Abstract "Legitimating Slave Owner Authority in Atlantic France"

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“Legitimating Slave Owner Authority in Atlantic France”

Jennifer L. Palmer
In eighteenth-century Atlantic France, long legal traditions of France as “free soil” where slavery could not exist came into conflict with Caribbean colonists’ desire to bring slaves to the metropole without threat to their human property. In response to powerful colonial lobby, laws gradually legitimated slaveholding in metropolitan France, particularly allowing owners to bring slaves to France “to be educated in the Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic religion, or to learn a trade.” Through this process of legitimation of slavery, however, a conflict emerged between royal authority over French subjects and slave owners’ authority over their slaves. While both parties agreed that slaves were private property, they disagreed on exactly what type of private property they were, and who had the ultimate power to regulate it.

Efforts to resolve this tension gave rise to the legal fiction that slavery was only in and of the colonies, a fiction that new laws attempted to maintain even while regulating it in metropolitan France. Slavery clearly existed in France as a permanent and visible institution. However, metropolitan law never allowed slave owners the same latitude over their slaves’ bodies as did Caribbean law. This posed challenges for slave owners, particularly in a context in which the work and status of slaves and servants differed little. How, then, could owners clearly make a claim to control the individuals they saw as their property to a population unused to the idea of chattel slavery in its midst, and in a cultural, social, and legal context that offered liberties to slaves that were largely unavailable in the slave societies of the Caribbean?

The port city of La Rochelle provides a particularly good case study to examine how slave owners worked within and around laws permitting slavery to extend their own control and legitimate their own authority over their slaves. La Rochelle is an interesting place to examine the effects of laws regulating slavery because it was the only major port under the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris, the highest court of law in France. Although other regional Parlements registered and promised to abide by laws regulating slavery in France, the Parlement of Paris, likely in an effort to rebuke slave owning practices, never did. This meant that the laws regulating slavery never actually went into effect in La Rochelle, and that compliance with them was technically not mandatory. Yet slave owners consistently complied with these laws, even there were no consequences if they failed to do so. Why?

I argue that slave owners turned to the very laws that regulated slavery to crystalize their authority over their slaves, reinterpreting and manipulating them in ways that isolated slaves from potential outside influences or alternate avenues of authority. One way owners did this was by following laws to the letter, while actually violating their regulatory purpose, a process in which colonial officials, who had stakes in the slave system themselves, often colluded. The result was the growth of an unofficial slave trade network that specialized in supplying slaves to metropolitan owners. By complying with the laws, this practice both evaded official detection and sanctioned the rights of even illicit slave owners through the authority of the crown.

The Catholic Church had the potential to provide one very powerful alternative locus of authority for slaves in France. Its moral weight and institutional power occasionally challenged practices of slavery, especially when they conflicted with the exercise of Catholicism. Yet Catholic practices and rituals had a different meaning in Protestant-heavy La Rochelle than in much of the rest of France, especially among the prosperous Protestant merchant population. To secure their legitimacy in the eyes of the state, wealthy Protestant families often married and had their children baptized in the Catholic faith. Rochelais Protestants, then, were used to approaching religion mechanistically. This well prepared them to use legal provisions that slaves could come to France “to be educated in the Catholic religion” as an opportunity to close off alternative avenues of authority by appointing themselves and their relatives as their slaves’ godparents.

Although laws aimed to regulate slavery, not justify it, slave owners continued pushing at their boundaries, reinterpreting them in ways that expanded owners’ control over their slaves rather than limiting slavery in France. In the process, they adapted well-established French methods of social organization, including baptism, in ways that laid the groundwork for the extension of slavery to France. Thus by ostensibly trying to regulate slavery in France, laws paradoxically laid the groundwork for legitimizing it.

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