|Bernard Moitt. Women and Slavery
in the French Antilles, 1635-1848. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2001. xviii + 218 pp. Tables, maps, notes, bibliography,
index. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-253-21452-1.
A Point of Comparison: Enslaved Women in France's Caribbean Colonies
For a variety of reasons, most French scholars have side-lined historical questions concerning gender and the ugly past of the Antillean slave colonies. Only recently have U.S. historians begun to take France's colonial history seriously, yet few seek to put it into a comparative framework. Bernard Moitt's Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1635-1848 is a dedicated recovery of the lives of enslaved women, with the object of bringing them "out of the shadows of the slave plantation world and into full view, where they belong" (p. 173). Based on exhaustive research in both archival and secondary sources by French and Caribbean historians, Moitt's book fills a gaping hole in the English-language historiography of the French Caribbean: the history of enslaved women in the French West Indies. Moitt's carefully researched book will be useful both to historians of the French slave colonies and to researchers of other slave societies who wish to compare the roles of women across time and space.
Moitt divides Women and Slavery into eight, mainly topical chapters (e.g. Slave Labor; Domestic Labor; Marriage, Family Life, Reproduction and Assault; Resistance; Manumission). These chapters also bear the narrative burden of laying out chronological change over time. Moitt's organizational structure means that the non-specialist in French Caribbean history must work to learn the big picture of the development of the islands from the period when indenture was the primary form of labor (1635 through the 1670s), through the maturation of the slave economy (1660s through 1780s), to the revolutionary cataclysm of the 1790s and Haitian independence and the confrontation with British abolitionism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Even this timeline is complicated by the different places of individual colonial holdings within the French West Indian empire (e.g. Saint Christopher [Saint Kitts], Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane and Saint Domingue [later, Haiti]).
Given the historian's dilemma--how to tell the bigger sequential picture all while exploring the thematic issues within each period--Moitt is fairly successful. The story is all there, if scattered and found in unexpected places. For example, the section on "Armed Resistance" (pp. 126-32) gives a marvelously lucid account of the complex and fascinating long decade from the slave revolt of 1791, through the restoration of slavery in Guadeloupe and Guyane by Napoleon in 1802, to Haitian independence in 1804. As there is no recent monograph in English that narrates the history of France's colonial holdings in the West Indies from settlement (1620s) to the final abolition of slavery (1848), Women and Slavery does double-duty by telling this story for American audiences all while recovering the particular burdens suffered by enslaved women in this period.
Moitt's conclusions about the conditions of these women are by now, for the most part, familiar. Moitt draws upon the theoretical framework of previous studies of enslaved women in the Caribbean (e.g. those of Barbara Bush, Hilary Beckles, and the collection More than Chattel, edited by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine) to show their double oppression through production and reproduction. Enslaved women in the French Antilles were expected to do the hardest agricultural labor on the plantations alongside enslaved men, while men were disproportionately assigned certain kinds of skilled labor, such as carpentry, masonry, smithing and driving. Women did dominate a few skilled occupations, including midwifery, marketing and general health care, but these specialized roles were fewer than those of their male counterparts. As in other societies dominated by sugar production, the grueling labor conditions led to low birth rates and high mortality rates, thus (unlike in American South) making it impossible to maintain the size of the slave population without constant importation from Africa. Moitt's commitment to describing the brutal treatment of women under French slavery is present throughout the book.
A great strength of this book is Moitt's incorporation of dozens of personal stories of individual women, culled from a vast trove of archival and early published sources. These women are not, by and large, an anonymous horde. They include: "La Pucelle des Isles" (the Virgin of the Islands) who refused to marry any of the African men her slave owner offered her as potential mates; Marie-Claire who walked four hours from her plantation to the city of Cayenne to denounce her overseer's excessive use of force; and Virginie, who ultimately triumphed in a court decision to have her children manumitted when she herself was freed. Moitt's infusion of these "microhistories" into the general narrative is at times uneven, but it accomplishes his implicit goal of restoring their humanity through portraying their agency.
Moitt offers his most original insights in his chapters on slave women and the law and resistance. He provides substantial evidence of slave women's cunning use of the colonial justice system, as well as their verbal defiance, insubordinate behavior, and savvy sexual politics, particularly in the decade leading up to general emancipation in 1848. Indeed, these women remind me in many ways of their female French counterparts. Like these enslaved women, early modern French women resisted the demands of patriarchal authority through insolence (to use Moitt's term), lawsuits and sexual politics. This is not to suggest that there was any deliberate recognition or proto-feminist alliances between black and white women in the French Antilles; as in France, class conflicts (and their racial substitutes) generally trumped gender identification in political struggle. But in reading this book, I was repeatedly struck by how familiar these women's tactics seemed, even if their plight (the endless toil and the immediacy of cruel punishment) was generally far more extreme. They sought sympathetic and more powerful protectors and attempted to employ a legal structure, even if--as Moitt rightly points out--their search for justice was rarely satisfied.
My chief frustration with this painstakingly researched book is that the thematic organizational structure ultimately tends to obscure a sense of chronological development. As is common with books that adopt this topical approach, examples from widely disparate times often appear side-by-side, thus obscuring a sense of historical change over the long haul. Indeed, Moitt's point seems to be that enslaved women were oppressed more or less identically throughout the entire period, from 1635 to 1848. But it seems to me that changing demographic patterns, as well as political developments may have created changing conditions for women's oppression.
For example, slave censuses compiled by Abdoulaye Ly and cited by Moitt (p. 5) suggest that in 1671, enslaved women outnumbered enslaved men in Saint Christopher, with a not insubstantial population of enslaved children (p. 5). Moitt dismisses Ly's figures with the blanket assertions that "the Atlantic trade focused on male slaves" and "the high proportion of the child slave population is highly improbable ... since slave deaths exceed slave births in the Caribbean." Yet these very early census figures coincide roughly with Du Tertre's detailed ethnologies of slave families and, in particular, parents' attention to their children. Is it possible that the 1660s constituted an anomalous moment of demographic balance, particularly in those locales where slave traders sold disproportionate numbers of women and children, after the prime male slaves were snatched up in the first ports of call, such as Martinique? (On this hierarchy of slave markets in the French Caribbean, see David Geggus, "The French Slave Trade: An Overview," The William and Mary Quarterly 58:1 (2001): 126-27.)
There is a great deal more surviving evidence regarding the slave colonies dating from the first half of the nineteenth century than from the earlier periods. Moitt quotes extensively from this material in his discussion of women's resistance. Is it possible that, in the wake of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the abolition of the British slave trade (1808), the British abolition of slavery (1830s), and the rapid expansion of slaves' lawsuits for freedom in Brazil and the United States, that Francophone slaves--particularly women--were developing a new sense of themselves as individual agents and a discourse of rights and access to justice? The thematic or topical organization of the book makes it difficult to explore these kinds of issues with regard to change over time.
A second, more general, concern is whether this book, by focusing exclusively on the French Antilles, misses an opportunity to compare the operation of gender in this context with that of other Caribbean or other slave societies more generally. In other words, did women fare any differently under French slavery than they did in the English and Spanish Caribbean? Or did the inexorable economics of sugar production override any variety in masters' preconceptions of gender roles, female sexuality, and motherhood? I think that Moitt, in his urgency to demonstrate that slavery in the French Caribbean was just as harsh and oppressive toward enslaved women as it was under British, Dutch and other imperial powers (a valid message that needs to be heard in some circles), overlooks some of the interesting specificity of the French case.
Indiana University Press has released Women and Slavery
in the French Antilles in both cloth and paper, suggesting that the
editors see a market in classroom sales. The book is certainly accessible
to advanced undergraduates and the lively micro-stories will grab their
attention. The book will also make the long history of France's Caribbean
slave colonies accessible--and women's roles therein--to Anglophone audiences
and this is a welcome addition to the historical record.