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  • The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean
  • H. Adlai Murdoch
The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean By Doris GarrawayDurham: Duke UP, 2005. ISBN 0-8223-3465-8 paper. xvi + 412 pp.

This excellent book represents a ground-breaking work of scholarship in an essential but long-neglected area of Caribbean Studies: the genesis and construction of those early historical and ethnographic narratives, written largely by members of the clergy and the established social hierarchy from mainland France, that provided the framework for the study of the social inequities, physical brutality, and outright racism that was subsequently to characterize the French colonial encounter in the Caribbean. Doris Garraway's in-depth, stellar research and nuanced readings of these seminal (I use the word advisedly) historical texts provides a fresh and necessary perspective on colonialism's rationalization of sexual exploitation and postcolonial theory's long-criticized neglect of slavery as well as its longstanding tendency to obliterate the role of the native.

Primacy is given in Garraway's analysis to what she calls "the roles of desire and sexuality in mediating colonial power relations" (24), and deservedly so. For this complex nexus was what gave rise, in its turn, to the generalized and racially driven hierarchy of domination and submission that she aptly characterizes as "libertine." Garraway explains the choice of this term for her title by drawing first [End Page 236] on the eighteenth-century definition of libertinage as "the refusal of conventional sexual morality and the unbridled pursuit of sensual pleasures" (24). This is then linked to a context of colonization and creolization by figuring the colonies as "a space of immorality, religious heresy, violence, and sexual license" (25). This framework of sexual and interracial libertinage glosses and expands upon Robert Young's theory of colonial desire, especially its twin axes of ambivalence and subversion. In illuminating the burgeoning colonial representation of white men as "the symbolic fathers of both the slaves and the free people of color" (33), Garraway posits the instantiation of an incestuous colonial family romance as the overarching symbolic and material framework of French Caribbean colonial practice.

Starting from the "fictions of reciprocity" (48) that governed French-Carib relations, this discursive duality grounds even the earliest texts. Both of Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre's major Caribbean historiographies, his Histoire générale des iles de Christophe (1654) and his Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les François (1667–71), sought to shape the power of Christianity for colonial ends, ultimately privileging commerce and conquest over "the theme of massacre and dispossession that occupies the textual unconscious of Du Tertre's history as a repressed narrative of French colonialism in the Caribbean" (57). And while Père Labat's justly famous Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amérique (1742) provides extended and detailed perspectives on local flora and fauna, sugar cultivation, and the social history of the developing creole society, the implicit ambivalence of its author's values is also revealed in his rationalization of the colonies as a tabula rasa inviting European transformation and mastery, and as a meritocracy rewarding hard work and fealty.

But the exploitation of race and its hierarchies remain the bedrock of these slave-based communities, and even as non-European occult practices were socially stigmatized, Christian ideals of equality and justice would increasingly be seen as "inimical to the maintenance of slavery" (162). Thus the implicit racial subtext that both mediated and enabled the construction of the colonial class/caste system and the ongoing contravention of its stated sexual norms encountered its anxious object in growing fears of miscegenation and métissage. This politicization of the libidinal, as Garraway so deftly puts it, blamed the victim even as it confirmed the unspoken but longstanding predatory sexual practices of the colonizers, in that interracial libertinage now encompassed the taking of African slave women as concubines, the taking of free women of color as mistresses, and the simultaneous displacement of "responsibility for the taboo act onto slave women and persons of mixed race, thus enabling the continuance of libertinage" (197), This critical move "attributed an illicit agency to slave women" (203...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2044
Print ISSN
0034-5210
Pages
pp. 236-238
Launched on MUSE
2006-10-23
Open Access
No
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