There Are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Regime

By Sue Peabody | Go to book overview
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ruled that Francisque was free. 47 As with other French judicial decisions, the basis of the ruling is unclear. The fact that Francisque was freed, rather than confiscated and returned to the colonies, suggests that the laws of 1716 and 1738 were deemed irrelevant, either because Francisque was deemed not to be a nègre esclave, or because the unregistered laws were seen to have no bearing in the Paris court. In a later case that cited Fraqcisque's win as a precedent, however, the laws' lack of registration was the focus rather than the debate over Francisque's questionable status as a nègre:

First of all, the king's declaration of 1738 was never registered by the Parlement of Paris. . . . In effect, the Parlement of Paris does not admit the provisions of this declaration. This august court has, on all occasions, protected the liberty of men. . . . We could recount several examples which attest to this jurisprudence. It will suffice [for] us to cite a recent decision. . . . Francisque, nègre, was purchased at the age of eight by Sir Brignon [case then recited]. 48

Although the laws' lack of registration was a relatively minor argument in the brief by Francisque's lawyers, the impact of the parlement's decision was to reinforce the notion that unregistered laws were uninforceable within the high court's jurisdiction.


Conclusion

By introducing the question of whether or not Francisque was a nègre into their case, Francisque's lawyers exploited an anomaly inherent in the codification of slavery in the French colonies. The word nègre itself was an ambiguous signifier, designating blackness, but also, in various texts, specific facial features, geographical origin, and, in some cases, the condition of being a slave. The enormous corpus of travel writing generated during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries offered a myriad of images of the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Some of these images were positive, some negative, and many exotic, emphasizing the physical or cultural differences between Europeans and non-Europeans. The relationship between appearance and behavior, between physiognomy and mores, and, most important, between color and slave status had not always been assumed.

Francisque's lawyers exploited this ambiguity to argue that their client, a native of India, though dark-skinned, was not a nègre and did not

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