Reading time: Around 3 minutes.
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Often the mailbox is synonymous with bills, advertisements and various administrative papers. Nothing to write home about. However, from time to time, thick envelopes with intriguing contents arrived! This is the pleasure I had at the end of last year, when I received (autographed, moreover!) Bordeaux Métisse, Esclaves et Affranchis du XVIIIe à L’Empire by Julie Duprat. Today, I begin the year 2022, as I ended the previous one: with the presentation of a book in French!
If you are interested in blogs on the French history of Blacks before the definitive abolition of slavery, you probably already know Noire métropole [black metropolis] run by Julie Duprat. I had previously mentioned her blog in the post La petite histoire of the Blacks in France, because she presents fascinating portraits of men and women, chefs, fencers, opera singers… and more broadly deals with the lives of black enslaved, freed or freeborn people in France in the 18th and 19th centuries. Julie Duprat defended her thesis at the École Nationale des Chartes in 2017 entitled Présences noires à Bordeaux: passage et intégration (1763-1792) [Black presence in Bordeaux: passage and integration (1763-1792) ]; it is this work that has formed the basis for the publication of Bordeaux Métisse in 2021 by Mollat.
The book reminds us once again that the history of slavery and colonialism in France concerns the kingdom as much as the overseas colonies. Throughout the pages, we discover the passengers and free sailors of colour or slaves who embarked and disembarked in Bordeaux, the people who lived there reduced to the status of slaves, often servants or apprentices, and those who were free, with varied fates.
One of the highlights of my reading was the chapter on emancipations, in which I was particularly struck by the strategies of the masters to accommodate the variations in legislation on slavery between the two areas. I am thinking in particular of « emancipations » which in fact kept the slave under the master’s domination, by attaching conditions such as the obligation to continue to serve the family for ten years; in concrete terms, this enabled the master to circumvent the legislation in force, which sought to limit the time enslaved people could spend in the metropolis. I was happy to find Casimir Fidèle, this man, a cook, with an exceptional career who ran a hotel in Bordeaux and whose portrait Julie has also presented on her blog. I was interested in the gendered strategies of the elite with regard to the mixed-race children of white fathers, which meant that once the boys were educated, they tended to return to the islands to manage the family plantations, while the girls remained in the metropolis. Finally, I rolled my eyes when I read the passage on the grievances of the revolutionary period. It says that some people asked for the removal of coloured people because their presence was detrimental to white domesticity (understand that it was too much competition in the job market). I am always surprised by the vitality over the centuries of the myth of the Other as the cause of society’s ills and whose expulsion or disappearance would solve the problems! Fortunately, there are always altruistic people too, and at the same time, we also find requests for the abolition of slavery in the lists of demands
The book allows us to discover much more information about the black population of Bordeaux (typology, origin, education, activities, networks…). And as is often the case, this type of study is an opportunity to make comparisons and to see differences with the situation in the colonies, such as the statistics on mixed unions which show a majority of unions involving a black man with a white woman, a situation which was unthinkable in Martinique at the same period (as shown by the governor’s reaction to the presence of Tholosan, a « coloured man », with his « white » wife at the disembarkation of a ship in 1815, which I mentioned in the post on French colour prejudice).
Finally, I would like to point out the presence in the appendices of lists mentioning these enslaved or freed people or their descendants, according to the sources studied by Julie; this could be a useful tool for those seeking to reconstitute genealogies or life paths. For my part, I was captivated by reading the announcements that appeared in the press of the time, whether it was to declare a runaway slave, to seek to place oneself in the service of a family, to find passage on a ship…
At the beginning of this year, here is a suggestion to add to your reading list in French. What have you been reading lately?
- Julie Duprat, Bordeaux Métisse, Esclaves et Affranchis du XVIIIe à l’Empire, éd. Mollat, 2021.
- The blog of Julie Duprat Noire métropole