An Empire Founded on Libertinage? The Mulâtresse and Colonial Anxiety in Saint Domingue

TitleAn Empire Founded on Libertinage? The Mulâtresse and Colonial Anxiety in Saint Domingue
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsFabella, Yvonne
EditorJaffary, Nora E.
Book TitleIn Gender, Race and Religion in the Colonization of the Americas
CityBurlington, VT

By the 1770’s, Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) had become France’s most important New World colony, leading the world in both sugar and coffee production. The colony experienced tremendous population growth as French migrants pursued dreams of tropical wealth, and enslaved Africans were imported in record numbers to work the plantations. But such rapid growth prompted concerns from some colonists about the type of society being established in Saint Domingue. In the decades before the outbreak of the massive slave revolt of 1791 they feared, in particular, that the colony’s dangerously fluid categories of identity had resulted in an ambiguous social hierarchy in which colour did not correspond with economic status: free descendants of slaves were socially mobile, and they were said to flaunt their wealth before whites in the colony’s towns. Just as worrisome, a colour barrier did not prevent the development of romantic, or at least sexual, relationships between whites and non-whites, as the increasing number of ‘mixed-blood’ residents demonstrated. Some colonial whites argued that such a ‘confusion of rank’ not only impeded civic virtue but also threatened to undermine the colonial social order by challenging the premise of white superiority: in order for the slave system to work, blackness had to be degraded. Reforming colonial society therefore required a clarification of the colour ‘ranks’. [Author]

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