Guest Post: Emerging Histories of the French Atlantic

Robert Taber, a postdoctoral associate with the University of Florida Writing Program, wrote his dissertation on the connection between family life and grassroots politics in colonial Saint-Domingue and is the author of Navigating Haiti’s History: Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution.

12182067_10207193046840010_1433097522_nMore than 30 scholars from three continents gathered at the Williamsburg Inn from October 16th through the 18th to present emerging histories of the French Atlantic. Sponsored by the Omohundro Institute, and made possible through considerable labor and financial investment, one hundred scholars were able to enjoy a great conference atmosphere. Three days of panels, workshops, and roundtables pushed for our collective knowledge of the French Atlantic to be wider, deeper, and better integrated, fulfilling a plan first sketched out in the summer of 2010.

The French Atlantic encompasses many histories, from late medieval Norman adventurers to Native American interlocutors to the free black revolutionaries crucial to Haiti’s securement of independence. Its experts are early Americanists, Europeans, Africanists, and Latin Americanists who too seldom in the same room. Arranged thematically, each panel included breadth in subject or approach, amplifying the benefit of the gathering.

Conference conveners Christopher Hodson and Brett Rushforth encouraged us to leave the geographic and chronological silos that tend to fracture the study of the French Atlantic. Hodson rightly noted that the French Atlantic is a “vibrant and powerful field” that can “be a model.” At least three overlapping conversations coursed through the conference: imperial vs. Atlantic frameworks for understanding the mechanics of trade and colonialism, the variety of modes of trans-Atlantic communication, and the complexity of colonial societies, with each suggesting similarities and differences with other Atlantic endeavors.

After the conference, Hodson noted the tension between imperial frameworks, focused on the emergence and consolidation of the French colonial state, and Atlantic frameworks, in which the French served as but one of many loci of power. Gayle Brunelle reminded attendees that said consolidation accelerated under the ministry of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1665-1683) and that the sources for earlier colonial efforts are in municipal and departmental, rather than national, archives. Celine Carayon’s presentation on nonverbal communication between the French and different Native American groups, and Gilles Havard’s comments on the “bricolage” of French-Native relations emphasized the contingent-yet-mutually purposeful nature of these interactions. Mairi Cowan’s scholarship on the collision of French popular demonology, Jesuit evangelizing, and Iroquois religious understanding made for a fascinating, Quebecois view of interchanges that are predominantly studied in slave societies or mainland Spanish America. Gabriel Rocha charted the complex interactions between Norman corsairs, Basque merchants, and Castilian officials in and around sixteenth century Iberia, while Elisabeth Heijmans and Helen Dewar explored the influence of staffing practices on how French efforts in Whydah and New France operated. Marie Houllemare used French banishment policies to explore the circulation of the convicted around the French empire, a complicated picture than British orders of “transportation,” including at least some slaves and slave masters banished from the colonies and sent back to France. Pernille Røge emphasized the importance of the Baltic trade for understanding the economics of French colonialism while Thomas Wien illustrated the way German artists placed American scenes in central European cityscapes.

Several presentations articulated the variety of trans-Atlantic (and intraimperial) communications during the 18th century. Alexandre Dubé and Kristen Block illuminated, respectively, the art of writing recommendation letters and publishing scientific reports. Sue Peabody, Laurie Wood, and Alexandra Havrylyshyn elucidated the emergence of a French imperial legal culture, with Peabody and Wood carrying the conversation to French colonies in the Indian Ocean. Andrew Dial examined the importance of personal and institutional reputation in the new, impersonal forms of credit emerging the mid-18th century. In what will likely be one of the most influential presentations from the weekend, Gordon Sayre (the sole lit scholar in attendance), detailed the social and cultural importance of anonymous manuscripts meant for a small circle of family members or a particular patron in the French Atlantic, a marked contrast to British print culture.

An indication of their maturing place in the French Atlantic literature, papers on Saint-Domingue and the eastern Caribbean emphasized the complexity of these societies and new approaches to understanding them. Archaeologists Steve Lenik and Kenneth Kelly pointed to the contributions available through plantation archaeology, with Kelly emphasizing the ways archaeology is a central avenue for understanding the daily life of enslaved women and men. Christina Mobley and Manuel Covo provided new insight on the Haitian Revolution, with Mobley drawing on linguistic, cultural, and demographic evidence to argue for the centrality of the Kongolese in the slave rebellion and the establishment of Haitian cultural forms. Covo plumbed into a little studied, but crucial dispute between the French revolutionary commissioner Sonthonax and the ancien libre military leader André Rigaud. I used marriage records to chart the history of inter-racial marriage in Saint-Domingue across the eighteenth century and the ways of conception of race and honor changed along with what colonial polemicists got right (and wrong) about marriage in the colony. John Garrigus presented on the broad similarities and differences between Saint-Domingue and its neighbor Jamaica, the subject of a forthcoming book Garrigus is writing with Trevor Burnard. As large colonies in the western Caribbean with similar chronologies of investment in slavery and sugar, their commonalities outweighed their divergences, at least until 1791, with the key exceptions of greater British naval power and Jamaica’s more frequent slave rebellions.

At the start, Chris Hodson remarked that he was “not going to tell [us] how to conference,” but several aspects of the conference worked particularly well. I am indebted to the commentators, audience members, and the “Angles of Vision” panelists for their thoughtful questions and remarks that illuminated the core themes and ideas. These discussions were a natural outgrowth of the work of the program committee, from the initial conversation in Paris in June 2010 that led to the idea for the conference through gathering a terrific spread of scholars to participate, to the expertly executed mechanics of the conference itself. Lunchtime workshops–on building a research portal for researchers on the French Atlantic and on how to teach the French Atlantic–will bear fruit over coming months and years. Finally, while I did not tweet as much as I would have liked, much thanks to Liz Covart, Greg O’Malley, and Karin Wulf for making the proceedings available to a wider audience. [NB: I also highly recommend Ada Ferrer’s new book on Cuba and Haiti.]

French Atlantic history is a vibrant field, full of developing projects and opportunities for further research. From just a three-day gathering, it is apparent that we need much more on religion (particularly the French turn from Catholicism to spiritualism/mesmerism), the environment, and French activities in Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Latin America. We should gather again soon.

2 responses

  1. Thanks again to the Omohundro Institute, as this conference would not have been possible without their sponsorship or the hours upon hours they put into making this happen. The Institute staff and William & Mary grad students were gracious hosts who made the weekend a delight.


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