Race, colour and ethnic mixing in West Indian societies under French colonial rule (17th-20th centuries)

Prejudice relating to skin colour determined the unequal social structure of the French American colonies, as it had done in those of other European nations. Closely bound up at its origins with the legal apparatus of slavery, it survived independently of it after its abolition.

There is little agreement among historians about the moment or moments at which the notion of race came into being. Some maintain that prejudice relating to colour developed in the 17th century or earlier, whereas racial prejudice was a 19th-century development. In this hypothesis, colour is seen as fitting into the matrix of an existing conceptualisation of race based on the naturalisation of difference by means of notions of heredity, which already predicated the transmission from one generation to the next not only of physical characteristics, but also of moral and social ones, passed on through the circulation of bodily substances. What was called ‘colour prejudice’ in the French colonies, in the form it took in those of the New World, before spreading right across the West where it still obtains today, relies both on persistent reference to heredity and to markers related to physical appearance (skin colour, the shape of the nose and lips, hair texture…). 
The origins of ‘colourist’ thinking in the colonies
When the French took over a number of West Indian islands (Saint-Christophe – now St Kitts - in 1625, Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1635, and Saint-Domingue half a century later), the establishment of an economy based on slave labour performed by a workforce drawn from the African continent was not new (it had been adopted by the Portuguese in the Cape Verde islands as early as 1492) but was reinforced by an outlook which associated the colour black with slavery.
It was the Iberians who, coming into contact with populations which had previously remained very distant from Europe, were the first to propose a vocabulary of racial terms. Words which were to be used throughout, and in some cases beyond, the colonial period, passed into general usage. The noun ‘Negro’ for instance, or the term ‘Mulatto’ used for the offspring of mixed European and African parentage. In managing their new American lands, the French adopted the existing attitudes and practices of the Iberian colonies, and in particular this vocabulary (in the case in point, nègre and mulâtre). In the early years of settlement, when slavery was not yet fully developed, it seems that the denigration of the colour black was relatively unusual. The Royal Edict on the regulation of slaves which was promulgated in the Lesser Antilles in 1685 but only came to be known as the Black Code in 1718, basically governed relations of power between masters and slaves, and was relatively indifferent to questions of colour. But the massive increase in the number of slaves that came with the establishment of a full slave state from the end of the 18th century completely changed the tenor of social relations. From that time onwards, ‘colour prejudice’ dominated the human landscape of the French territories in America.
There appear in fact to be particularly close links between slavery and the development of prejudice, which served as a convenient justification for it by regarding one whole section of humanity as predestined by its very nature to servitude.  But because of the belief that the discriminating characteristics were transmitted from one generation to the next, and because of the related ambiguities arising from interbreeding and emancipation, this prejudice grew autonomously of the institution of slavery: the phenotypical characteristics took on a value of their own which served to position individuals and their lines of descent in the social landscape. As a result, the rules regarding the status of emancipated slaves and their descendants worsened, as is evident in the writings of the Rev. Du Tertre (1667) and, half a century later, of the Rev. Labat (1724).
The case of the former Saint-Domingue
The former Saint-Domingue is a text-book example: people of colour there were subjected to systematic lowering of their status on the basis of the doctrine of the purity of white descent, itself constructed upon genealogy. This bastion of race and lineage was then shored up by the notorious infinite colour line so clearly defined by Moreau de Saint-Méry (1797), who set up an absolute separation between whites and all others, who, whatever their degree of whiteness, were assigned to the other basic colour because they had some element of it in them. But at the same time the binary logic of the colour line did take account of the rich human diversity which characterised the colony by establishing categories of racial mixing, themselves based on genealogy. The gradation of skin colour led to a ‘cascade of contempt’ from the palest to the darkest, expressing what has been called a ‘sub-racism’ whereby prejudice is internalised by people of colour themselves, thereby fragmenting society and supporting the hierarchy of the colonial order 
A discriminatory regime (18th to the first third of the 19th centuries)
In the course of the 18th century a number of legal measures were taken with the aim of imposing on the islands a caste-based regime resting on the double distinction of status and colour, a regime that became more severe after 1760. These measures, which were based on white public opinion, first addressed interracial marriage. They also aimed to reduce emancipated people of colour to an inferior social status without any political power; excluded from significant public employment, they were as a group submitted to harassment, discrimination and acts of violence. Colour, furthermore, was presumed to be an indication of slave status. There was nonetheless during the revolutionary period a lively debate about the rights of emancipated people of colour. After the abolition of slavery in 1793-1794, which had no effect in Martinique under English occupation, former and newly emancipated people became full citizens, despite regulations intended to ensure the continuity of work on the plantations. But in the lesser Antilles, unlike Saint-Domingue, things returned in 1802 to the status quo. 
Colour prejudice: formally gone but still present in reality
The ideals of equality born of the Enlightenment and revolutionary legislation led to the disappearance from the law of the criterion of colour, as the principle of the equality of all free people was declared in the early 19th century. People of colour began to protest at their treatment (as is illustrated by the Bissette affair in 1823-1824), and the colonial charter of 1833 definitively abolished all legal segregation. According to the observations of V. Schoelcher in the course of his enquiries throughout the West Indies at the end of the 1830s, and those of the Abbé Dugoujon, however, prejudice was still deeply embedded in West Indian behaviour on the eve of the abolition of slavery. But some consideration of how it might be banished did emerge, as for instance in the proposals of V. Schoelcher and S. Linstant submitted contemporaneously in response to the competition launched by the Abbé Grégoire’s Foundation.
Colourist thinking was in fact at this time (2nd half of the 18th century, 19th century) consistent with the crystallisation of the notion of race and the development of the earliest racial theories in the scientific realm. Spreading from its colonial birthplace, it fed speculation on racial hierarchies which was developing in European intellectual circles. After abolition, racial domination did not disappear in the old colonies, where it had taken on an autonomous existence independent of the legal framework with which it was associated. Broadly mirroring the stratification of society, it survived in the private domain, creating for instance a separation between the dominant group and the rest of society. Evidence of this is provided by the case of the white elite in Martinique (the Békés), who have imposed strict endogamy on themselves: a faithfully observed genealogical constraint which has enabled them to exclude any individual suspected of mixed ancestry or of any deviation from the rule of marriage, and thereby to ensure the permanent integrity of their group.  This type of racial pressure was also to be found in the homogamy regulating marriage between members of the coloured population.
Colour as variable was also combined with the variable of gender: from a colonial point of view, mixed race traditionally arose in the illegitimate offspring of the union between a woman of colour and a white man. Whereas union between a black man and a white woman remained until quite recently almost unthinkable, as a result of the establishment of something like a taboo: a love-barrier, which theoretically could not be crossed, between black men and white women; white men by contrast could, by means of illegitimate unions, contribute to the general movement towards interbreeding. This seems to be the outcome of a twofold process: sexual exploitation, with no regard to its possible consequences, of black women by white men; but reciprocally a possible strategy on the part of the women with a view to ‘whitening’ their offspring.
Reversing the stigma
The 20th century brought a fundamental change: the colour of their skin, imprinted on the bodies of the enslaved and then of their descendants, however diluted it was by repeated interbreeding, had until then served as a sign of the imposition of a role implying a lasting form of subjugation. Yet it could also, and increasingly, serve as an assertion of identity, as is shown by the invention and subsequent spread from the 1930s of négritude (blackness) and statements of identity associated with it, so that the stigma was being reversed. And this at the very moment when public policies, especially after departmentalisation, were inspired by republican universalism and claimed to be indifferent to race and therefore free of prejudice, even if in society at large certain forms of discrimination still persist.
Published in november 2023
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