By Sylvia Lindman, WSU Vancouver
VANCOUVER, Wash. – Sue Peabody’s seventh book has been called “a meticulous work of archival detective work” and “both biography and global history at their very best.”
It took 10 years of painstaking research for Peabody to earn that high praise. The result is “Madeleine’s Children: Family, Freedom, Secrets, and Lies in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies,” published in 2017 by Oxford University Press. It is the first full-length biography tracing the lives of slaves in the Indian Ocean world, and it affirms her reputation as the world’s foremost expert on the law of slavery and race in the French Empire.
The narrative brings many dramatic moments to life as Peabody uncovers intimate relationships and legal disputes between slaves and free people in the Indian Ocean world that have been hidden for two centuries.
Big picture through one family’s story
Peabody, Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and History at WSU Vancouver, calls the book a “microhistory.” That is, it follows one family’s story to paint a broader picture of society in their time. The individual histories of family members illuminate the types of labor slaves performed and the varying nature of their relationships with society and plantation owners.
Madeleine was a girl from Bengal who became servant first to a French mistress in the 1750s and subsequently to a planter couple who brought her to the Indian Ocean Isle Bourbon (now Réunion). Madeleine had three children, one of whom, Furcy, has become an important symbol of human rights in his homeland. Furcy battled relentlessly for his freedom in the courts for more than two decades. Finally, after losses in colonial courts, he appealed to the Court of Cassation in Paris and won. Ironically, his former master died before the court’s ruling on May 6, 1840.
Furcy believed he should be free because his mother, freed by her mistress 19 years earlier, had been tricked out of the back wages owed to her upon her mistress’s death. His mother had planned to purchase his freedom with that sum. Furcy’s lawyers, recognizing that his assertions could not hold sway in court, concocted other legal grounds: that Indians (as opposed to Africans) could not be legally enslaved, and that his mother’s brief residence on France’s “free soil” (in Europe) was sufficient to free her. It was the free soil argument that finally secured his status as a freeborn man, making him eligible for reparations.
The core document for Peabody’s research was a legal pamphlet that publicized the outcome of Furcy’s case in 1844. In addition, her sources — drawn from archives in France, Mauritius and London — included “three grocery bags of documents the archivist in Réunion brought to me in 2008,” she said. “I was the first historian to look at them. They had hardly been sorted.” In addition, she pored over census, parish and notary records, letters and newspapers. “I didn’t realize how long it was going to be when I began the project,” she said. “It took me to the very antipode of Washington state.”
Decades of struggle
In the book, Peabody writes, “Furcy’s appeal did not really further an antislavery agenda in France.” In fact, it reaffirmed that France had two distinct legal regimes — the civil code for France and a slave code for the colonies. “However,” she writes, “there is no question that Furcy’s appeal to Paris had taken him quite literally into a new realm. Having met some of France’s most powerful men in the great capital, he had become a man of the world.”
The story she had expected to find differed in important ways from the story she actually found. Furcy — who had fought for his freedom in court for 25 years and finally won — soon became a slave owner, a master, himself.
“It was a disappointment to me to learn this,” said Peabody. “But it was not unusual for free people in the Indian Ocean world. Furcy was in a system and he made use of the system to advance himself.”
A story that needed to be told
If Furcy’s story did not prove to be the inception of a political movement against slavery, it vividly describes slaves’ vulnerability to the master class, including the many ways those who owned slaves sought to keep his story hidden.
“Careful attention to Furcy’s legal battles reveals the hypocrisy, contradictions, and outright fabrications deployed by planters, colonial legal officials, and metropolitan authorities to maintain slavery, as well as idealists’ efforts to reform corruption and exploitation,” she writes in the book.
Furcy’s life has been celebrated in a novel, two plays and a song by the Indian Ocean musician Kaf Malbar; and to a group of contemporary activists, Furcy is a symbol against oppression. Peabody has met with members of the group “Liber nout Furcy [Let us free Furcy],” and while they too expressed disappointment that Furcy is not the same hero they had initially thought him to be, they believe it is nevertheless essential to honor and memorialize his long fight for freedom, which, as Peabody writes, “meant belonging to family, acknowledging the debt to ancestors, and preparing a legacy for generations yet to come.” As Kaf Malbar says in his song “L’Or de Furcy [Furcy’s Gold],” “We need this story to tell to our children.”
History as interpretation
One advantage of a microhistory is that it can enliven a sweeping chronology with the story of a few individuals. Peabody’s book covers more than a century of slavery and abolition in a space covering half the globe. The microhistory approach is likely to have wider appeal among readers, and Peabody is excited to start using it with students.
“I think this will be great in the classroom,” she said. Whereas a more standard history tells of the rise and fall of nations, the microhistory format forced her to carefully consider how to fill in the gaps in the archival record. “For the classroom, that’s really fun because it does reveal some of the interpretive process, which is so deeply part of the historical enterprise,” she said. “If you have curiosity and are willing to go out on a limb, this is where we make historical discoveries.”
Peabody’s next project will rely on similar investigation of life stories, but the subject matter is closer to home. She is principal investigator of a Humanities Washington grant to explore the stories of how Clark County residents have migrated into the region (she has lived in Clark County since she joined the WSU Vancouver faculty in 1996). Working closely with the Clark County Historical Museum and the Fort Vancouver Regional Library, Peabody and WSU Vancouver alumna Donna Sinclair will lead “a series of facilitated workshops encouraging people in the community to recover and tell their stories of this place,” Peabody said.
“How did we all arrive here in space, but also how have we collectively arrived at this moment in Clark County history where development is so rapid and changes are happening all around us?” she continued. “One of the critical things we need to do now, here in Clark County, is to share our stories with one another and come to understand how our presence is affecting the very land we live on.”
- Brenda Alling, director of marketing and communication, WSU Vancouver, 360-546-9601, firstname.lastname@example.org