“A nation born to slavery”: missionaries and racial discourse in seventeenth-century French Antilles

“A nation born to slavery”: missionaries and racial discourse in seventeenth-century French Antilles

Sue Peabody

It is a truism that the modern or scientific racism that emerged in the late eighteenth century and flourished in throughout Europe, the United States, and much of Latin America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was new and different from the collection of prejudices, myths and attitudes that circulated during the early modern and even earlier periods. Tied to both the state-building processes of many newly independent nations and to scientific discourse, modern racism formed a totalizing world-view: a system of concepts, judicial, political and social categories, with concrete privileges and sometimes violent repercussions for those implicated in the web of social relations. Particularly in the Americas, race supplanted class as a dominant system for codifying inequalities between successive communities of forced and voluntary immigrants as the increasingly dominant economic system of capitalism promised–though did not uniformly deliver–rapid upward social mobility. (1)

At one time, the question of which came first, slavery or racism, gripped historians of transatlantic slavery. (2) Based on the understanding that anti-black racism was a cultural construct, many historians felt that negative stereotyping of blacks necessarily grew out of the historical accident of Africans’ bondage to those of lighter skin. Empirically, however, a sizeable body of evidence, culled initially by Winthrop Jordan for England and British North America and later by William Cohen for the French, showed that negative images of Africans antedated northwestern Europeans’ engagement in plantation slavery by more than a century. (3) Cultural associations between black and white, sin and purity, savagery and civilization, all conspired to fix subsaharan Africans into a symbolic category in polar opposition to lighter-skinned northwest Europeans. More recently, David Brion Davis, drawing upon research by Bernard Lewis, James Sweet and many others has pushed the stereotypes of lazy, stupid, servile blacks back into Islamic and Iberian enslavement, and perhaps as far back as the classical world. (4)

The question of whether slavery preceded racism or vice versa thus appears–if not exactly moot, then at least largely irrelevant. Western culture clearly contains a host of associations that were and are available to groups or individuals who want to assert or maintain their status and domination in a given historical context. The more meaningful current research on racism looks at how historical actors draw from this symbolic “image archive” and used it to their own ends.

Researchers of early modern Europeans’ racial attitudes employ a wide range of methods and, typically, apply them within a single linguistic/imperial framework, such as the Spanish, Portuguese, and Anglo-Atlantics, or specific locales therein. For example, Anthony Pagden’s Fall of Natural Man examines the writings of sixteenth-century Spanish theologians as they grappled with moral, legal and religious justifications for the conquest of the Indians of America. R. Douglas Cope’s meticulous study of parish and inquisition records for seventeenth-century Mexico City demonstrates how multi-ethnic plebeians developed their own community-based notions of racial identity that diverged from the idolization of lineage promoted by the Spanish elite. Kim F. Hall takes off from Jordan’s insights regarding the polarization of color iconography in early modern English writings to examine the role of gender and race in forging English identity in works of literature from the Tudor and Stuart Britain. (5) Joyce Chaplin’s substantial study of scientific thought in English North American colonization emphasizes how Indians’ vulnerability to disease and Europeans’ desire for imported African labor led to a proto-racial reformulation of the three groups’ bodies, laying the groundwork for later modern racial theory. George Fredrickson, whose important comparative work on racial ideology steps beyond narrow national/imperial boundaries, finds early forerunners of modern western racism in the Spanish notion of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood), which transformed a primarily religious form of discrimination into an essentialist category; for Fredrickson, a key element in racist thinking is that the victim cannot escape the effects of discrimination by conforming to dominant cultural modes. (6) As a cultural historian I prefer those studies that make important connections between the lived social experience of people across the status spectrum and the conceptual or discursive frameworks that they employ. It is not enough to show the influence of one notable intellect upon his (or more rarely her) successors. Rather, historians should work to embed racial ideology in the immediate and dynamic relations of people in their social worlds.

In this paper I want to revisit a historical context that has received relatively little attention, especially with regard to the development of racial ideology. (7) This is the early period of French colonization of the Antilles. A study of the cultural frontier between missionaries and slaves in the French Caribbean colonies of Saint Christophe, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Domingue of the seventeenth century, reveals a shift in racial discourse. While the earliest missionary accounts for the French Caribbean–from the 1630s through the 1650s–contain the some of the ugliest and most virulent anti-black characterizations that one might read, beginning in the 1660s these are softened considerably, precisely as slavery becomes the most important economic institution in the island colonies. While late seventeenth-century missionary accounts still contain negative generalizations about blacks, these are counterbalanced by more gentle, nuanced, and sympathetic–if paternalistic–portraits of black parishioners. This counter-intuitive association between the increasing centrality of slave plantations to the local economies and a decline in the most extreme antiblack stereotyping can be explained by the missionaries’ shifting focus from the recalcitrant native Caribs to the enslaved Afro-creole labor force.

Beginning in the 1630s, three French religious orders–the Dominicans, the Capuchins and the Jesuits–vied with one another for dominance in the French Antillean colonies, while secular local and royal powers sought to assure that no single order successfully out-rivaled the others. (8) The first slaves from Africa also began to arrive at about the same time. (9) By 1640, when the Jesuit Jacques Bouton visited the 1,000 French inhabitants of Martinique, he commented upon the “good number” of black and Moorish slaves among them who, he noted, were more valuable than the more common French indentured servants. Bouton declared that the Africans “are so thick and stupid, for the most part, that none know how to read or write and it is believed that it is impossible to teach them.” He also described African slaves as jokesters whose antics made them seem “impertinent” and good workers, “provided that one keeps an eye on them and pushes them hard.” In fact, according to Bouton, “This miserable nation seems only to have been born to the world for servitude and slavery.” (10) Writing a few years after Bouton, Maurile de Saint Michel, one of a handful of Carmelites to travel to the French Antilles, repeated Bouton’s assertion that African slaves were too stupid to learn to read or write. (11)

A contemporary of Bouton, Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre, initially traveled to the Antilles in 1640, was elected superior of the mission by his fellow Dominicans, and almost immediately returned to France to seek support for the mission. He went back to the islands in 1643 and lived there for four years. Upon his return to France in 1647, he wrote a lengthy general history of the French Caribbean colonies, focusing primarily on the novel flora and fauna there. In 1654, upon hearing that someone else was planning to publish his manuscript but without crediting him, he rushed the history into print. (12)

Du Tertre picks up on some of the same themes as Bouton and Maurile de Saint Michel, including slaves’ “stupidity and ignorance,” and he explicitly links their enslavement with their color. At the same time, Du Tertre is unusual for seventeenth-century French Catholic writers in the way that he questions, however circumspectly, the legitimacy of the enslavement of black Christians:

Finally, I must frankly avow that I adore with all humility the

profound and unknowable secrets of God, for I do not know what made

this unhappy nation, to whom God has attached as a particular and

hereditary curse, as well as the blackness and ugliness of the body,

slavery and servitude. It is enough to be black, to be taken, sold,

and reduced to slavery by all the nations of the world. (14)

Du Tertre makes it clear that blacks are universally–even divinely–marked for enslavement, but relegates the reasoning to the “profound and unknowable secrets of God,” suggesting that the rationale is obscure. He is explicitly critical of the colonists’ dependence on slavery, noting that “it would be easier to persuade the richest men in the world to renounce their wealth [moyens] than to persuade the colonists of the Indies to give up their slaves and abolish the shameful commerce, the purchase and sale of their own–I say, even of Christians.” (14) Unlike most of his peers, Du Tertre’s attitude toward African slaves in 1654 is one of pity. He criticizes the Frenchmen whose cruel treatment of “these poor, miserable people is neither more nor less than how we treat our horses in France.” (15) He narrates the heart-rending story of a family of five slaves, who–suffering from famine and thirst–committed suicide as a group. The youngest were hanged first and the last–an eighty-year old grandmother–took her own life. (16) Not as contemptuous toward the Africans as Bouton or Maurile, Du Tertre celebrates the African slaves as “very good Christians … who often serve as an example of piety to our French.” (17)

By the 1650s African slaves were arriving in the French colonies in greater numbers than ever before. The Jesuit Pierre Pelleprat, who served in the Antilles before his assignment in French Guyana on the South American mainland, claimed to baptize 600 slaves every year. Pelleprat’s color consciousness is apparent from the first sentences of his chapter on the mission, where he distinguishes between the blackness of the Africans and the “olive color” of the Amerindians. He is extremely derogatory toward the blacks he seeks to convert: “The Negroes are not ordinarily very intelligent [n’ont pas beaucoup d’esprit] and are very sluggish…. Besides all these disadvantages, they have a foul odor, and are so hideous and deformed [mal faits], that they inspire horror.” (18)

Andre Chevillard, a Dominican who worked to convert Amerindian and African slaves in Guadeloupe at about the same time, voiced similar complaints. He describes all negres as “an almost insupportable nuisance,” due to their allegedly unpleasant odor. According to Chevillard, “It is very difficult, when they are at work, to be near them for any length of time and even at a distance, when they are upwind, one knows that there is a Black [Noir] due to the goat stench that is emitted from the sweat of their bodies…. Even on Sundays, holidays, and other days of instruction, the heart sometimes fails in the midst of this multitude of slaves. I speak,” he writes, “from experience.” Odor is not his only complaint. According to Chevillard, some slaves are “so stupid, so dull, and so thick that it is an almost insupportable effort to teach them, given their small understanding and inclination for lessons.” (19)

The missionaries’ negative estimation of African slaves in the 1640s and 1650s is clearer when compared with their descriptions of the native Caribs, whom they also sought to convert. Bouton, who assesses the dismal prospects for conversion of African slaves in six pages, devotes two entire chapters to the Carib Indians. Even the compassionate Father Du Tertre discusses the Caribs, their lifeways and potential for conversion for some seventy pages while his eight page chapter on “Slaves–As much Moorish as Savage” forms only a brief aside in his 480-page book. A few years later, Pacifique de Provins, a Capuchin, only mentions the African slaves as being more desirable than French indentured servants, while being critical of the English enslavement of Caribs on Antigua. (20) The Jesuit Pelleprat makes the comparison explicit: The “savages” taken as slaves from diverse nations of America are not “in so great number as the Negroes but their bodies are better formed, [they] have a better spirit/mind [esprit], and are more gentle and tractable and are not less intelligent [n’ont pas moins d’esprit] than our peasants in France.” (21)

Why were African slaves so generally scorned by this first generation of French missionaries to the Antilles? In part, the missionaries’ attitudes reflect the contemporary social relations. During the beginning phase of French colonization, African slaves were more expensive than indentured servants and so generally purchased singly or in small groups to work tobacco plots. They did not share a common language that would facilitate learning, and many, no doubt, suffered the on-going physical and psychic trauma of having been carried away from their homes and families, across an unfamiliar sea, to do manual labor for alien masters. By contrast, the Carib Indians constituted a more familiar missionary problematic: a “heathen” people, with a shared language and relatively intact social structure. The first generation of missionaries went to work in the manner that they had been trained, learning the Carib language, preaching with pictures and exhortations, seizing upon opportunities to convert isolated natives (such as orphans), in hopes that these intermediaries would facilitate the conversion of their peers. They saw the Caribs as their “real” mission while the scattered African slaves in the colonies were, in their eyes, an anomaly.

The French missionaries of the 1640s and 1650s were also subject to the attitudes and models of the Iberian Atlantic world. They readily imbibed two centuries of Spanish, Portuguese and papal discourses seeking to protect Indians from maltreatment and justifying the enslavement of Africans. (22) For example, Chevillard specifically compares the Spanish mistreatment of the Indians of Peru with French masters’ cruelty toward their captives and indentured servants, citing a letter from fellow Dominican Bartholomew de las Casas to the king of Spain. (23) Echoes of the Iberian debate over the legitimacy of the slave trade occur in Maurile de Saint Michel’s lengthy digression on the Curse of Ham and Pelleprat’s discussion of the source of African slaves who are primarily prisoners, taken in wars by African kings. (24)

I would argue that of all French people, clerics were the most likely to share the Iberian view of the naturalness of Africans to slavery because as missionaries they were very likely to have read the views of their Iberian counterparts. While black slaves were quite unusual in the French kingdom before the eighteenth century (and especially the northern seat of power of the monarchy), significant numbers of enslaved blacks had resided in Portugal and Spain since the fifteenth century. (25) Iberian discourse over the legitimacy of conquest and the enslavement of Indians and Africans developed in response to the expansion of Spanish empire in the sixteenth century. (26) French ministers and lawyers’ perspectives were more narrowly national. They sought to incorporate the new phenomenon of colonial slavery within a historically conservative Gallic tradition that equated freedom with Frankish territory. (27)

In the middle of the seventeenth century, two forces began to change the missionaries’ estimations of both Caribs and blacks. From 1654 until 1659, French and English colonists waged a determined war against the Caribs as Caribs began to resist the now clearly permanent and expansionist imperial presence. The war culminated in the treaty of 1660, whereby the Caribs were given perpetual sovereignty of the islands of Dominica and St. Vincent in exchange for abandoning the remaining islands to the Europeans. (28) Though Jesuits and Dominicans resumed their missions to St. Vincent and Dominica in the 1660s, the Caribs remained resistant to missionary efforts for the remainder of the seventeenth century. (29)

The second important force was the rapid expansion of sugar production in the French Antilles and the consequent increase in the enslaved black population. By 1664, the black population of Martinque (2,306), for example, had slightly surpassed that of the whites (2,187). (30) In addition to offering sheer numbers of potential converts, black slaves now came to be considered excellent prospects for Christianization because of their enthusiastic receptivity to baptism. (31)

In 1667, Du Tertre issued the first two volumes of what became a much-expanded four-volume edition of his general history of the French Caribbean colonies. (32) The eight-page section devoted to slaves in 1654 had now ballooned to fifty pages, forty-one of which now focused exclusively on “Negro Slaves, Commonly called Moors in France.” (33) In the new work, Du Tertre estimated that French missionaries had converted more than 15,000 black slaves throughout the Antilles over the previous thirty-five years, while during the same period, perhaps only twenty Caribs had embraced Christianity. (34) The content of Du Tertre’s revision offers many indications that he, like other French missionaries, had begun to shift his attention away from Caribs toward black slaves. Correspondingly, the missionaries’ estimations of the two populations in some ways reversed.

Du Tertre includes detailed chapters on marriage, childrearing, food, housing, dress, work, entertainment, and death among black slaves that very much parallel earlier ethnographies of Amerindians or Africans in their native lands. He devotes several pages to black slaves’ self-sacrifice for their children: “The Negroes love their children with so much tenderness that they will take the food from their mouths to give it to them.” (35) Most significantly, Du Tertre expands his account with many anecdotes illustrating the piety and good moral character of the black slaves. While retaining the story about the five suicides, he includes others that are meant to demonstrate the slaves’ loyalty, courage, and skill. One especially colorful story is about a slave woman who refused to marry anyone, even when her master let her choose a mate from her own nation. She earned the moniker “The Virgin of the Islands.” (36) Another is the story of an older slave woman, past child-bearing age, who miraculously began to produce enough milk to feed a starving white baby when the two were unexpectedly trapped on a boat bound for France. (37) Moreover, Du Tertre mentions three blacks of high status enslaved in the Caribbean. Two–a deacon with two years of theological study and a serviceable knowledge of Latin and a wealthy merchant–were aboard a Portuguese ship captured by a Dutch pirate who attempted to sell them as slaves to the French. Du Tertre notes approvingly that they French general released them from bondage as subjects of the Portuguese king, France’s ally. The third was herself a queen in Africa (Du Tertre noted her regal poise) and continued to be treated as such by slaves of her nation in America. (38) Du Tertre now features blacks as capable of high moral and social standing, a dramatic departure from earlier French missionary accounts, including his own 1654 edition.

At the same time, though Du Tertre retains some of the positive celebrations of Carib Indians from the earlier edition, in 1667, he points out that their adoption of Catholic practices is merely superficial. He notes that the Caribs wear rosary beads around their necks and know how to say their prayers but also complains that they will agree to be baptized for a knife, a shot of brandy, or knicknacks and “a quarter of an hour later, they will think of it no more.” (39) The Negroes, by contrast, he says, “practice the virtues and do good works,… [living] more as Christians in their [enslaved] condition than do many French.” (40)

Perhaps most interesting of all, while Du Tertre clearly had doubts as to the legitimacy of maintaining Christian converts as slaves in 1654, by 1667, he seems to be backing off from his earlier scruples. He opens his chapter on slaves with a disclaimer:

I do not pretend here to discuss here as a jurisconsult the nature of

servitude and the quality of dominion that one man exerts over another

by purchase, by birth, and by right of war, but only to justify our

colonists from the injurious reproach that many people, more pious

than knowledgeable, have made of how they treat Christians as slaves.


While in 1654, Du Tertre raised questions about the legitimacy of enslaving Africans, especially those who had been baptized as Christians, by 1667 he was defending French slaveholders’ treatment of slaves. And while Du Tertre continues to refer to the slaves as “pauvres miserables,” he describes their fundamental character as “proud, arrogant and superb,” claiming that “they esteem themselves as much or more than their masters.” (42) Accordingly, says Du Tertre, masters must treat them rigorously and “allow no fault to go unpunished.” (43) By and large, however, he holds that black slaves are happy with their condition, provided that their masters treat them humanely. (44) His detailed descriptions of their dances and family life normalize their status as chattel.

In 1682, the Jesuit Jean Mongin wrote what is easily the longest and most detailed account of French missions to black slaves of the period. In it he refers occasionally to the general faults of the “Negroes” [negres] but these are offset by his portrayal of many individual, exemplary blacks in his flock. (45) So, while Mongin occasionally makes occasional reference to blacks’ collective “licentiousness,” (46) “low intellect,” (47) and “hypocrisy,” (48) these are countered and rhetorically over-powered by the vivid portraits of individual blacks he encounters. For example, he devotes lengthy paragraphs to each of the following: “one of the most likeable Negroes of [this] district, who is in essence good, but whose morals have not always been so”; “one to whom few compare in the way of judgment or virtue, even among the whites”; the “manager … of a large sugar refinery [who] accomplishes his duties there with such probity and competency that everyone agrees that there is no white in this work (which ordinarily is not performed by Negroes) who fulfills it as well”; (49) the “young Negress whose character and virtue are admirable” and who–according to Mongin–practices self-flagellation to banish wicked and shameful thoughts. (50) Among these miniature portraits is this charming passage which bespeaks a mutuality in the relationship between priest and parishioner:

I [Father Mongin] cannot forget the sentiments of a good Negress,

recently arrived, some time after I had performed her marriage. I met

her on the road laden with burden that was too heavy for her strength,

for she appeared fairly delicate. She bowed beneath her burden but as

soon as she saw me her sorrow disappeared, she threw her burden on the

ground and came to me, snapping her fingers, for that is the sign of

their joy. And, coming up to me with a cheerful face she said, “Oh!

Father,” she said, “Is Louis good for me!” That was the name of her

husband. “Louis papa for me, Louis mama for me. If I no keep Louis, I

die of hunger!” This is the effect among them of an excellent

household. The naivete of this creature brought tears to my eyes, and

as she perceived the consolation that her words had given me, she

repeats them whenever she sees me. (51)

Again, I don’t wish to gloss over the fact that Mongin, Du Tertre, and the rest of their less prolific peers clearly saw black slaves as socially inferior and morally weak. But to expect otherwise in this intensely class-conscious period would be anachronistic. The missionary accounts for the second half of the seventeenth century on the whole clearly treat black parishioners as fully human, capable of admirable sentiments and actions–a marked change from the writings of the previous generation. Having embraced their new mission to black slaves, French missionaries now portrayed them in a more hopeful light.

No doubt, this new humanitarianism also reflected the fact that the missionaries now preached to an increasingly creolized population. As early as 1659, Chevillard–though generally more interested in converting Caribs–mentions that black slaves are more “fluent and intelligent” than the Indians by virtue of the fact that they live with their masters. (52) Du Tertre’s extended focus on children corresponds to the increasing creolization of the black slave population. He states explicitly that the black slaves of the islands, now creole born, speak French and creole, but no longer speak the native African languages of their parents. (53) By 1681 Mongin took for granted that he could communicate with the majority of his parishioners in a creolized French. His claim that 63% of his black parishioners–both adults and children–could recite the principles of the faith might reflect a high level of creolism (though he also noted that about half of the children die before they reach the age of twelve). (54)

In what sense, then, is the idea of “race” useful when looking at these seventeenth-century texts? The term “race” itself is not used in any of the missionary accounts. Pierre Boulle dates the first use of the term in its modern sense–to refer to a group of people sharing common physical and character traits, especially color–to 1684. (55) And, while virtually all of the narratives contain blanket generalizations about negres or sauvages, which might be seen as racial categories, these are also mitigated by more nuanced characterizations of specific African nations. For example, Chevillard distinguishes between the “stupid, dull” blacks of Cape Verde and the slaves from Guinea and Angola who “have a very astute nature, are quick to learn the language and to understand when they are instructed, and are good Christians when they affectionately embrace the religion.” (56) Moreover, the Cape Verde slaves are distinguished for Chevillard by their “slight touch of Islam.” Though Chevillard does not say so directly, he was probably aware that when he wrote in 1659, Portuguese missionaries had exposed West and Central Africans to Catholicism for almost two centuries. So the distinction he made was a cultural one, measured in terms of religious orthodoxy, rather than a racial categorization in more modern, continental terms. Even in his 1654 edition, Du Tertre distinguishes between the Africans from Cape Verde and those of Angola, with regard to their character, color, physical strength and even odor, (57) while Mongin distinguishes carefully between various African nations, especially with regard to religious beliefs. (58) Indeed, it is safe to say that virtually all of the missionaries’ generalizations about blacks and Caribs that we might be tempted to see as “racial” today are in fact indications of how various groups measure upon the yardstick of Roman Catholicism.

Joyce Chaplin’s study of scientific modes of discourse in Anglo-Atlantic colonization shows that while sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English writers focused on commonalities between Indian and European bodies in North America, after witnessing the “Great Dying” that occurred as a result of vulnerability to Old World diseases, they invented new stereotypes of the fragile, weak Indian and, conversely, the robust, almost bestial African who, conveniently, was ideally suited to manual labor in the hot climates the English wanted to rule. (59) Yet in mid-seventeenth-century Barbados, where enslaved Africans outnumbered whites by 2:1, such a contrast was not universal. Richard Ligon, for example, contrasted the Indians’ activeness and ability to learn with black slaves’ inactivity. In fact, Ligon’s portrait of black slaves–drawn at a time when sugar had already begun to overturn the island’s economy (ca. 1647-1673)–is strikingly similar in tone to those of the later French missionaries (ca. 1660-1685). Ligon felt that some blacks are “as morally honest, as conscionable, as humble, as loving to their friends, and as loyal to their masters, as any that live under the sun.” (60)

French missionaries were not particularly concerned with Africans’ resistance to climate-inspired diseases; rather, they viewed slaves’ bodies as imperfect, even malleable vessels for the immortal spirit. In fact, two missionaries explicitly stated that conversion to Catholicism could regenerate and restore the Africans’ physical bodies to make them more beautiful to the missionaries’ eyes. For Pelleprat: “There is nothing that the charity of Jesus Christ does not render lovable…. After [the Negroes’] baptism, I usually found them well made and agreeable.” (61) And Bouton even asserts that baptism has the capacity to “whiten” enslaved Moors: “Some of these Moors are already regenerated and whitened [blanchis] in the waters of holy Baptism.” (62) No doubt the learned Jesuit was playing with the metaphorical associations between sin, blackness, and Africans’ coloring, rather than asserting a literal change of pigmentation. Still, the emphasis is on the primacy of spirituality over physical manifestations of race.

Analysis of this early period of French colonization in the Antilles underscores that the formulation “slavery creates racism” is not sufficient to account for the construction of race-thinking in the early modern period. Most of the elements of modern racism toward blacks are already present in the earliest French missionaries’ writings: 1) attention to the color of Africans, 2) stereotypes marking blacks as ugly, stupid, untrustworthy, inferior, and 3) justification of the enslavement of Africans. It is true that, in the context in which the missionaries wrote, nearly all of the blacks they encountered were already enslaved. The Iberian Mediterranean and transatlantic slave trades had already forged the experiential and the ideological links between black Africans and slave status for more than two centuries when northern European Atlantic–French, Dutch and English–empires adopted and expanded the system in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But the French case shows that racism did not develop in a single direction, from neutral attitudes to increasingly negative stereotypes as slavery became central to the colonial economy. Rather, negative images of blacks were available from the outset and could be adopted or moderated according to the needs of those who generated or manipulated the discourse.

For the French missionaries of the seventeenth century, “racial” qualities were not primary when making judgments about others; religion was still the crucial divider between “insider” and “outsider.” Conversion rendered black slaves “insiders”–especially to the priests, whose lives revolved around the converting and ministering to their congregations. More importantly, demographic imbalances in the sex ratio, the fluid economy of the colonial frontier, and the capacity for blacks and whites to form legal marriages in French territory throughout the seventeenth century meant that some blacks could escape their status as slaves, through marronage or manumission, and join the lower ranks of colonial society. Only when this community of free non-whites became demographically and economically significant in the early eighteenth century was the French legal apparatus of race invented and applied in the colonies and in France itself. (63) Then, in the eighteenth century, as the slave population of the French Caribbean colonies came to dramatically outnumber the French clergy (rising from an approximate ratio of 2 or 3 missionaries per 1000 slaves in the 1680s to some 10,000 slaves for every missionary in the 1780s), the missions shifted their focus from conversion to social control in support of the slave regime. (64)

When we study the history of race as a discourse of conquest or empire we need to be aware that ideology changes according to the needs of elites to erect or maintain a dominant system of privilege. It is comprised of both prejudice–based on received and transmitted stereotypes–and institutional mechanisms, the latter often backed by the force of police, judiciary, administration or even the military. Prejudice can be confronted and overturned by experience but institutional racism, which creates the conditions for replicating or exacerbating inequalities, is considerably more difficult to overcome. Moreover, prejudice and institutional racism operate as a dialectic; each reinforces the other. The codification and enforcement of racial categories over religious differentiation therefore marks a crucial distinction between early modern and modern French worldviews.


A previous version of this paper was originally presented at the January 2002 meeting of the American Historical Association in San Francisco. I am grateful to Pierre Boulle, Ben Braude, Seymour Drescher, George Fredrickson, Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, Owen White and several anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. I also want to thank Steven D. Groth, Special Collections Coordinator at the San Jose State University Library for assistance consulting the 1654 edition of Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre’s Histoire generale des isles.

1. The historiography of race-thinking and racism is too vast to capture in a single citation. Two recent and valuable summations are George Fredrickson’s Racism: A Short History (Princeton, 2002) and David Brion Davis, “Constructing Race: A Reflection” in In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (New Haven, 2001), 307-322, orig. pub. in The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54:1 (1997): 7-18.

2. A lucid, if partisan, overview of North American historiography vis-a-vis Virginia can be found in Alden Vaughan’s “‘The Origins Debate’: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97:3 (July 1989): 311-54.

3. Winthrop Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968); William B. Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans: White Response to Blacks, 1530-1880 (Bloomington, IN and London, 1980).

4. David Brion Davis, Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Cambridge, MA, 2003) chapter 1; Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East (New York and Oxford, 1990); James H. Sweet, “The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 54:1 (1997): 143-166.

5. Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge, 1982); R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720 (Madison, WI, 1994); Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY, 1995); Joyce E. Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Cambridge, MA, 2001).

6. Fredrickson, Racism, 40-47.

7. Cohen’s important pioneering work covers the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, but in rather broad strokes, with comparatively little attention to the immediate social contexts of racial discourse. See also, Sue Peabody, “There Are No Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Regime (Oxford, 1996); and most recently, The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, edited by Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall (Durham, NC, 2003).

8. For a fuller discussion of Old Regime French missions in the Antilles, see: Sue Peabody, “‘A Dangerous Zeal’: Catholic Missions to Slaves in the French Caribbean, 1635-1800,” French Historical Studies 25:1 (January 2002): 58-76.

9. Louis XIII issued contracts to the Atlantic ports of Rouen and St. Malo to trade along the African coast in 1633 and 1634 (Guillaume de Vaumas, L’eveil missionnaire de la France au XVIIe siecle, [Paris, 1976], 222, 227).

10. Jacques Bouton, Relation d’un etablissement de francois depuis l’an 1635 en l’isle de Martinique, l’une des Antilles de l’Amerique (Paris, 1640), 98-102. Bouton makes an explicitly economic comparison, noting that blacks can be dressed and fed more cheaply than the French indentured servants and that they owe their lifetime service to their master, as contrasted with the indentured servants who serve for only three years.

11. Maurile de St. Michel, Voyage des Isles Camercanes en l’Amerique qui font partie des indes occidentales (Mans, 1652), 80. Portions of this text are reprinted in Revue d’histoire des missions (Dec. 1936): 587-614.

12. Bernard David, Dictionnaire biographique de la Martinique (1635-1848): le clerge, 3 vols., (Fort-de-France, 1984), 1:79-82.

13. Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre, Histoire generale des Isles de S. Christophe, de la Guadeloupe, de la Martinique et autres dans l’Amerique (Paris, 1654), 480.

14. Ibid., 473.

15. Ibid., 475.

16. Ibid., 477-78.

17. Ibid., 475.

18. Pierre Pelleprat, “Relations des missions des peres de la compagnie de Jesus dans les iles et dans la terre ferme de l’Amerique Meridionale” (Paris, 1655), rpr. in Mission de Cayenne et de la Guyane francaise avec une carte geographique, (Paris, 1857), 49.

19. Andre Chevillard, Les desseins de son Eminence le cardinal de Richelieu pour l’Amerique ce qui s’est passe de plus remarquable depuis l’etablissement des colonies (Rouen, 1659), 192.

20. Pacifique de Provins, Le voyage de Perse et Breve relation du voyage des iles de l’Amerique, ed. Godefroy de Paris and Hilaire de Wingene (Assisi, 1939), pp. 27, 40-41. The Breve relation was originally published in 1646.

21. Pelleprat, 50.

22. While I do not find James Sweet’s evidence sufficient to trace a significant tradition of black inferiority among Spanish Christians back through the Middle Ages, there is no doubt that from the mid-1400s, Spanish and Portuguese Catholics accepted the enslavement of Africans while the morality of enslaving Amerindians was more controversial (Sweet, “Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought,”); see also: Cope, 17-18 and Pagden, 31-35. For the Portuguese, see Dauril Alden, The Making of an Enterprise: The Society of Jesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and Beyond, 1540-1750 (Palo Alto, CA, 1996), 502-27. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, 169-70.

23. “What is more, the punishments in America are brutal for the captives or indentured servants, and there is no more cruelty among the barbarian Africans or cruel Turks who employ the greatest harshness than in these isles, if the Lord Governors don’t bring order there; because the naked body is attached to a post and beaten in such a manner that the blood flows from all parts and then, to prevent the mosquitoes from causing playess [sores?], they are rubbed with water containing salt and pimento or Guinea pepper. It is these [masters] who put in horror the name of Christian among these Negroes by the cruelties formerly exercised by the Spaniards toward the Indians of Peru, whom Bartholomew de las Casas, Bishop of Chiapas … wrote in his letter to the King of Spain, in which he said that [he] was obliged to ask his Catholic Majesty an exemplary justice of eighteen Leaders of the Spanish Colony, who by their actions had so put in horror the name of Christian that by this single word the Indians believed that JESUS CHRIST was a Mahobia [Demon], [the] author and abettor of their strange tyranny.” Chevillard, 194-95. The “letter” that Chevillard cites is probably one of those written to Charles V between 1544 and 1550, when Las Casas was Bishop of Chiapas. Thanks to Scott Sessions for his assistance in identifying Chevillard’s probable reference.

24. Maurile de Saint Michel, 81-94; Pelleprat, 45-46. Maurile de Saint Michel is primarily concerned with establishing that children should be obedient to their fathers; he makes it clear however, that he considers Africans the descendents of Ham and thus owing their servitude to the sons of Japhet, here implied to be the Europeans.

25. Debra Gene Blumenthal, “Implements of Labor, Instruments of Honor: Muslim, Eastern and Black African Slaves in Fifteenth-Century Valencia,” Ph.D. diss., U. of Toronto, 2000; A.C. de C. M. Saunders, A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441-1555 (Cambridge, 1982); A.J.R. Russell-Wood, “Before Columbus: Portugal’s African Prelude to the Middle Passage and Contribution to Discourse on Race and Slavery,” in Race, Discourse and the Origins of the Americas, ed. Vera Lawrence Hyatt and Rex Nettleford (Washington, D.C., 1995), 134-168).

26. Pagden, Fall of Natural Man, esp., 31-35.

27. Peabody, No Slaves, 23-37, 67-69.

28. Philip Boucher, Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492-1763 (Baltimore, 1992), 49-51.

29. In 1674, the French governor-general De Baas asserted the necessity of returning the Jesuits to Martinique to minister to the Christians and the Negroes as they “still haven’t made any progress” among the Caribs (Jean-Charles de Baas to Minister, Letter of 8 June 1674, Archives Nationales Colonies C8 A1, fols. 281v-284). Interestingly, de Baas was a Protestant. His successor, the Comte de Blenac, was somewhat more supportive of continuing a missionary presence in the Carib islands of St. Vincent and Dominica (Boucher, Cannibal Encounters, 89-90).

30. Adrien Dessalles, Histoire generale des Antilles, 5 vols., (Paris, 1847-48), 1:559-661. A similar trend occurred in the French Antillean colonies of Saint-Christophe and Guadeloupe (where slave populations surpassed those of whites by 1687), and Saint-Domingue (between 1687 and 1700) (Peabody, “A Dangerous Zeal,” 75).

31. Peabody, “A Dangerous Zeal,” 63.

32. Du Tertre had also returned to the Antilles in 1656-57, during the intervening period between the publication of the 1654 Histoire generale and the new 1667-71 edition (Jacques Petit Jean Roget, La Societe d’habitation a la Martinique: Un demi-siecle de formation: 1635-1685. 2 vols. Thesis, Universite de Paris VII, 1978. Lille: Atelier Reproduction des Theses, Universite de Lille III, 1980, II: 853-856).

33. The remaining pages were devoted to Amerindian slaves from the Antilles (Arawaks) and the South American mainland (Brazil). These page counts are based on the 1978 reprint edition, Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre, Histoire generale des Antilles habitees par les francois, 4 vols. (Paris, 1667-1671; rpr. 1978), which is not an exact facsimile of the original, but the proportions of the pages are roughly the same.

34. Ibid., 2:503.

35. Ibid., 2:511.

36. Ibid., 2:506-07

37. Ibid., 2:508.

38. Ibid., 2:497-98.

39. Ibid., 2:504.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., 2:487.

42. Ibid., 2:499.

43. Ibid., 2:529.

44. Ibid., 2:525.

45. Jean Mongin, “Copie de la lettre du P. Jean Mongin, missionnaire de l’Amerique a une personne de condition du Languedoc ecrite de l’ile de Saint-Christophe au mois de mai, 1682,” Bibliotheque Municipale de Lyon, (Fonds Brottier, MS 185, fols. 40 ff.) reprinted in Bulletin de la societe d’histoire de la Guadeloupes 60-62 (1984): 73-125.

46. Mongin, 89. Mongin makes numerous references to this alleged vice, as “the predilection that produces their concubinage” (92).

47. Ibid., 98.

48. Ibid., 102 and 103.

49. Mongin, 104.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid., 95-96.

52. Chevillard, 144.

53. Ibid., 2:511.

54. Of 2,522 slaves in his charge, “971 know well the principles of the faith and 626 … besides that know the prayers” (Mongin, “Lettre,” 118).

55. Pierre Boulle, “Francois Bernier (1620-88) and the Origins of the Modern Concept of Race” in The Color of Liberty, 2.

56. Chevillard, 192-193.

57. Du Tertre, Histoire generale des isles, 2:498-99.

58. “Those who come from the northernmost part of Africa have a very light touch of Islam, because of their proximity to Morocco and Barbary. They wear at their throat little notes written in Arabic, which are preventatives against illness, so they say. When I ask them at first, upon their arrival, they give them to me and let me burn them without any resistance (except once, with three of them from Cap Blanc, which is a place further north than all the others from which we bring Negroes). For those who are more southern, they have let me know that they believe there is a being who made everything and who sends, so they say, the rain to make the crops grow. Those from Angola have told me that they call him Zamby; those who are less distant from the famous Senega river call this God Reboucou. They have told me that he is hidden and made like us. Those from Ardres or Aradas call him Boudou and they have told me that they bury their dead in the house, make a great banquet on the grave, and throw in half for the dead. But when I ask them where the dead go after this life, they reply candidly, ‘that is something which we do not know in our land.’ Ordinarily, when they want to guarantee something, they lift their eyes and their hand on high, with a very affecting and very respectful air, and say, ‘God on high.'” (Mongin, 85).

59. Chaplin, Subject Matter, 9, 175-80, 193. Chaplin’s assertions about English characterizations of Africans’ bodies in the British West Indies are more inferential and less rooted in seventeenth-century texts than her more grounded discussions of English North America.

60. Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes, 2nd ed. (London and Portland, Ore., 1998 [orig. pub. 1673]), 54. Ligon, apparently Anglican in his religious orientation, frequently distinguishes between “Negroes” and “Christians” in his account (e.g., “Negroes, being more than double the number of Christians” [46]). He offers an eloquent argument on behalf of the capacity of blacks to become Christians but, upon presenting the notion to a planter, learns that the planters fear that this would require the converted slaves to be freed (49-50). A similar debate was taking place in French missionary circles at about the same time (Peabody, “Dangerous Zeal,” 69).

61. Pelleprat, 49.

62. Bouton, Relation, 134.

63. Most of the research on the French racial legal infrastructure posits colonial origins for institutional racism in France and its colonies (Yvan Debbasch, Couleur et liberte: Le jeu du critere ethnique dans un ordre juridique esclavagiste [Paris, 1967]); Pierre Boulle, “In Defense of Slavery: Eighteenth-Century Opposition to Abolition and the Origins of Racist Ideology in France,” in History from Below, ed. Frederick Krantz (Oxford, 1988), 219-46. The truth may be somewhat more complicated and warrants further study.

64. Peabody, “Dangerous Zeal,” 73-75, 84-86.

By Sue Peabody

Washington State University

Department of History

Vancouver, WA 98686

COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History

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