Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean

By Gillian Weiss | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER SIX
Liberation and Empire
from the Revolution to Napoleon

With the suppression of France’s religious orders between 1790 and 1791, responsibility for freeing captives shifted completely from the church to the state. Deprived of their vocation, the Trinitarians lodged a plea that “with all its acts intended for the establishment of liberty,” the National Assembly not forget those Frenchmen still enslaved in North Africa.1 But more than a year passed before the deputies began to consider the fate of more than 150 deserters,2 petty outlaws, shipwreck victims, and casualties of mistaken identity3 still lingering in Barbary. In a December 1791 address, marine minister Antoine-François Bertrand de Molleville reminded the “representatives of a generous and free nation” of “our ill-fated brothers languishing in irons” and outlined possible ways of carrying out and financing the “humanitarian work” of deliverance. Apart from appropriating any surplus funds from the Trinitarians and Mercedarians and allocating additional moneys from the public treasury to fulfill this secular goal, he floated the idea of adopting the Catholic practice of alms taking, from which the redemptive fathers had only ever garnered significant sums when “they excited the commiseration of parishes with processions that afforded a spectacle of the unfortunates they had released.”4

Over the next several months, therefore, national agents investigated not only the residual assets of Trinitarian and Mercedarian convents but also the number of slaves the orders had rescued, the methods they had used, and the ransoming priorities they had embraced during the previous two centuries.5 By March 1792 the Committee on Public Assistance had prepared a report that linked the liberation of France to the liberation of Barbary slaves. Given that “in these happy times… the antique colossus of despotism has been forever banished from the French empire,” declared

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