Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hebrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation.
AFTER A CHANCE DISCOVERY of a piece of paper on which was written a sliver of an enslaved Senegalese woman's history, historians Rebecca Scott and Jean Hebrard embarked on an international archival and genealogical quest, discovering even more pieces of paper, and like forensic detectives, they pieced together a riveting transnational and multigenerational narrative which focuses on the family descended from the slave woman named "Rosalie of the Poulard Nation."
Between 1786 and 1791, a woman dubbed in her records of sale as Rosalie of the Poulard Nation entered enslavement in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. As her moniker "La Poulard" implied, this woman more than likely came from one of the Peular, Fulbe, or Fulani ethnic groups of the Senegal River Valley. Sometime before her sale in the West Indies, she underwent the ritual of renaming and lost her original African name.
A survivor of the nightmarish Middle Passage, Rosalie was but one of the millions of Africans who were violently torn from their African homelands in the greatest crime against humanity, the TransAtlantic Trade in captive African bodies. In Saint-Domingue Rosalie came to be the concubine of her owner, a white Frenchman, and engaged in what came to be the fate of thousands of African women who in enslavement were bedded by the very men who bought and enslaved them.
Rosalie entered Saint-Domingue at a rime of revolutionary upheaval. Hot on the heels of the French Revolution came the Haitian Revolution, in which the enslaved population of Saint-Domingue rose up in an antislavery and anticolonial death struggle. These two great revolutions had a seismic global impact and turned Rosalie's life upside down
By January 1804, the Haitian Revolution triumphed; former slaves, and free Blacks and Browns, took control of their country and Saint-Domingue was renamed Haiti. During the course of the struggle the revolutionaries issued an emancipation proclamation freeing all of Saint-Domingue's enslaved and granting full citizenship rights to all. Thus Rosalie and her progeny had full rights as citizens.
In 1803, Rosalie, Michel Vincent, and their four children boarded a ship to Santiago de Cuba. Though Rosalie was free, Vincent took the step of drawing up for her and her children a "free paper," a document which declared he had manumitted them. Here, it must be borne in mind that Cuba was a slave society, and many of those who could claim freedom in Saint-Domingue/Haiti were now vulnerable to re-enslavement. Rosalie remained in Cuba for a while but sent her daughter Elisabeth with her godmother, the widow Aubert, to the American slaveholding city of New Orleans, to which thousands of Haitian refugees had fled. Rosalie herself returned to Haiti, where the revolutionaries had finally expelled the French, and where her freedom was secure.
New Orleans was a slaveholding city, but one with a significant free Black and mulatto population. There, Rosalie's daughter Elisabeth married another mulatto, Jacques Tinchant, and they had four sons. However, draconian slave laws, and restrictive Black codes with regards to marriage and miscegenation, made life unstable. The family pulled up stakes, departed for France where Jacques and Elisabeth bought a farm in the Basque Region, and put down roots. They set about educating their four American-born sons (a last child, Edouard, was born in France) in a country seemingly committed to antiracism, equal rights for all regarding of race, and universal education.
Over the next century the Vincent/ Tinchant clan travelled the world, taking on numerous ethnic and national identities. Its members journeyed across oceans and continents--France, Mexico, the United States, Belgium, Cuba, Haiti, England, and even Germany--opening and closing businesses, making strategic marriage alliances, engaging in martial and revolutionary endeavours, all in pursuit of the security, freedom, respect and respectability that white supremacy denied them.
In France, the Tinchants witnessed the uprisings of 1848 when republicanism was outlawed and monarchy reinstated. The status quo once again ushered in racial animosity toward persons of colour. Joseph Tinchant decided to leave France for New Orleans; he later moved to Mexico. His parents and brothers departed from France to Belgium, a new enough country and one where the racial climate was friendlier toward Blacks and others of colour.
Joseph and two other of his brothers, their wives, and children settled in Mexico and were there when the French, Spaniard, and British invaded that country. As well, several of the Tinchants lived through the American Civil War and brothers Joseph and Edouard joined the Union Army. Edouard, an abolitionist, became a delegate to the Louisiana state constitution convention. Later, two Tinchant descendants, Marie-Jose and her twin brother Jose, worked for the Belgian Resistance during World War II.
This constant shuffling from' one country to another make it seem that the Tinchants had no real loyalty to any territory, but only to their family and its security. That is understandable given the rimes in which they lived. For the end of the 18th century and much of the 19th, Blacks and other people of colour were denied citizenship rights in many if not most countries in the Western hemisphere. Only one country in that region held out full citizenship for Blacks, and that was Haiti. In the antebellum period, the United States dashed all hopes of such for Black people, with the pronouncement of the Dred Scott decision in 1857. And even after the post-Civil War period, White supremacy with its accompanying denial of Black rights reasserted itself in all levels and sectors of society.
The Tinchants' migrations made them citizens of the world, or as the authors would have it "citizens beyond nations? (161) Their ability to transgress various boundaries speaks to their relative privilege as persons of colour. The Tinchants had the financial means that enabled them to leave a hostile place. In contrast an "obvious" Black person could hot pass for white, and could not manipulate racial borders similarly.
The role of papers, literacy, and writing played a major role in the lives of Rosalie and her descendants. It is likely that Rosalie herself had some literacy in Arabic, given that she came from an Islamically-oriented society, one is which the written word and scholarship was held in high esteem. It was papers and the safe-keeping of them that allowed Rosalie to ensure the freedom and civil and social status of herself and her daughter Elisabeth. The latter's baptismal record documented the presence of her white father and his acknowledgment that she was his child. Rosalie kept this paper safe and would later travel to New Orleans with the baptismal certificate so that her daughter would have proof of her father's acknowledgement. Even though her parents were not married, the fact that Elisabeth could use her father's name had ramifications for her marriage to Jacques Tinchant, and for the civil status of her own children.
The French-born Edouard, on arriving in New Orleans, registered with the French Consulate as a French citizen. Even as he took out American citizenship, he kept the documents of his registration safe, knowing that at some point he would had to give proof of his French citizenship. Indeed, thirty-five years later, in Belgium, he had to give proof the he was a Frenchman.
Thus the title of the book Freedom Papers is quite apt. Pieces of paper, numerous pieces, saved the lives of the Tinchants and secured their freedom from slavery, insecurity, insults, and racism. The Tinchants "had long known that a piece of paper could turn a human being into a person with a price, and that other pieces of paper could restore freedom and standing." (171)
This story of course has resonance for our time. Today, Black people are still fighting for the atrocities of slavery to be recognized, and for reparations. Descendants of the enslaved have still not achieved racial justice and full emancipation. Crossing the colour line and facial mixing is still employed as a "survival strategy." Furthermore, World War II and its carnage are still a part of our collective memory.
It is obvious that the authors themselves amassed and sifted through volumes of paper in order to write this monograph. The numerous documents no doubt caused the authors to become skilled editors, because the story, though dense, is tightly woven and compact. Rosalie and her daughter Elisabeth dominate the opening chapters, and then the narrative becomes woven around the Tinchant brothers. The story ends dramatically and tragically with the granddaughter of Joseph, Marie-Jose, the unfortunate Resistance fighter, gassed by the Nazis.
Primary sources enhance the monograph. The reader is treated to copy of a bill of sale for Rosalie, a photograph of Rosalie's daughter Elisabeth, a copy of Edouard's letter to Cuban revolutionary general Maximo Gomez, a label of Joseph Tinchant's cigar box, which shows his likeness, and a picture of Belgian Resistance heroine Marie-Jose Tinchant, among other primary documents.
In many ways, the book is a tribute to Rosalie, for her tenacity, cleverness, and farsightedness. She gave her family and her descendauts what a vast majority of her fellows would not have been able to provide for theirs. At the same time, by rescuing and writing Rosalie's story, Hebrard and Scott have pulled from obscurity the tortured histories of tens of thousands of enslaved Africans whose labour, intelligence, and skills built the New World. These two historians have written a rich and textured history that in my mind has become an instant classic.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Guoqi Xu, Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War.|
|Next Article:||Jody Pavilack, Mining for the Nation: The Politics of Chile's Coal Communities from the Popular Front to the Cold War.|