The Case of Jean Boucaux v. Verdelin
Fashioning the National Myth of Liberty
For more than two decades after the Edict of 1716 established conditions whereby slaves might legally be retained in France, no slaves petitioned for their freedom before the Admiralty Court of France in Paris. During this period two of the Admiralty's actions did involve slaves. In August 1734 the court permitted a colonist from Saint Domingue who had duly fulfilled the requirements of the 1716 edict to seize his runaway slave, then under the protection of a French noblewoman. 1 In 1736 the Admiralty clerk accepted the declaration of a Parisian woman who stated that a female slave from Madagascar had been sent to her by a colonist from Ile de Bourbon for training in religion and a trade. 2 Neither action could have been based strictly on the Edict of 1716 because it did not contain provisions regarding runaway slaves or require slave owners to register their slaves in Paris. 3 Still, it is interesting that both actions tended to favor the property rights of slave owners over the human rights of their slaves. Two years later this trend would be permanently reversed.
In June of 1738 the Paris Admiralty Court heard its first two petitions for freedom by slaves. It was through these cases that the 1716 edict's lack of registration was first discussed by the court. One of these cases, brought by Jean Boucaux, a slave from Saint Domingue, against his master Sieur Verdelin, is significant for several reasons. First, it was extremely well documented. In addition to Boucaux's petition and the sentences of the court that can be found in the court's archives, there are two published sources outlining the arguments used by the lawyers on