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3 Pla^age and the Louisiana Gensde Couleur Libre How Race and Sex Defined the Lifestyles of Free Women of Color JOAN M. MARTIN Sexual relations among European settlers, African slaves, and native Americans during the period of French rule in Louisiana (1718-1768) resulted in the creation of a third race of people neither white nor black and neither slave nor completely free. These are the gens de couleur fibre, or free people of color. The history of this group, and that of their women in particular, is both flamboyant and controversial. Stories about the grace, charm, and legendary beauty of these women—identified collectively in the popular imagination as "quadroons "—abound. For centuries the term quadroon (meaning onequarter Negro blood) has been nearly synonymous with "seductress." This idea is basedprimarily on the fact that the very existence of the quadroons is bound up with the notion of illicit sex and forbidden love. Whether the sex was consensual, forced, or something in between, its end results were the same:the establishment of a new race of people with ties to both blacksand whites, itself more privileged than the one but less esteemed than the other. One cannot discuss the free people of color or the quadroons without simultaneously considering plaqage, the system that brought them into being. Plaqage was the practice that existed in Louisiana (and other 57 58 JOAN M.MARTIN French and Spanish slaveholding territories) whereby women of color— the option of legal marriage denied them—entered into long-standing, formalized relationships with white European men. This practice was so common that laws were written in an effort to prevent it. The laws had no impact, nor did the futile public indignation. The controversy began with the inception of pla^age in the colony, and rages even today. The present essay will consider to what degree the sexual relations were forced, why the women in some cases willingly chose to live with white men over their own kind, and why those who were members of this elite group (male and female) seemed to be granted privileges nearly always denied their darker brothers. For expediency's sake, the term "quadroon" will be used interchangeably with "free people of color," and/or "Creoles of color," but these terms must first be clarified. Because the people were mixed, they came in a range of colors. They were identified as mulattos, mestizos, quadroons, octoroons, and other terms, all of which were used by the colonists to define the varying degrees of Negro blood in the nonwhite population. It would be erroneous, though, to assume that all the gensde couleur libre were quadroons or even fair-skinned, although many were; there were many who were dark as well. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall's findings show that most of the free Negroes in the French colonial period were African-born. They were probably members of the African people known as the Wolof, called Senegal in Louisiana, and they, she argues, are the persons chiefly responsible for formulating and transmitting Louisiana culture because they were the first women to arrive in the colony. She claims that these dark-skinned, elegant Senegalese women "largely reared the first generation of Louisiana Creoles of all statuses and racial designations." In fact, according to Donald Everett, a mulatto-led free colored society was not immediately established in New Orleans, but "as miscegenation increased, mulattos gradually assumed a more dominant role . . . and the degree of white blood in one's veins became an increasingly important factor." It also created a permanent and nearly impenetrable barrier that lasts to this dayin the relationship between Louisiana's mixed-race and dark-skinned blacks. The term "Creole" has also generated its share of confusion and controversy, but most scholars agree that historically the term was used to describe all people native to Louisiana. Historian James Dormon explains : PLAQAGE AND THE LOUISIANA GENS DE COULEUR LIBRE 59 The precise definition of the term "Creole" has been the source of unending controversy in Louisiana studies. My own working definition . . . holds the realities of historical usage; i.e., "creole" meant simply "native to Louisiana" during the period between circa 1720 and the outbreak of the Civil War. As such, blacks (both slave and free) as well as free persons of color and indeed white Europeans were all designated "Creoles" if they were born in Louisiana, or if they descended from those who were born there (Tregle [1982]; but see also Dominguez [1986] and DeVille [1989]). After...


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