Voluntary and Involuntary Migration: Gender, Slavery, and Travel in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies, 1750-1850

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center)
Sue Peabody, Washington State University Vancouver
The richly documented life of a slave family from Bengal shows how migration functioned differently for men and women, enslaved and free in France and its colonies. Working from close interpretation of tricky sources, this analysis builds a gendered analysis of travel and migration at the global scale in the era of slavery and emancipation. While most African slaves traversed the oceans in the deadly holds of slave ships, Madeleine was selected as a domestic servant by her French mistress in India to accompany her to France. She might have been able to avail herself of the French principle promising freedom to any slave who set foot there, but her youth, foreignness, and gender meant that “freedom” was not a meaningful option. Illegally gifted or sold there to a creole planter family from Ile Bourbon (today: Réunion) on the condition of her eventual freedom, Madeleine accompanied a new French mistress back across the oceans, serving as midwife at sea. In the colony, Madeleine gave birth to three children, one of whom grew up to demand his freedom in the French courts; this man traveled twice to Paris in the 1830s and 1840s, in an attempt to overturn corrupt decisions of the colonial courts.

The travels of Madeleine and her children contrast with those of the master family, whose men traveled more frequently between France and the Indian Ocean colonies as soldiers, for education, and to conduct business, while white women maintained colonial families, plantations, and property. While involuntary travel for slaves functioned primarily to break connections between family and community, French men and women availed themselves of travel to gain land and status, and to reinforce bonds that underwrote their colonial power and privileges.

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