“Common in All Goods”: White Women and Property in Saint-Domingue

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:50 AM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Jennifer L. Palmer, University of Georgia
In colonial Saint-Domingue, a distinctive and possibly unique marriage practice emerged: bridegrooms gave dowries to brides.  While in most of Europe, for families the marriage of a daughter represented an irrevocable loss of income, in Saint-Domingue the reverse seemed to be the case—at least for wealthy families whose daughters stood to inherit land, the most important asset of all on this island where cash crops were king. 

Thus, on 27 April 1781, Sieur Louis Joseph Mollet de Fonbelle, a native of France, and Demoiselle Balsamie Bancio Piemond, who had been born and raised in the colony, signed their marriage contract in Port-au-Prince.[1]  Demoiselle Piemond brought nothing to the marriage except the possible prospect that someday she might inherit property.  Rather, Fonbelle gave her a dowry of thirty thousand livres.  If he predeceased her, the dowry, plus interest, would belong to her absolutely, as would all the property they acquired during their marriage.    

This marriage contract begins to suggest the unusual relationship between white women and property in colonial Saint-Domingue.  In Saint-Domingue, where property made and broke spectacular fortunes, even the prospect of access to land gave women an unusual amount of leverage in marriage, and also over control of land and other assets as wives.

This paper considers how and why individuals used contracts to allow white women more control over property.  It will also suggest that contracts employed multiple legal traditions to facilitate this control.  It draws on a source base of contracts, including marriage contracts, testaments, and donations entre vifs, as well as court cases, to argue that in this colony that was demographically skewed male, white women’s access to property gave them an unusual amount of control over assets within marriage.

[1] Marriage, 27 April 1781, Notary Degrandpré, Port-au-Prince, DPPCNOTSDOM 437, Centre des Archives d’Outre Mer.