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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 355-360
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The Politics of Race and Slavery in the British Empire and Ancien Régime
Claire Emilie Martin
The two books on slavery under review chart two distinct moments in the malaise that began to disturb the colonial world over slavery at the end of the seventeenth century through to the beginning of the nineteenth. By examining them together, one can follow how rational, early enlightenment attempts to find legal explanations and solutions to the growing complexity of slavery evolve into the representations of the late-enlightenment awakening to the horror of slavery that permeates the literature of romanticism.
Through an anecdote that forms the first and last words in "There Are No Slaves in France," Sue Peabody relates that, even in contemporary France, the mere suggestion that slavery once existed in the hexagon, evokes indignant outrage. In their effort to project a commitment to "liberty" the judicial and legislative institutions of the ancien régime endeavored to confine slavery to France's colonies across the Atlantic. As Peabody reminds us, though, these same institutions very consciously and calculatedly introduced a more enduring and pernicious legacy, racism.
Just how sensitivities over slavery morphed into a spate of racist laws in the eighteenth-century is at the crux of Peabody's work. Though it was published eight years ago, "There Are No Slaves in France" remains the only English-language text to synthesize an examination of slavery and race in ancien régime France. If this were the work's only value, it would fill a rather large lacuna in the literature on the period. However, "There Are No Slaves in France" situates the [End Page 355] subject within the philosophical currents of the time and the conflict between the Parlement of Paris and the monarchy that gnawed at the fabric of the ancien régime until it unraveled in the French Revolution.
In 1685, the same year that he revoked the Edict of Nantes, Louis XIV spread Catholicism to slaves in French colonies through his issuance of the Code Noir. Comprised of sixty articles, the Code also restricted whatever freedoms slaves had and regulated the behavior of their masters. Slavery, however, did not exist in France; according to the "Freedom Principle," a colonial slave became a free individual once s/he touched French soil. It was not until 1716 that a royal edict, produced by the regency government, addressed the status of slaves on French soil. According to the terms of the Edict of 1716, slave masters could bring their slaves to France without fear of the latter claiming their freedom provided the slave owner fulfilled certain procedural requirements. In addition, they had to affirm that they brought their slaves to France either for religious instruction or occupational training. The edict, however, remained in an ambiguous state. If unregistered, enforceability of an edict was, at best, a dubious proposition, especially since the Admiralty Court of France (which maintained appellate jurisdiction from provincial admiralty courts, the juridical authority over colonial affairs) did not recognize a royal order that was not registered by the Parlement of Paris.
As discussed by Peabody, the reticence of the Parlement of Paris to register the Edict of 1716 and the royal Declaration of 1738 (which provided that slaves whose masters did not follow procedure were no longer to be granted their freedom in France, but to be confiscated au profit du roi and deported to the West Indies where they would either labor at public works or be sold into slavery) were, in all likelihood, manifestations of a larger conflict over spheres of authority...