives that have marked me, to be read and meditated upon as glimpses of the lives of these free people of colour, with some explanations and personal remarks. I have not developed each one of their stories, I do not have the opportunity to do so at the moment. But through each story, it is a bit of their distress that we read, it is the weight of the prejudice of colour that we feel.

1763, Martinique, Jean Arbousset lost his job.

« Jean Arbousset, mestif and free by birth, inhabitant of the village of Robert Isle in Martinique, containing, that from his youth he spent in France to learn in the art of surgery; that to achieve this, he attended classes in Paris (…) ); that he then went to practice with one of the most famous masters of surgery in the city of Bordeaux, where he took further courses, with whom he remained, and with whom he worked for ten consecutive years with success and to the satisfaction of this master; that finding himself experienced enough to practice his profession, and having been judged capable, he served as a surgeon and made a campaign on the frigate of King La Fortune, (…). …) that having retired to Martinique he continued to make his profession there successfully; but that he was interrupted and prevented at the request of the surgeons of the neighborhood, who obtained against him defenses of the General, and to place himself under no master; which he could not refuse them because the declaration of your majesty of April seven thousand seven hundred and sixty-four registered at the council of Martinique defends all people of color, to practice surgery. (…)
The supplicant has devoted his whole life to this state, that he has no other resource to subsist (…) begged him in these causes to plead with His Majesty, having regard to the present request, to except it by special grace.  »

Answer to the request « the main purpose of this law was to remove from such a delicate profession people who were naturally enemies of the settlers by the slavery which was withering their fellow men, and from whom it was important to remove all means of harming them. It is thought that prohibition should be maintained in all its severity, as any exception would become dangerous. » Of course, a contradiction is never far away, so when it comes to putting enslaved people to serve the sick in hospitals as assistant surgeons, apparently there we can make an exception….

1777, Martinique, Urban of Toul, parish priest of Sainte-Luce, practiced defamation.

« Before the royal notary in the island of Martinique, residing in the town of Le Marin, (…) was present the Reverend Father Urbain de Toul, religious priest of the Order of Friars Minor of Saint Francis, apostolic missionary to the Windward Islands of America and parish priest of the parish of Saint-Luce on the island of Martinique, residing there, being on this day in the town of Le Marin, in the parish of Saint-Etienne, (…). ) said and declared loudly and intelligibly that if he accused the family of Mr. Joseph Beaulieu, living in the said district of Le Marin, of having some dishonourable marks and that if he said that they passed for people of colour, it was imprudent and without foundation, recognizing him and all his family as honest men and people of honour without any stain or mixture of colour ».

Surrounded by numerous witnesses for the occasion, Joseph Beaulieu renounced, in exchange for these few lines, to maintain the proceedings he had initiated against the religious. This notarial deed is exceptional for Martinique, I have not come across any others; it illustrates the importance given to the origin of families and the importance that skin colour or « mixed blood » may have taken in French colonial societies, especially from the second half of the 18th century.

1786, Paris, Perinne Françoise Ansquer asked to marry Antoine Tassime Didier the father of her children.

« Humbly begs Perinne Françoise Ansquer…
Saying she dares to ask a great but precious favour of yours. She is a mother and not a wife, and it is this title that she claims at the feet of your greatness. The father of her two children desires with the same eagerness, that she unite herself by legitimate knots; but without your powerful protection, she will never be able to contract a marriage because Antoine Tassime Didier who wants to marry her (though free and Christian) is Black, and the ordinances prohibit the union of Blacks with Whites (…) Tassime her lover who wants to be her husband, is the only support left to her and her unfortunate children. Tassime is black, but free and virtuous; he served with zeal and fidelity, Mr. Le Comte Daché Vice-Admiral; it was this lord who took him to India; at the age of five; it was his lady, who following the last wishes of her illustrious husband, gave Tassime back his freedom (the first of possessions) as the price of his attachment and fidelity.
Tassime does not know the names of his parents and his homeland, he knows no relatives other than his benefactors, no homeland other than France. He wants to live and die there as a faithful subject, as a good father, and as the best of Spouses. It is at your knees, Monseigneur, that I ask for the status of legitimate wife of Tassime: do not reject my prayer. »

Since 1778, in France it has been forbidden because remember: « Negroes are multiplying every day in France because of America’s great communication with the kingdom. Their marriages with Europeans are encouraged, public houses are infected; the colours mix, the blood is altered. » The request is therefore refused; I don’t know what becomes of the couple.

1787, Paris, Frédéric would like to marry a girl from Maubeuge pregnant with him..

« Mr. Baron de Breteuil addresses a memorandum in which the man named Frédéric, a free mulatto, in the service of Countess ô’Gorman, requests permission to marry a daughter of Maubeuge, who is pregnant with him.
This mulatto had made the same request last July and M. le Maréchal de Castries by the ministry of S. Rosier avocat aux Conseils; it was replied to this lawyer on 11 August last that this request was formally contrary to the Council’s ruling of 5 April 1778; but that given the girl’s pregnancy, it might be possible that His Majesty would allow this marriage, if the future bridegrooms wanted to make their submission in form to the registry of the Admiralty in Paris, or before a notary to go to the isles after the delivery of the girl, in accordance with the Council’s ruling.
We think that it is the case to answer in the same spirit to Mr. Le Baron de Breteuil. If the Minister approves it, he is begged to sign the attached letter.
approved »

Yes, the marriage is approved, if they leave everything, cross the Atlantic and go 7000 km away to the colonies where the union of a white woman with a black man is so socially rejected that there is just no trace of it in the Martinique archives and I suspect the few cases that have taken place of having been forced to leave the island…. Suffice it to say that this positive answer is not a positive one.

1797, Saint-Domingue, of the virtuous Jasmin Thoumaseau by Moreau de Saint-Méry

« Aloou Kinson, born on the Côte d’Or, Africa, in 1714, was bought there by Captain Bertrand & sold in Cape Town. Mr. Thoumaseau, a mason, bought him & taught him his craft. He was baptized in the same town on March 31, 1736, & received the name of Jean Jasmin. Mr. Toumaseau at his death, arrived in 1738, left Jasmin to a M. Louis, contractor of the king’s works, with a request to provide him with the means to acquire his freedom. (…) Mr. Larnage and Mr. Maillert ratified his freedom on March 12, 1749 (…) Jasmin built, in three months, at his own expense, in the West of the Providence of Men, (…) a masonry house 36 feet long by 2 feet wide, with a simple ground floor, covered with wood and laid out to receive the sick (…). It is there that for nearly forty years, Jasmin, known as Jasmin Toumazeau, who offers the union of his own name with that of his former master, has exercised the most generous hospitality, lavishing his care, that of his wife, twelve of his negroes & his own fortune for the relief of the beings of his class. This place that can comfortably receive twelve sick people, sometimes has eighteen because Jasmin cannot bring himself to push them away (…)
In 1778, this precious negro conceived the project of increasing the size of his house, which had become insufficient (…)
Jasmin had already had an 80-foot wall built to support the land along the gully (…) Will we believe it? The 80-foot wall was knocked down, & with it disappeared the possibility of executing the plan for a housing increase (…) even diminishing the former premises occupied by Jasmin’s hospice. This establishment, ignored by almost all who live in Cape Town, is therefore exposed to whims & even to injustices despite its usefulness (…) Jasmin’s work, so praiseworthy, is ignored or despised. (…)
However, when people of colour make some pious legacies, the Providences of Whites, where they are not admitted, do not disdain to collect them. When people of colour give rise to the pronouncement of any fine applicable to the Providences, the white people do not blush to receive them. When people of colour die at Jasmin’s, it is from the white Providences that their miserable effects are claimed. If the gravediggers & the bearers of Providence bury these same people, we are not ashamed to ask Jasmin for the burial costs. And when all it would take is a look of kindness to provide them with help, it no longer concerns anyone, or rather there are beings who believe they must prevent it! (…)
Virtuous Jasmin! May hope not perish in your heart! If the witnesses of your efforts are mostly insensitive to it; if a prejudice, with which your works have nothing in common, does not allow them to estimate all that you are worth, console yourself; a voice dedicated to the truth (…) will have published your virtues. (…) Sensitive hearts will one day place this venerated name in it, & public censorship will then be shared by all those who, unable to imitate you, will have said that to reward your benevolence was to threaten the political state of the Colony. »

Moreau de Saint-Méry was a colonist from Martinique, a lawyer by training, who made his career in Saint-Domingue. He is known for his various works on colonial law and on Saint-Domingue. He is also known for having developed a detailed theoretical and classificatory model of racial mixing, as he was a staunch defender of the maintenance of the colour prejudice. But, as he says himself, he was filled with deep admiration for Jasmin . He could not say the same for other blacks. As a book dedicated to him says so well: Moreau de Saint-Méry or the ambiguities of a Creole of the Enlightenment.

1807, Martinique, the governor mentioned the genoese Arisy who claimed to marry a free  » metisse  » from the Rivière-Pilote.

« A Genoese named Arisy, who is said to be a rope dancer, presented me on July 23rd with a deed of notoriety in front of a notary, certifying that he was not married, so that I could give him permission, without which it is forbidden to admit people born outside the island to unite.
The same day and almost at the same time, I received a letter from Mr. Valmenière, acting as Imperial Attorney General at the Court of Appeal, who informed me that the priest of Vauclin (the abbot of Bouillé) had informed him of the project of marriage between Arisy and a free metisse from the parish of Rivière-Pilote. (…)
the acting public prosecutor for his part addressed me: he observed me: « that no law prohibited these marriages; that however, they were infinitely repugnant to good police; that since this case had not yet arisen since the reinstatement of the French government, he thought it necessary to refer it to me; that, in his opinion, the Government had the right to oppose these kinds of alliances, as seemed to be authorised by the amendments to the Civil Code, which prohibited a white man from testing in favour of people of colour; that at least a white man, who would be so debased, could be forced to empty the country with his wife » (…). ..)
Eight or ten days later, Arisy returned to the scene with a petition, stating that the Abbé de Bouillé had told him that he would not receive his marriage certificate (…)
I apostille the petition of one sent back to appeal to Captain General. (…)
The Acting Public Prosecutor, Mr. Valménière, had definitively notified him of an « absolute order from the Captain General, by which he declares prohibited in this colony the marriages of all whites with all people of colour, until the Government has pronounced … » (…)
I will not conceal from Your Excellency the immediate and rather curious result of the conduct which was held with regard to the man named Arisy and the order which the Captain General gave in his regard. I have an anecdote from the parish priest of Vauclin himself. Arisy, seeing that he was experiencing all these obstacles as a white man, turned around and said: I am a mulatto and asked to be married as a mulatto. »

The marriage license was refused by Villaret-Joyeuse. I checked the registers in 1807 and 1808 at Rivière-Pilote, I find no trace of it. Until then, although socially condemned and considered a legal misalliance, the marriage of a white man to a woman of colour was legally possible in Martinique.

1815, Martinique, Mr. Tholosan created a scandal for my General.

« An even more serious drawback, which has just presented itself in such a way as to avoid a great scandal, is the arrival of a coloured man married to a white woman. Such unions would be so subversive of the colonial system, that not only have they never been permitted in our isles, but no one has ever dared to conceive of them.
It is nevertheless in a country whose organization can only be sustained by this distance between the white colour and all the others, that the man named Tholosan, a man of colour, presents himself with a white woman of whom he declares himself the husband. This man is himself a former deportee from Martinique in revolutionary times, a circumstance that alone would be enough to keep him away from this colony at this time.
But the fact of his marriage does not allow for any hesitation in this respect, even if it was not dangerous, he would become dangerous by offering to the eyes of the coloured people & slaves, the spectacle of the degradation of a white woman who has been reduced to the rank of freedmen. This is so true that the coloured people and the slaves themselves were outraged at this mixture, and on the arrival of these two individuals they were insulted by the mob, to the point that force was used to protect them. »

Well, the people of colour and the enslaved people were outraged… you will note that Tholosan’s commitment to the revolutionary period is recalled… and for a bit our governor would pass for a good samaritan, not racist for a penny, by promptly prescribing that the couple leave immediately… to protect them. Demagoguery in speech is like racism. It’s not new.

Prejudices that never end

Le Vacher d’Espinais said as early as 1787: « It is a fundamental law in the colonies that the sons of freedmen, no matter how far from their origin, always keep the stain of their slavery (…), the even stronger prejudice that the law inspires in the inhabitants of the colonies, the most marked aversion to the class of mixed-blood people (…). It is not that morality does not revolt against the present order of things, and that each white person in particular may not agree with the barbarity of prejudice, but all are no less attached to it. » I wish I could have written that fortunately in the twenty-first century there is nothing less true; but stereotypes are hard to break, privileges are difficult to recognize, respect for the humanity of others still does not seem to be a given. For how much longer?

tanlistwa, peinture d'une femme noir clair de peau (buste et tête), assise accoudée à une table, la main gauche repliée au menton, elle porte un haut blanc sans manche et devant elle il y a un tissu bleu repliée, le regard bas vers la tête comme en pleine réflexion
L’Attente par Edgard Maxence, 1894, Crédit photo : Beaux-Arts de Paris

All posts:

To complete this series

*Waiting certainly, but so acting! For French racialised people (especially women) who have to face racism in the professional world, Marie Dasylva does a remarkable job of accompanying those concerned; you can listen to her French podcast Better Call Marie or for example her intervention in the podcast Travail (en cours).
Another French quality resource: Kiffe ta race. This podcast is hosted by Rokhaya Diallo and Grace Ly and is broadcast on the Binge Audio platform. Every two Tuesday, the two women receive a guest to explore racial issues through everyday issues in conversation and life. What happens when you are both a victim of racial and sexual discrimination? How to assume one’s plural identity?…

I told you in the first episode how tired I am; I am not the only one. To nourish reflection and because it touched me, French Raoul Peck’s text J’étouffe.

Finally, as you may have noticed, I chose painted portraits of men and women to illustrate this series. Neither exoticizing, nor eroticizing, nor animalised or fantasized bodies, nor smiling extras in the service of other characters, they are far from the outrageous stereotypes usually assigned to them. This is why I am particularly fond of them; I like to see the looks and features of these faces that express a humanity often forgotten in other works.

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  • Wikipédia, Portrait Study (Joseph), Théodore Géricault, 1818-19, Getty Center.
  • Facebook de la préfecture de Guadeloupe, « L’attente », par Edgar Maxence, Crédit photo : 1894, huile sur toile, Beaux-Arts de Paris.

In the slideshow of all the portraits that illustrated the series

  • Base de données Joconde, Noir portant une caisse, XIXe siècle, Crédits photos © Dijon, musée des beaux-arts
  • 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
  • Wikipédia, Jeune femme aux pivoines, Frédéric Bazille, 1870, National Gallery of Art (Washington)
  • Base de données Joconde, « Mulâtresse », par Pierre Alexis Lesage, XXe siècle, Crédits photos (C) A. GUILLARD
  • Base de données Joconde, Portrait d’un jeune Noir, par Maurice La Tour, 1741, Crédits photos Orléans Musée des Beaux-Arts © cliché François LAUGINIEB
  • Wikipédia, Jeune Africaine, par Fernand Cormon, fin XIXe siècle, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pau.
  • Base de données Joconde, « Mulâtre », par Pierre Alexis Lesage, 1906, Crédits photos (C) A. GUILLARD
  • Wikipédia, Portrait Study (Joseph), Théodore Géricault, 1818-19, Getty Center.
  • Facebook de la préfecture de Guadeloupe, « L’attente », par Edgar Maxence, Crédit photo : 1894, huile sur toile, Beaux-Arts de Paris.

Update of January 7, 2021: the link to Raoul Peck’s text is no longer freely accessible and has been removed.

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