Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

D'Eichthal and Urbain's Lettres Sur la Race Noire et la Race Blanche: Race, Gender, and Reconciliation after Slave Emancipation

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

D'Eichthal and Urbain's Lettres Sur la Race Noire et la Race Blanche: Race, Gender, and Reconciliation after Slave Emancipation

Article excerpt

Je me determine aujourd'hui, avec l'agrement d'Urbain, a publier ces lettres. Nous avons pense qu'elles pourraient jeter une lumiere utile sur la question des rapports a etablir entre la race blanche et la race noire; question actuellement pendante devant la legislature francaise, et pour laquelle les tentatives essayees ailleurs ne laissent pas esperer de solution.

Gustave D'Eichthal, 1839

The 1830s and 40s witnessed a profound transformation in the ideology and justification of the French empire. The period of the July Monarchy (1830-1848) was bounded by the conquest of Algiers, preceding the overthrow of Charles x by mere days, and the permanent abolition of slavery, enabled by the overthrow, in turn, of Louis-Philippe. The overlapping nature of these events, and the consequent necessity to re-conceptualize empire while weaning the French economy from slave dependency shaped discussions among abolitionists and proslaver/advocates, politicians, ethnologists, and social commentators, about race and culture in France and its colonies. A critical component of this discussion entailed redefining racial boundaries and stabilizing race relations, processes deeply engaged on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1830s. (1) While there are any number of works that we could look to for illustration of the realignment underway during these years, a contextual reading of the Lettres sur la race noire et la race blanche, exchanged by Gustave d'Eichthal (1804-1886) and Thomas Ismayl Urbain (1812-1884) in 1838 and published in 1839 by d'Eichthal, provides a useful vantage point from which to examine the shifting and unstable terrain of race in the decades immediately anticipating slave emancipation in the French empire. Although these letters have previously been considered by historians primarily for insight into the development of race theory and racism, or with regard to the lives and careers of the correspondents, it is the argument of this article that the ideas on race espoused in the letters are particularly important for the way they were refracted through the lens of the increasingly essentialist gender discourse of their era. (2)

Sandrine Lemaire has remarked, that "[c]e qui produit l'interet des Lettres sur la race noire et sur la race blanche [sic], c'est que d'Eichthal et, a sa suite, Urbain, ne se bornent pas a s'y faire l'echo de leur siecle"(169). This is indeed true, as the Lettres of d'Eichthal and Urbain offer an original and thought-provoking route to stable race relations. The central precept of the letters is an argument for the symbolic and sociological potential of interracial marriage and of its metis results to renew a troubled humanity, hardly a mainstream idea in the early nineteenth century. (3) The mulatto is depicted in these letters as a harbinger of hope, a panacea for that which ails contemporary society, and as a symbol of the reconciliation of conflict and division in the human family. As D'Eichthal notes, the mulatto is "la generation nouvelle," produced by the congress of the white and black races, and "peut ... devenir une nouvelle base d'appreciation des rapports moraux, politiques et religieux, qui existent ou doivent exister entre les races et meme entre les individus" (9-10). Despite the unorthodox nature of this proposition, the eccentric--if optimistic-- argument put forth by these "deux proscrits, deux prophetes" in fact reflects preoccupations dictated by the colonial situation of their day (13). Driven by a combination of fears of slave revolt in a metropolitan context haunted by the memory of Saint Domingue, (as d'Eichthal's repeated references make clear) and the uncertain economic future of the colonies, concerns about post-emancipation social stability were evidently influencing the course of antislavery thought. These anxieties were heightened by the franchise reform under debate in Europe--both in its very limited form in France after 1830 and the more example in Great Britain in 1832--with a substantial black electorate as one of its (long-term) potential consequences. …

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