Verification of Freedom and the Fear of Re-enslavement in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1799–1810

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 4:30 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Joseph la Hausse de Lalouvière, Harvard University
In 1802 Napoleon revoked the 1794 abolition of slavery in the French empire and attempted to re-enslave thousands of people throughout the French Caribbean. This paper examines the vulnerability of people to re-enslavement in Martinique and Guadeloupe during and after the Haitian Revolution. I suggest that the restoration of French slave law under Napoleon came with a new set of imperatives about verifying legal status based on skin color. Free people designated “of color” were often called upon to testify to their liberty or secure it through the acquisition of property, however negligible. Many mothers chose to have their illegitimate children recognized before the law partly out of the same fear of capricious enslavement. Using notarial and communal records and official correspondence, this paper looks at fears of re-enslavement and the social experience of what Rebecca Scott has termed “property-ness,” the arbitrary susceptibility of certain people to enslavement on the basis of their skin color.

The comparison of Martinique and Guadeloupe sheds light on the better-known history of Saint-Domingue. Revolutionary-era Guadeloupe, like French Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) witnessed a large-scale emancipation under the abolition of 1794. Martinique, by contrast, did not because it fell to the British before the passage of that law. The restoration of French slavery in Guadeloupe after 1802 was therefore more violent and generalized than in Martinique. Yet in both places the authorities established bureaucracies to verify the legal status of people of color throughout the colony. Across the French Caribbean, therefore, the fear of enslavement emerged as a response to the authorities’ assumption that black people were slaves unless they could prove otherwise. How some of them managed to do so and secure their freedom is the subject of this paper.

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