Slaves and Masters on the Margins of the Law in the Early Modern French Empire, c. 1660–1760

AHA Session 236
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Pernille Roege, University of Pittsburgh
Laurie Wood, Florida State University

Session Abstract

This panel examines how chattel slavery developed and functioned on the edges of France’s early modern colonial empire. From the Indian Ocean to the Mississippi Delta via the Caribbean, it focuses on slaves and masters involved in illegal activities, who bent the law to their advantage, or who simply lived outside of European jurisdiction. By exploring the informal slave economy, marronage or slave desertion, and the emergence of plantation agriculture in unclaimed territories, these case studies highlight the tension between the norms of imperial law and the individual experiences of slaves and slaveholders. The panelists will rely on different methodologies and different scales of analysis to assess how local contexts, regional networks, and imperial connections shaped the history of slavery around the early modern world.

While legally defined as moveable property, enslaved men and women also participated in the market economy as independent producers, traders, and consumers. Melanie Lamotte investigates their largely informal commercial activities and the efforts of colonial authorities to regulate these activities in the Indian Ocean colony of Île Bourbon, from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. As slaves acquired and exchanged goods through craft, barter, gift, and theft, their economic impact went far beyond the garden plots and limited savings they were legally allowed to possess.

Alongside illegal trade, bonded laborers reclaimed their autonomy through marronage, another major concern of slave law. The infamous Code Noir imposed mutilations and eventually death for serial fugitives. Yet Yevan Terrien uncovers the case of two Native American siblings who absconded sixty times from a plantation outside New Orleans between 1739 and 1747. Their master, like many, never reported them to state authorities, until he got involved in a financial suit over the ownership of the runaways. The resulting documentation suggests that although marronage was an act of resistance on behalf of the enslaved, it also presented slaveholders with opportunities to manipulate the law and profit from their absence when they could not exploit their labor.

The panel’s final paper investigates how slave societies developed beyond the reach of European empires in the neutral islands of the Southern Caribbean. Tessa Murphy demonstrates that by 1763 over 14,000 slaves labored in St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Dominica, which lay outside of French or English jurisdiction but not away from regional commercial circuits. By exploring how slavery was practiced and policed beyond the boundaries of colonial rule, Murphy furthers our understanding of an adaptable institution that prospered with or without the protection of the law.

Informed by historians trained in England, France, and the United States, this panel will appeal to scholars interested in slavery and the law; legal pluralism in early modern Empires, and the lived experiences of slavery. Two of the panelists are actively undertaking new research, while the third is completing a dissertation. This panel provides an opportunity for lively exchange centered around a number of geographically distinct, yet theoretically linked, case studies. Dr. Laurie Wood, a specialist on law in France’s early modern empire, will provide comment.

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