Intimacy and the Atlantic World

Friday, January 8, 2010: 2:50 PM
Manchester Ballroom F (Hyatt)
Jennifer L. Palmer , University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
In 1755 the merchant Aimé-Benjamin Fleuriau returned to his native city of La Rochelle, a bustling port on France's Atlantic coast, after twenty years in the colonies where he made his fortune in indigo and sugar produced by slaves who worked his plantation. But he did not return alone: he brought five of his mixed-race children with him, his sons and daughters by a woman named Jeanne, one of his former slaves. The children's gender determined their varied paths: the boys returned to Saint-Domingue where they supervised their father's plantation, while the girls remained close to their father in La Rochelle. With his support, his daughters Jeanne-Marie and Marie-Charlotte set up house just a few blocks from where Aimé-Benjamin lived in the most splendid house in town with his new, white French wife and children. In spite of the ocean between them, Jeanne-Marie and Marie-Charlotte remained in touch with their brothers in the colonies, and made every effort to reinforce these family ties that distance threatened to pull asunder. In doing so, they drew on family strategies long-established in Europe and deployed them to define their own trans-oceanic, multi-racial family unit. This paper argues that intimacy provides a critical lens through which to view the Atlantic world. It was in the context of the family that enduring relationships between white men and people of color were most common, and examining how such intimate family relationships were constructed and maintained provides insight into how Europeans, including black and mixed-race Europeans, participated in and shaped the Black Atlantic. The results of such a view are sometimes surprising: free women of color, who might at first glance seem among the least influential members of a society that valued rank, name, and status, found ways to shape family structures and strategies.