“Tropical Heiresses” evaluates the complex, but largely unknown, personal financial relationships among family members (and sometimes non-related investors and officials) that were stretched across France’s early modern empire. These spanned Indian Ocean and Atlantic plantation colonies, such as Île de France (now Mauritius) and Martinique, and stretched as far as English America, where ne’er-do-well spouses hid from abandoned family members and creditors. Using cases of plantation inheritances by women in the Mascarene Islands (now Mauritius and Île Bourbon) as a starting point, “Tropical Heiresses” delves into the lives of the women who acted as global legal and commercial agents when their husbands (or other male relatives) died or abandoned them. Appraising the effects of death, natural disasters, and other catastrophes, it considers how these women managed property. Dense, but untapped archival collections document the grueling efforts of women to get compensated (or at legal title) for property they had rightfully inherited, claimed, or sold.
This project seeks to inscribe upon the history of global capitalism the surprising and enduring contributions of groups—such as women, transient traders, and slaves—who had an enduring impact as they built flexible and durable informal economies, especially in the wake of disaster. It thus advances transnational and imperial work on family and women-centered enterprises (Colley, Crowston, Hardwick, Pearsall, Rothschild, Trivellato), capital formation and risk management (Ditz, Friedman, Hartog, Levy), and political economy (Baskes, Hoffman, Kessler, Tutino). Revealing the wide array of players invested in imperial economies, it begins to chart the fragility and disintegration (not just the creation) of early modern global imperial economic (and legal) cultures.