Saturday, 20 January 2018

Madeleine's Children

Madeleine's Children: Family, Freedom, Secrets and Lies in France's Indian Ocean Colonies, by Sue Peabody, is the first full-length biographical history to explore what it meant to be a slave and to become free in France’s Indian Ocean colonies. The publisher, Oxford University Press, describes the book as “a detailed family saga set against the broader context of plantation slavery, Parisian society and colonization.”


The following three paragraphs are adapted from the publisher's description: In 1759 a baby girl was born to an impoverished family on the Indian subcontinent. Her parents pawned her into bondage as a way to survive famine. A Portuguese slaver sold the girl to a French spinster in Bengal, where she was baptized as Madeleine. Eventually she was taken to France by way of Ile de France (Mauritius), and from there to Ile Bourbon (Reunion), where she worked on the Sainte-Marie plantation of the Routier family and gave birth to three children: Maurice, Constance, and Furcy, whose father was possibly the master. Following the master's death in 1787, Madame Routier registered Madeleine's manumission, making her free on paper and thus exempting the Routiers from paying the annual head tax on slaves. However, according to Madeleine's children, she was never told that she was free. She continued to serve the widow Routier for another nineteen years, through the Revolution, France's general emancipation of 1794 (which the colonists of the Indian Ocean successfully repelled), the Napoleonic restoration of slavery, and British occupation of France's Indian Ocean colonies. Not until the widow Routier died in 1808 did Madeleine learn of her freedom and that the Routier estate owed her nineteen years of back wages. Madeleine tried to use the Routiers' debt to negotiate for her son Furcy's freedom from Joseph Lory, the Routiers' son-in-law and heir, but Lory tricked the illiterate Madeleine into signing papers that, in essence, consigned Furcy to Lory as his slave for life.

While Lory invested in slave smuggling and helped introduce sugar cultivation to Ile Bourbon, Furcy spent the next quarter century trying to obtain legal recognition of his free status as he was moved from French Ile Bourbon to British Mauritius, and then took trips to Paris. His legal actions produced hundreds of pages that permit reconstruction of the lives of Furcy and his family in astonishing detail. The Cour Royale de Paris, France's highest court of appeal, finally ruled Furcy freeborn in 1843.  France's general emancipation of 1848 erased the distinction between slavery and freedom for all former slaves but the reaction of 1851 excluded them from citizenship. The struggle for justice, respect, and equality for former slaves and their descendants would not be realized within Furcy's lifetime. Furthermore, Furcy was not an abolitionist, for he soon became a slave owner himself.

The life stories of Madeleine and her three children are especially precious because, unlike scores of slave narratives published in the United States and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, no autobiographical narrative of a slave held by French-published or unpublished-exists. Madeleine's Children is thus one of only a handful of modern biographies of enslaved people within France's empire, in French or in English, and the only one to explore transformations in slavery and freedom in French colonies of the Indian Ocean. This story is also significant because of the legal arguments advanced in Furcy's freedom suits between 1817 and 1843. Furcy's lawyers argued that he was free by race (as the descendent of an Indian rather than an African mother) and also by Free Soil (the legal principle whereby any slave setting foot on French soil thereby became free, since Madeleine resided in France before Furcy was born). Madeleine's Children is a meticulous work of archival detection investigating the cunning, clandestine, and brutal strategies that masters devised to keep slaves under their control.

Historical research documents damaged by worms and water (source)

Sue Peabody is a Professor of Liberal Arts and History at Washington State University Vancouver and is considered to be one of the world's leading authorities on slavery in the French Empire. Although this book was written by an academic for a public interested in the history of slavery, world history, Indian Ocean history, and French colonial history - which is not really my case - I nonetheless, due to my interest in and knowledge of Reunion, found the book very interesting. Due to the academic nature of the publication the latter third consists of approximately 900 notes, which I occasionally found distracting, but were sometimes source of interesting facts; for example I learnt that between 1657 and 1799, 57 cyclones were retroactively designated level five, the highest possible force.

Ms Peabody has managed to write the biography of Madeleine and Furcy in quite a riveting way, all the while complementing it with a wealth of well-researched information about the historical period. As she mentions in the Acknowledgements there is a vast "slippage" between historical truth and written evidence, and so many things may have been recorded but "bend the truth for prosperity" or have happened and were never recorded on paper. A spine-chilling example of the latter is given on page 130: "Then [Commissioner General Philippe] Panon Desbassayns called a guard into his office to persuade Constance [Furcy's sister] to confide to him, stepping out of his office to leave them alone for this conversation. One can only imagine the ways that the guard attempted to intimidate Constance". Colonial elites "patently manipulated the legal system and the historical record to serve their own purposes".

The nit-picker in me found a few errors, mainly with dates and numbers, but also a few mistranslations: chabouc is (bizarrely) translated as a 'hookah pipe' when it in fact refers to a whip for beating slaves made out of woven aloes or an oxtail, and Liber Not [sic] Furcy is translated as 'We Free Furcy' instead of 'Free Our Furcy'. There was also a slight lack of local knowledge: to give two examples, the month of June is referred to as 'midwinter' when June is in fact the beginning of winter/the cool, dry season; and she locates Rivière des Pluies to the south-west of Saint-Denis when it is fact to the (south-)east. Although there were two family trees, I would also have appreciated a timeline - this would have been a useful reference to refer back to the chronology of events.  However this shortcoming and the minor errors did not take away from what was overall an extremely interesting tale of legal intrigue, revealing the lives and secret relationships between slaves and free people that have remained obscure for two centuries.

Beating a slave using a sabouk or chabouk (source)

On a final note, the author mentions a number of ways in which Furcy is now remembered in Reunion: by a novel, two plays, a song by Kaf Malbar, and for a group of contemporary activists Furcy is a symbol against oppression (the aforementioned 'Liber Nout Furcy' can be found graffiti-ed at various locations around the island). By the way the name of Ilet Furcy, which is a hamlet on the road to Cilaos, is apparently not related to this Furcy but to a later Alfred Furcy.

'Liber Nout Furcy' graffiti in Reunion

'Liber Nout Furcy' graffiti in Reunion

P.S. The following picture is often used to represent Furcy; it was notably used on the cover of Mohammed Aïssaoui's novel L'affaire de l'esclave Furcy.

Ira Aldridge, dressed for the role of Othello 

However it is actually a portrait of American actor Ira Frederick Aldridge, painted in 1826 by James Northcote (thanks to 7 Lames La Mer for this information). No known portrait of Furcy exists, and the cover of Madeleine's Children shows an 1848 lithograph by Antoine Louis Roussin.


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