Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hebrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation

By Cooper, Afua | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hebrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation


Cooper, Afua, Labour/Le Travail


Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hebrard, Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2012)

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. …

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