The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic Worldby Inge Dornan

Slavery & Abolition

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Year
2014
DOI
10.1080/0144039X.2014.965582
Subject
Social Sciences (all) / Arts and Humanities (all)

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Hayes, however, does not rest with the challenges that the archaeological record poses to conventional black/white narratives of American slavery. Instead, she carries her argument further and identifies important historiographical questions with which scholars in the field will need to come to grips. Nineteenth-century histories of the old Sylvester place, of course, give no space to the multicultural life that actually occurred there instead opting for the standard racial triad of American history: extinct Indians, black slaves and free whites. Such works supplanted the reality of life as it had been lived across colonial eastern North America with simpler stories premised on the binaries of contemporaneous racial thought and, consequently, set the template that later historians would follow when they recreated the plantation past. As the black/white model of slavery came to dominate the historical literature, places like Sylvester Manor either dropped from memory or had their histories refashioned to comport with modern scholarly trends.

The artefacts and anecdotes Hayes uncovered, however, disrupt what she calls the ‘grand narratives of race’ that define the modern study of enslavement (163). The archaeological story clearly questions the utility of using racial language to describe life on the plantation because the cultural interconnections, convergences and collaborations that comprised life there in the late seventeenth century are impossible to characterize as black, white or Indian. But as Hayes unravels the historiographical acts of forgetting and remembering, she also explicates how modern day notions of race that are of fundamental importance to the current construction of the American historiography of slavery fail us utterly in our efforts to recover pasts such as those embodied by the Sylvester plantation.

Slavery Before Race is a short, accessible and powerful book. One would be hard pressed to imagine a small, relatively insignificant outpost of the Barbadian plantation system affording an opportunity to rethink the historiography of slavery as a whole. In Hayes’ able hands, though, the long forgotten Mahansets and the enslaved folk who laboured for the Sylvesters have returned to tell us their stories and to poke holes in our own. Their lives force us to question just how deeply racial assumptions on the part of historians have warped our ability to see, never mind imagine, different kinds of people just as surely as they expose the terrible power of memory to recast the past in terms that are anything but its own.

James Taylor Carson

Queen’s University jc35@queensu.ca # 2014, James Taylor Carson http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2014.965584

The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary

Atlantic World, by Emily Clark, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, 279 pp., $35.00, ISBN 978-1-4696-0752-8

The figure of the New Orleans quadroon is so well fixed in American history and popular culture that it warrants a bold and ambitious study to recast her in a different light. This is precisely what Emily

Clark succeeds in achieving through impeccable scholarship and breathtaking historical insight. The

Strange History of the American Quadroon charts the origin and evolution of the living as well as the mythical American quadroon. The quadroon’s history has long been tethered to that of New Orleans:

Clark sets out to explore why and how this came to be the case.

It was the Haitian Revolution of 1791, she contends, that forever altered the course and destiny of the American quadroon. In 1809, 9000 Dominguan and Dominguan-descended migrants debarked on American soil: all made a beeline for New Orleans. Territorial legislation prohibited adult free men of colour from alighting on the US mainland, out of fear they would spread violence and

Book Reviews 671 revolution among southern slaves; hence the majority of free black female migrants arrived bereft of husbands and adult male kin. The city’s skewed demographics, where free men of colour were in a minority, severely impeded their marriage prospects, where a lack of social connections and exiguous economic circumstances made it almost impossible for them to outrival their more socially and economically assured free black New Orleanian counterparts. Territorial legislation, in 1808, banned marriages across the colour line, thus making a bad situation worse.

The city’s expanding free black population, in hand with the legal and economic constraints facing free women of colour and American fears regarding the ‘Haitian peril’, created fertile ground for regrafting the stereotype of the Saint-Domingue muˆlatresse – beautiful, seductive, unmarried, hyper-promiscuous, with a love of luxury, and a preference for white lovers over men of her own race – onto the streets of New Orleans. ‘Admitting the muˆlatresse to American soil and minds represented a devil’s bargain’, says Clark (53). Better themuˆlatresse – a woman who could be brought to heel – than her free black male counterpart who, as the Haitian Revolution proved, could not.

It was in New Orleans that the Dominguan muˆlatresse’s reputation as a me´nage`re (housekeeper and lover cum concubine of white men) was transformed into a place´e, a free woman of colour in plac¸age – a twentieth-century term describing the unions between white men and free women of colour in antebellum New Orleans. The place´e – prone to exploitation and abandonment by her fickle and caddish white lover – was deemed an altogether more tragic figure than the me´nage`re.

The image of the place´e was made more lurid and sensational by the New Orleans quadroon ball, which after 1805 and inspired by a Haitian innovation, permitted entry to white men only.

The reputation of the muˆlatresse and the place´e, argues Clark, conspired with the reputation of the city’s quadroon balls to spawn a fanciful, if not downright spurious, literature about the character and status of free black women in New Orleans. This was the very same literature on which popular and scholarly depictions of the New Orleans quadroon were based. Careful examination reveals that most of the anecdotes and alleged ‘eyewitness’ accounts, which have long been treated as authoritative by historians, fail to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Most were concocted through gossip, second-hand testimony and hearsay, either for titillation or to stoke the fires of anti-slavery sentiment – for which the tragic figure of the New Orleans place´e was proof of the worst evils of slavery.