France probably isn’t the first country to pop into your mind when you think of nations with a convoluted and ugly history of slavery, but a new book by Vancouver author Sue Peabody may change that.
Peabody, an international expert in French colonial slavery in the Indian Ocean, released her book, “Madeleine’s Children,” through Oxford University Press on Oct. 3. The book tells the tale of Madeleine, a slave brought to France as a teenager in 1772, and her children, Furcy, Constance and Maurice, who were illegally enslaved on Reunion Island, a French Indian Ocean colony at the time. The story traces her son Furcy’s struggles to gain his freedom through a corrupt and convoluted system of colonial rule.
“It’s really a remarkable piece of work,” said Brett Rushforth, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon who read Peabody’s manuscript for Oxford University Press. “It’s amazing how those worlds interconnected. In India, you have complicated colonial rules, legal statuses and servitude. You have France’s sugar islands, and then you have France itself. These three things are very different from each other and yet end up intertwined.”
The reason Madeleine and her children were wrongly enslaved has to do with France’s “Free Soil” principle. Through that ideal, any person who sets foot on French soil is considered free. And that rule was in place in 1772, when Madeleine, who was from the French Indian colonies, was taken to France by her mistress and then illegally sold to a new master, who brought her to Reunion Island as a slave.
Through the same law, her three children should also have been born free. But the master kept the two boys as slaves and only freed Furcy’s sister, Constance. Documents indicate the master intended to free Furcy and his brother, who died in slavery, after the master’s death. But his son-in-law, Joseph Lory, claimed Furcy as his slave instead, and quickly spirited him off to another French sugar island colony, Mauritius, to continue his enslavement.
“They put him to work on a sugar plantation, but he worked his way up to a domestic service role,” said Peabody, who is also a history professor at Washington State University Vancouver. “When the British (who owned the Mauritius colony after France from 1810 to 1968) came to check on the situation, that’s when he brought the issue up again. But they couldn’t find any information on him because he was a slave.”
Eventually, in 1817, Furcy went to the English court to sue for his freedom, but it was a hard sell without paperwork. He was finally declared free by France’s highest court in 1843, at age 56, just five years before France abolished slavery in 1848.
“Eventually, he wanted to get married, but he didn’t have papers,” Peabody said. “So he had to go to France to try to sort it out. Then, in 1843, they told him he had been born free. So all 56 years of his life he had been, according to the law, illegally enslaved.”
Peabody said she also found some interesting and surprising details during her research.
“I’m completely convinced Furcy’s father is the master,” Peabody said. “He says ‘I am the son of a Frenchman,’ but he never identifies the name of his father, because to do that under French law was illegal.”
That means Furcy’s likely half-sister, the wife of Joseph Lory, was also his owner, Peabody said.
Furcy eventually sued for reparations, but the French colonial court only awarded him for 15 years of unjust enslavement, setting the damages at 5,000 francs, or about $25,000. But his master’s widow — and possible sister — tripled the amount, paying Furcy the equivalent of about $75,000, likely out of remorse, Peabody said.
“I think she had a crisis of conscience about how he was treated,” Peabody said.
Peabody’s trek for truth
Telling Furcy’s tale required no small amount of travel and digging through foreign archives, but the result is a rare tale from a mostly untouched subject area in history, Rushforth said.
“It was 15 years of scouring archives all over the world,” Rushforth said. “It was part known — this Furcy story — but from that well-known story, the parts that are so fascinating are the biographical detail from the rest of those intertwined families.”
Before starting her book about 15 years ago, Peabody went to a conference about French colonialism at Reunion Island, which is about 200 miles east of Madagascar, both to participate in the conference and to try to access the archives for more information about Furcy.
“I had learned Furcy was known on the island, but they believed he had died a slave,” Peabody said. “But I knew he had been freed from my research.”
When she went to the island, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to look through the archives there, but she was greeted by a young archivist in blue jeans who granted her access after a few conversations in French.
“She told me to come back the next day, and when I did she came out with a shopping bag with documents,” Peabody said. “I was the first one to look through the material. I asked if I could take photographs and she let me. So I probably took at least 600 to 1,000 photographs during that first visit. That became the base of my material.”
A French author also came down to look at the material after she did, with the objective of making a fiction novel. Peabody was worried the book, “L’Affaire Furcy,” would steal some of her choice historical details, but it ended up being more of a romantic tale that was a bit loose with the facts, she said.
“I actually kind of loved it,” she admitted. “It does get lots of details wrong though, especially about women.”
Her continuing search for Furcy’s paper trail also led her to Britain, France and Mauritius Island, which is about 109 miles northeast of Reunion.
“As I kept going, I kept discovering these little ‘aha!’ moments,” Peabody said. “He tried to appeal and got thrown in jail as a runaway slave. He was left to languish there for about a year until his master took Furcy in the middle of the night to the Isle of Mauritius.”
Peabody grew up in Washington, D.C., during desegregation, and part of her experience was shifting from her “very white” elementary school to a predominantly black middle school during those years.
“I discovered racial tension, and in my own eyes, I didn’t know why it existed,” she said.
At the school, she experienced student walkouts and saw black students punished much more frequently than their white counterparts. And the unfairness of that left a lasting impression.
“I think it sensitized me,” she said.
The experience piqued her interest in the minority experience and in studying the impacts of international slavery. That interest lasted through her graduate school years at the University of Iowa and beyond, she said.
“I’m interested in cultures and how they make sense of each other through their own cultural lenses,” she said. “In one of my classes, I encountered a whole history of anti-slavery in Britain, and realized there was no corresponding literature for France.”
Peabody also studied French in her K-12 school years, and the French history of slavery combined those two fascinations into what eventually became a big part of her life’s work.
“A friend gave me a story about a situation in India, a case study of what legitimate marriage in colonial India was,” she said, noting that France had colonies in India along with the British. “In 1778, they had laws banning marriage between blacks and whites. That’s odd, because France was generally open to that. So this definitely piqued my interest in colonial societies.”
She did her college dissertation on what the experience was like for black people in France.
As part of that research she learned that in 1777, to get around the “Free Soil” rule, France placed a ban on all black people setting foot in France.
“It had to do with French involvement in overseas colonies, and setting up plantations,” Peabody said.
This happened because the French high court refused to register any law with the word “slave” in it, because “free soil” was so much a part of the French identity. So the workaround became “we’ll just use the word blacks instead, and they said, ‘OK, fine,’ ” Peabody said.
Rushforth, whose expertise is on French colonialism, empire and slavery in the Atlantic, said he plans to use Peabody’s book in his teaching plan for an upcoming class on comparative slavery.
“What often gets lost in Vancouver is that you have one of the world’s top experts in this field living locally,” Rushforth said. “She could have taught at any university in the country, and she teaches at Washington State University Vancouver. It’s a really great thing for students in your city.”
Peabody’s next aim is to get the book translated into French, which she hopes will happen in the next few years, she said.
“I’m excited for it to be translated,” Peabody said. “The real audience for this really could be the French.”
She also had a bit of a cynical note about the end of Furcy’s tale to share.
“One of the first things Furcy does when he becomes free, and his sister does the same thing when she becomes free, is to purchase slaves,” Peabody said. “He’s a man trying to be free in a world where slavery is the system. It was a step stone to purchasing land. It was about like purchasing a new car in today’s terms.”
The two became small-time landowners, with Furcy’s sister staying in Reunion, while Furcy went to Mauritius.
And that’s something that could be a lesson, even to modern groups struggling for equality.
“To resist one’s own oppression is not the same thing as joining a movement to overthrow oppression for all people,” Peabody said. “We need to work together to overcome that sort of injustice.”