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  • Race et esclavage dans la France de l'Ancien Régime
  • Brett Rushforth
Boulle, Pierre H. —Race et esclavage dans la France de l'Ancien Régime, Paris, Perrin, 2007, 286 p.

Ultra-nationalist French politicos frequently quote Charles de Gaulle as saying that he was comfortable with the presence of a few "yellow Frenchmen, black Frenchmen, brown Frenchmen," but only "on the condition that they remain a small minority. Otherwise, France would no longer be France. We are after all primarily a European people of the white race." In Race et esclavage dans la France de l'Ancien Régime, Pierre Boulle shows that such sentiments have deep roots. Boulle explores the ideological, legal, and social manifestations of racial prejudice in early modern France, concluding that the racism of the nineteenth-century empire originated in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century encounter between France and the peoples of west Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Boulle divides this fine study into three parts. The first —"La construction du concept de race en France" —is a largely intellectual history tracing notions of race as they were transformed by Atlantic expansion and the development of plantation slavery. In the seventeenth century and before, the French tended to view Africans as benign —if culturally backward —curiosities. Most believed that, with time and religious instruction, they could become like Europeans. As the French began to participate in Africans' enslavement, however, they came to regard them as more permanently inferior, their moral and intellectual capacities inescapably limited by biology rather than culture. This "hardening of the concept of race" found many expressions, but by the mid-eighteenth century became so widespread that Boulle considers it the prevailing French attitude (p. 66).

In its broad contours, Boulle's story is not surprising: slavery encouraged the formation of racial hierarchies throughout the early modern Atlantic. The French descended along their own path toward racism, however, and Boulle is an excellent (not to mention our only) guide as we retrace their steps. Boulle attributes the rise of modern French racism to three factors: the French encounter with non-Europeans, the rise of modern science (including the obsession with biological classification), and France's growing secularization (which caused many to turn to biological explanations for cultural difference). The tragic historical coincidence of Africans' enslavement led Caribbean planters, along with their missionary accomplices, to create an ideology that equated blackness with inferiority and slavery. In this theory, Africans became children who needed to remain in [End Page 227] slavery for their own good, because freedom would only ensure a return to their libertine ways. As these notions circulated, secular thinkers found new ways of explaining human difference, dividing humanity into "species" that were permanently and biologically distinct. Beginning with the lesser-known work of François Bernier in the 1680s and culminating with the infamous writings of George-Louis Leduc de Buffon in the 1750s, Boulle demonstrates the prevalence of scientific racism long before its nineteenth-century heyday. Supplemented by an excellent discussion of pro-slavery rhetoric, Boulle's is the most complete published account of early modern French racial ideology.

In the book's second section —"La question du statut des esclaves et des gens de couleur libres en mé tropole"—Boulle analyses how these ideas translated into laws. Expanding on the work of Susan Peabody, Boulle discusses the legal status of slaves, former slaves, and other people of colour in metropolitan France. After a brief recounting of the 1716 and 1738 edicts on the legal status of slaves —orders that declared slavery illegal in France even as they codified exceptions to that rule —Boulle focuses on later, more clearly racialized ordinances. Using a series of legal cases between 1762 and 1777, Boulle reveals that French officials walked a thin line between providing legal clarity and preserving racial purity. On the side of legal clarity, many supported the "freedom principle," the notion that touching French soil automatically rendered one free. Such a policy would leave many free blacks in France, however, a condition that these officials, influenced by hardening racism, found untenable. Boulle uses the laws, and especially the debates surrounding their adoption and implementation, as a window...


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