The Uses of Creole Identity in 18th-Century French Transatlantic Litigation

Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center)
Matthew Dean Gerber, University of Colorado at Boulder
While historians of early modern Europe have long used cases of litigation to investigate matters ranging from peasant mentalities and social practices to cultural values and the politics of identity formation, a paucity of sources has hitherto made it difficult to apply this methodology to the study of early modern French colonial societies.  Some sense of colonial and transatlantic litigation can nevertheless be reconstructed from hundreds of appeals made by French colonists to the Conseil Privé in the eighteenth century.  A precursor to the modern Cour de Cassation, the French equivalent of the Supreme Court, the Conseil Privé incorporated the original petitions of appellants into the body of its verdicts.  Historians can therefore use these verdicts to offer some relatively thick description of the ideas and practices surrounding colonial and transatlantic conflicts over property, kinship, and race in the eighteenth century.

              This paper focuses in particular on the idea of Creolité, defined in this context as birth within the colonies.  It examines a series of disputes over marital separation that pitted French born husbands against their Creole wives.  These cases reveal that while such husbands often displayed contempt for their wives’ colonial origins, those same origins often provided the wives with more effective networks of support from local kin.  More broadly, the paper argues that while Creole identity was an important ideological construct for colonial planters and jurists, it was also a concept that permeated colonial disputes over property, whether litigants invoked it to garner greater sympathy from metropolitan magistrates on the Conseil Privé or mobilized it to gain local support in the colonies at the origin of the dispute.  At the same time, the records of the Conseil Privé reveal more broadly that the creole-metropolitan distinction was not always clear in practice.

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