Strategic Silences: Sex, Gender and Slavery in the Indian Ocean, 1759-1850

Unlike the Anglo-Atlantic world, which generated hundreds of “slave narratives” purported to account for the subjective experience of men and women under slavery, the Francophone colonial world produced no first person autobiographies by slaves. Of the few letters, juridical memoirs, and novels left to posterity – only the first category was produced by a handful of enslaved people and even these are problematic for the historical recovery of the subjective experience of enslavement. This paper is part of a larger microhistorical project focussing on the lives of a family whose collective experience traversed slavery and freedom from 1759 until the 1850s, between French India (Chandernagor), metropolitan France (Lorient, Paris, Bordeaux), Ile Bourbon (La Réunion) and Ile de France (Mauritius). In the paper, I contrast our knowledge of three white women – a French nun and a mother and daughter, both habitantes – and two women of color: a Bengali girl, baptised Madeleine, sold into slavery who was brought to France and thence to Ile Bourbon in the 1770s, and her daughter, Constance. Madeleine’s experience is narrated in several crucial documents, including depositions by her adult daughter, Constance, a free woman of color, and her son, Furcy, a man who challenged his enslavement under French and British law in the early 19th century. In an effort to reconstruct Madeleine and Constance’s sexual and kinship relationships I contrast the French obsession with cataloguing particular sexual relationships – deemed “legitimate” – with those carefully silenced in official documents (the état civil, to the recensements, to colonial laws and the judicial records generated by legal disputes) but which are nevertheless preserved in the memory and constructions of identity of colonized people in the slave regime.

Susan Peabody is Professor of History, Washington State University, Vancouver. She is the author of: Slavery, Freedom and the Law in the Atlantic World. Co-edited with Keila Grinberg, Universidad de Rio de Janeiro, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007 ; and The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, with co-editor Tyler Stovall, Duke University Press, 2003.