Society Were your ancestors slave owners?

INFO “20 MINUTES” A team of academics has developed a database that allows anyone to research former slave owners and find out the amount of compensation they received at the time of their release. ‘abolition

Posted on 05/07/21 at 7:05 am
– Updated 05/08/21 at 12:53 am

This is a project on which researchers have been working for two years: this Friday, May 7, three days before the national day of the memories of slavery, a database is made public, which lists all the slave owners. who received compensation at the time of the abolition of slavery. A tool that will allow
from this Friday afternoon, individuals, businesses and institutions to research their ancestors, or the people who held members of their family in slavery. And above all a tool which could well revive the debate on reparations, by providing precise quantified elements to civil society.

The database is presented as a search engine, where you can sort by name, city, colony (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana and Réunion but also Senegal, Sainte-Marie de Madagascar and Nosy Be), or even amount granted. Names of slave owners appear, which contain biographical information, and a history of claims they have received. It is entered via two entrances: 1825 and 1849, corresponding to the two dates when the slave owners were compensated.

France has indeed abolished slavery and compensated slave owners twice. The uprising in Santo Domingo – which would become Haiti – in 1792 paved the way for a first abolition of slavery, reestablished two years later with the arrival of Bonaparte to power.
Toussaint Louverture wins a resounding victory against General Leclerc, sent by France, but the country is forced to pay an immense debt to the colonists, by virtue of a treaty signed in 1825. “Haiti has paid up to the last franc, in 1888 ”, remarks Myriam Cottias, director of the International Center for Research on Slavery and Post-Slavery (Ciresc), which coordinated the project.
Repairs (see box at the end of the article).

The bloody revolt in Santo Domingo spread fear among settlers in other regions, who therefore prepared for the end of slavery. They began an intense lobbying for compensation which they obtained in 1849, about a year after the abolition by the provisional government of the Second Republic. 126 million francs are paid, or the equivalent of between two to 12 working days per French or French, divided into three positions: cash the first year, an annuity, and on this annuity, a participation in a bank of ready, to support the economy of the colonies.

The research carried out by doctoral student Jessica Balguy to constitute this database, as well as for her thesis, revealed that the titles of the indemnities received by the slave owners were widely circulated in the French colonies even before the law made them. make it official. They have thus become a real “bargaining chip”, remarks the doctoral student. If the people on the base are mostly slave owners, some are simple creditors, who have recovered these titles. “Even before the compensation commission determined the price of a slave, some people got paid in compensation. The slave owners were in debt, and it was a way for them to pay off their debts, ”says Jessica Balguy.

This is how we find a certain Auguste François Perrinon, a staunch abolitionist from Martinique and “free of color”, as the descendants of freed slaves are called. This polytechnician had reclaimed a title, no doubt because a slave owner owed him money. In an entirely different genre, the database includes the name of Louis Marie Gabriel Lecoat De Kerveguen, in Reunion, who had 213 titles, either as owner or as creditor. We learn that he received 1.8 million francs equivalent to about 1,680 slaves. He is the base’s biggest claimant, and arguably one of the biggest slave owners.

Another rather disturbing revelation at first glance from the research of Jessica Balguy: the proportion of “free of color” and of women appearing in these titles upsets the image that we usually have of the slave owner, that we imagine. must be a white man. The reality is more complex than that: Jessica Balguy, for example, identified at least 30% of descendants of slaves among the slave owners who claimed their compensation in Martinique.

This is because “the system takes everyone,” says Jessica Balguy. “In a society founded on slavery, there is no working relationship outside of slavery,” adds Myriam Cottias. You can only have slaves ”. Among the non-white people who own slaves, one can also find families who have succeeded in emancipating themselves, but who for financial reasons redeemed their children without succeeding in emancipating them, explains Jessica Balguy. “Can we talk about slave owners in this case? “Asks the researcher, for whom this database reveals” the heterogeneity of profiles “and the multiplicity of scenarios:” There are free families of color who were very rich, who had slaves. There are free personalities of color who did not have a single slave. “

Women are also numerous among the slave owners: between 30 and 40%, according to Jessica Balguy. Again, there is a reason: for white women, many are widows, who end up as slave owners when their husbands die. Women of color are also found among the free of color to hold titles, because more of them than men have been emancipated. In Martinique, they are in fact the majority in the population of free of color, and logically find themselves “more involved in economic relations”, summarizes the doctoral student. In Senegal, mixed-race or black women who owned slaves, and lived with European settlers, even had a name: the Signares. “This is embodied violence,” says Myriam Cottias.

Seen through the eyeglass of our 21st century, these facts and figures seem utterly incomprehensible, but because the times are radically different. Likewise, anyone who has not delved into the archives of the commission responsible for working on the compensation to be paid to slave owners cannot understand why the French State made this choice, rather than that of compensating the slaves. This is the reproach addressed to Victor Schœlcher by activists from Martinique last May, before destroying two of his statues. Yet the documents Jessica Balguy compiled in her book Indemnifying Slavery in 1848? are categorical: Victor Schœlcher fought to compensate the slaves, but the lobbying of the owners was stronger, who threatened to leave the colonies and a collapse of the economy. “They compensated the owners because they had leverage that the former slaves did not have,” says Jessica Balguy.

Will the base built by researchers revive the debate on reparations? Perhaps, if the public and associations take advantage of this tool, as do businesses and institutions. Like the University of Glasgow in Scotland, which launched a scholarship program for Caribbean students after discovering it had received donations from people who benefited from slavery. “There are people for whom it may come as a shock or a surprise to see his name in the database,” asks Myriam Cottias. But Jessica Balguy puts it into perspective: “In the West Indies, a lot of people are already able to say which family has received how much compensation. People know a lot of things ”. He added, “My job is to share the information I find in the archives, but what people do with it next is not up to me. “

REPAIRS is a research project that studies compensation, reparations and compensation for slavery between the 19th and 21st centuries. “There are few informed, data-backed answers to the question ‘is it legitimate to talk about reparations?’ We thought we were going to take it seriously, ”explains Myriam Cottias, director of the International Center for Research on Slavery and Post-Slavery (Ciresc) and coordinator of REPAIRS.
At the center of the program, a database and a search engine that will allow the public to have precise information on the compensation received by French slave owners. A painstaking work on thousands of people carried out by doctoral student Jessica Balguy in the documents of the time, which made it possible, among other things, to find the archives of Guyana in Aix-en-Provence, to which the researchers had never had had access.
The database of the REPAIRS project will allow each French person to do their own research on their ancestors. The director of Ciresc herself was able to find her grandfather, Eugène Ozier-Lafontaine, a colored man, who received compensation for the equivalent of five or six slaves. For Myriam Cottias, “this database provides content, even answers, to questions that haunt the mind and makes it possible to understand what a slavery, complex and perverse society really was, a society of domination and of violence. “

03/12/21 | ANNIVERSARY

03/29/21 | HISTORY

05/29/20 | HISTORY

02/24/20 | HERITAGE

04/14/21 | DISCRIMINATION

02/04/21 | COME BACK

03/05/20 | INTERVIEW

08/23/20 | IN STRUGGLE

03/10/21 | HISTORY

05/24/20 | SLAVERY

02/15/20 | PUBLIC SERVICE

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