The tacit questions were: who is black and why? And what does being black signify? Black, it was commonly understood,…
By Catherine Hall, London Review of Books —
In the early 18th century, Bordeaux was a rapidly expanding and prosperous city. Its riches derived from the business of slavery, and the city changed to accommodate this business. The port was renovated to make room for the large ships travelling to Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Domingue; work began on what was to be the magnificent Place de la Bourse on the Garonne and on the new merchant houses and shops for the luxury trades. Slave ships stopped at the port en route to West Africa: Bordeaux was one of the major anchorages along the French coast. Nantes dominated the business in African captives, but 346 slave trading expeditions left Bordeaux in the 18th century, the majority heading for the plantations of St Domingue. The shipowners, captains and traders were part of a large population supplying maritime enterprises. There were shipbuilders, carpenters, coopers, metalworkers – all skilled men – and then the sailors and dockworkers, loading and unloading freight including sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo from the Caribbean. Only Martinique was allowed to refine its own cane, so hogsheads of muscovado were piled up in the warehouses, ready for the city’s refineries and for export to Holland and Germany as well as to other parts of France.
The merchants of Bordeaux were at the heart of the imperial system, providing the credit that facilitated the West India trade and writing the bills of exchange that criss-crossed the Atlantic. They dealt with the region’s celebrated wines as well as the flour, lard, beef, ham, cheese and other provisions required by the planters, along with the copper, iron, textiles, clothing, guns, chains and fetters needed for the violent practices of the colonial economy. Ledgers offered a form of displacement, making the buying and selling of men, women and children appear an ordinary part of business. Enslaved people were ‘meubles’, as the Code Noir had decreed in 1685: moveables, chattels, things that could legitimately be owned and exchanged as property. Some persons defined as ‘property’ arrived in Bordeaux itself. By the 1730s hundreds of nègres créoles were living in the city, working as messenger boys, stable lads, domestic servants. A select few were chosen to enhance their owners’ prestige by acting as liveried footmen or page boys. And some managed to escape, surviving as best they could and avoiding the slave-hunters, who recaptured ‘runaways’ to return to the colonies.
Bordeaux lived off slavery, but preferred to keep it at a distance. The nègres créoles were an uncomfortable reminder of the Caribbean, of the too-close juxtaposition of slavery and liberté. In 1738, Louis XV was pressed by the merchants of Nantes to limit the number of enslaved people arriving in France and to refute the ‘Free Soil’ principle of Louis X, whose edict of 1315 determined that ‘nul n’est esclave en France.’ When the provincial parlements were called on to ratify the new declaration, the Paris parlement refused. Beginning in the early 1750s, the Paris Admiralty Court was the site of many successful lawsuits brought by enslaved men seeking their freedom. The question of who could be called ‘free’ was disputed throughout the century. But for many it was not slavery on French soil that was the issue, it was being black.
Merchants and shipowners were businessmen, but they also aspired to polite society. In Nantes, traders established six chambres de lecture and a music academy. There are records of their private libraries, which included works by Enlightenment critics of slavery such as Voltaire and Montesquieu. In 1712 Louis XIV had signed letters patent for the Bordeaux Academy of Sciences. The membership of the academy did not include merchants, but many had financial or marital links to slavery. They followed closely the debates about blackness (noirceur), or what the Comte de Buffon was to call the ‘varieties’ of man, that were taking place in the courts and anatomy theatres, in pamphlets and the press, in the exchanges, cafés and on the colonial plantations. Each year the Bordeaux Academy offered an essay prize, and in 1741 the topic was: ‘What is the physical cause of the Negro’s colour, the quality of his hair, and the degeneration [dégénérescence] of both?’ The tacit questions were: who is black and why? And what does being black signify? Black, it was commonly understood, signified Africa and slavery. But the puzzle was also a religious matter, since the Bible was clear that God had made all men white. Why were black people different?
The academicians had no difficulty asking these questions: it was entirely legitimate to scrutinise black bodies. It would never have occurred to them to ask why some people were white and what that signified. But in asking about blackness they were asking about themselves. What defined their whiteness? How were they different? Though colonists were well aware of the connection between white skin and power it was not until 1910 that W.E.B. Du Bois published his essay ‘The Souls of White Folk’ and identified ‘personal whiteness’ as a key aspect of racialised entitlement, a collective fantasy of ‘the ownership of the earth, forever and ever, Amen!’
The sixteen essays submitted for the essay prize remained, untouched, in the Bordeaux archives. They have now been recovered, translated, contextualised and published with a thoughtful and informative introduction by Henry Louis Gates and Andrew Curran, who discuss the city, the academy and ways of reading the range of bizarre explanations offered for black skin and hair. The essay writers included biblical scholars, gentlemen naturalists and theorists who held that skin colour was explained by climate and environment. Contributions came from Sweden, Ireland and Holland as well as from France: this was a European conversation. Their arguments were theological, physical, humoral and anatomical. None challenged the orthodox view that God had created of one blood all nations of men: what needed explanation was ‘the reasons for the degeneration of Negroes’.
The story of Noah’s betrayal by his son Ham was offered by one essayist: it was evident, he argued, that ‘Ham was the father of the Ethiopians’ – all else followed. A military man, writing in France, was convinced that different climates could affect human appearance, behaviour and quality of mind; it was only in the temperate zones, he said, that ‘we find fertility and agile minds, an agreeable activity in external manners, and a delicate sensibility in pleasures.’ Two contributors turned to humoral theories. One maintained that ‘Negroes are of a very dry temperament’; the other associated the melancholia he saw as typical of black people with their humoral balance, a balance that could not be maintained outside Africa. ‘There is no Negro who does not fear that tomorrow he will be taken prisoner-of-war and sold in foreign lands as a slave for the rest of his life,’ he wrote. ‘Slavery is regarded as the greatest of all evils by men whose only wealth … is freedom.’ Yet it was black bile, he concluded, that was the source of their melancholy, not the loss of liberty. One writer thought that, until science provided more exact explanations, ‘it behooves us not to issue any conclusions.’ An Irish doctor who argued that blackness was caused by combustible materials burning under the earth in Africa seemed not to think there was any harm in trying.
Pierre Barrère, a doctor from Perpignan, was the only contributor who published his essay and the only one to draw directly on colonial experience. He was proud of his approach, which he said was rooted in empirical observation. He had served as the botaniste du roi in Cayenne and had taken a great interest in the dissection of African bodies. His anatomical observations convinced him that blackness was more than skin deep. ‘Whence comes this blackness of Negroes; what is its cause? Here is what the anatomy of the Negro skin teaches us.’ Dissection revealed to his satisfaction ‘the skin with all its features … and a reticular body of a blackish red … The epidermis or the outer skin of the Negro derives its black colour directly from its own tissue … Their bile is always as black as ink … their blood is blackish red.’ It was African bodies themselves that held the clue: blackness was inside them.
Eighteen years after the essay competition, Voltaire published Candide. He had long been preoccupied by ideas of blackness and was committed to polygenesis and fixed racial differences, yet opposed to slavery. He took some delight in mocking the speculative fancies of the Bordeaux Academy. When Candide arrives in the city, accompanied by the last of a hundred red sheep he has acquired, ‘he left it to the Academy of Sciences at Bordeaux, who set for the subject of their annual prize an essay on why the sheep’s fleece was red. The prize was awarded to a Northern scholar, who demonstrated by a formula, A plus B minus C over Z, that the sheep was necessarily red and ought to die of scab.’ Montesquieu, onetime president of the academy, denounced slavery but did not object to selling his wines to slavers; his Lettres persanes of 1721 described the slave as cowardly, vile and debased. L’Esprit des lois, published in 1748, condemned the institution of slavery on the basis of natural law, but also regarded climate as crucial to character and considered servitude as more appropriate to the torrid zone.
By the 1770s, the widespread acceptance of Atlantic slavery was beginning to shift and the horrors of the slave trade were becoming an issue of public concern. Abbé Raynal’s Histoire des Deux Indes appeared in 1770. ‘Whoever justifies the system of slavery merits a contemptuous silence,’ he wrote, ‘and a stab of a dagger from the Negro.’ Faced with this threat to the Bordeaux economy, the academy proposed a new essay topic: ‘What are the best ways of preserving Negroes from the diseases that afflict them during the crossing to the New World?’ They invited proposals for solutions that would at the same time rescue the reputation of shipowners. Only three essays were received: one from a ship’s surgeon containing graphic details of the terrors, one from a master apothecary proposing the use of mercury-based medicines and one from a Parisian who said that life for the enslaved was ‘no better than the life of an animal’.
In England, too, the morality of the slave trade was being questioned. Granville Sharp, convinced that slavery was illegal on domestic soil, was pursuing the matter in the courts and had published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery. The status of an enslaved man, James Somerset, who had escaped in London and been kidnapped for re-enslavement became a national debate. The decision in 1772 by the lord chief justice that Somerset must be freed terrified the colonists. Edward Long, a slave-owner recently returned from eleven years in Jamaica and engaged in writing his history of the island, realised that he must explicitly defend the slave trade and slavery: he could no longer rely on the law to protect what he regarded as his human property. He turned to blackness, claiming that racial difference was natural and essential – rooted in the body, blood, bile, bone and hair. Long leaned on his time as a plantation owner to justify his verdict on the character of the African and the superior capacity of ‘Whites’ (which he capitalised) to be their masters. He combined with it his reading of Enlightenment debates on ‘the human’ to produce what he hoped would be an authoritative set of arguments convincing the metropolitan public of the legitimacy of slavery and its importance to national wealth and power. He referred to Voltaire and Montesquieu, and to David Hume, who in 1753 had unequivocally judged African lesser than white men. He regarded Buffon as a major antagonist, with his insistence that climate determined skin colour. Barrère, the anatomist and contributor to the 1741 essay competition, was more to his liking: ‘Mr Barrère affirms,’ he wrote, ‘that the bile … in Negroes … is always black as ink … [and] that the Negro bile naturally secretes itself upon the Epidermis, in a quantity sufficient to impregnate it with the dark colour for which it is so remarkable.’ These observations led to the question of ‘why the bile in Negroes is black’. Buffon had argued that the ‘heat of climate was responsible’ and that the ‘black colour of Negroes, if they were transplanted into a cold climate, would gradually wear off and disappear in the course of ten or twelve generations.’ This, Long maintained, was clearly not the case; Ethiopians in Europe were still as black as in the days of Solomon, and Europeans in the West Indies were not becoming ‘tawny’. ‘Without puzzling our wits,’ he concluded, ‘to discover the occult causes of this diversity of colour among mankind, let us be content with acknowledging, that it was just as easy for Omnipotence to create black-skinned, as white-skinned men.’ Long’s History of Jamaica, unlike the writings of Barrère and the essayists, has remained in print since 1774. It was cited by pro-slavers and its influence can still be discerned in contemporary racist arguments. Like Voltaire and Montesquieu, Long could not entirely sustain his own arguments. Creolised Africans, he believed, could be somewhat civilised by the plantations and live in an acceptable form of servitude. But his vicious account of their skin, their ‘coating of wool, like the bestial fleece’ and their ‘fetid smell’, has continued to haunt the white imagination.
What Barrère called the ‘prodigious enigma’ of blackness was by the late 18th century referred to as the different ‘races’ of men. Putting together the Bordeaux texts, Gates and Curran argue, helps us to understand the emergence of the concept of race, as Enlightenment men ‘progressively transformed the alleged cognitive and physical differences existing among the world’s peoples into normalised categories – taxonomical schemes that positioned white Europeans at the pinnacle of a fixed racial hierarchy’. After this, there would be no need for further essay competitions.
Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the 18th-Century Invention of Race
edited by Henry Louis Gates and Andrew S. Curran.
Harvard, 303 pp., £23.95, March, 978 0 674 24426 9
Source: London Review of Books