Race, Identity, and the Movement of Ideas and Information in the Wider French Atlantic World

AHA Session 176
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Washington Room 3 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Sue Peabody, Washington State University Vancouver
Sue Peabody, Washington State University Vancouver

Session Abstract

In the early modern French overseas empire, the concept of race and ethnicity was not a fixed, finite category, but rather, it was fluid and subject to change via a plethora of sociopolitical and cultural influences. One of the primary ways in which this these changes came about under the institution of slavery was through the movement of bodies, ideas, and information across oceans and land. The movement of all three categories transcended borders, and in a globalizing world that sought to be more interconnected than before, this raised many questions about national identity for all historical actors involved.

This panel explores several ways in which the circulation of ideas and information shaped and were shaped by these fluid categories of race, ethnicity, and national identity. The first presentation by Francesco Morriello examines race and ethnicity through communication networks established between France and the colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe during the French Revolutionary Wars. Specifically, he examines the emergence of a regularized postal system by select French colonial governments, where local postmasters and colonial officials entrusted slaves with mail collection and delivery within the Caribbean islands. This paper analyzes the significance of the shift from military and mercantile mailmen to slaves, and how the need for effective information circulation superseded the racially segregated nature of mail delivery in the 18th century French Caribbean.

The second presentation by Mélanie Lamotte explores the circulation of ideas from the viewpoint of conceptualizations of race in French territories across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. She sheds light on established categories of difference in the select colonies and the multifaceted discourses that emerged over discussions of “civilizing” non-Europeans, particularly through assimilation policies. These efforts to “Frenchify” non-Europeans included evangelization, intermarriage, and miscegenation. She then places them in the context of a global perspective of the wider French colonial project, and illustrates how prejudices in the French empire were shaped not only by local demographic, economic, and political factors, but also by global metropolitan policy and the wide circulation of ideas.

The third presentation by Chaz Yingling builds on this notion of an interconnected colonial world that transcended national borders by focusing on black auxiliaries from Saint-Domingue who remained loyal to Spain and stayed in Santo Domingo during the Haitian Revolution. In his paper, Yingling explains how they reacted to the circulation of ideas regarding republicanism and abolition, and illustrates how they rejected these ideas altogether, taking it further by asserting their outright dislike towards the French altogether. Moreover, he provides insight on how these auxiliary forces also maintained elements of various African cultures and performed Catholicism.

In sum, these three presentations address the different ways in which race, ethnicity, identity, and nationalism impacted and were impacted by the circulation of ideas and information, focusing on the physical movement of peoples and correspondences, then the intellectual debates and discussions, and finally a cross-comparison of the flow of cultural traditions. In doing so, it opens wider discussions on the extent to which these notions were inexorably linked.

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