Part of the Long History of Child Trafficking: 18th-Century French Louisiana

2005-0011As we continue to learn more about the seizure and internment of migrant infants and children, both along the U.S.-Mexico border and in ICE raids throughout the nation, historians have asked us to wrestle with our long history of child-snatching, family separation, and child trafficking. I’ve read these pieces with a keen sense that while this is a particularly acute theme in American history, separating and abducting children from their families has been a tactic that many regimes have used for centuries to bolster their power. Whether we’re discussing slavery, the expulsion of Moriscos from Spain, or even pronatalist policies to populate early modern colonies, trafficking children has been an enduring state tactic. As a historian of #VastEarlyAmerica, with a focus on the French context, I keep thinking about the growth of the Louisiana colony in the eighteenth century. In addition to the forced migration and abduction of thousands of enslaved Africans, many of whom were children and adolescents, eighteenth-century French Louisiana was also populated with trafficked French children.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the French faced a demographic problem—few wanted to move to the Gulf South. For the French crown, this spelled disaster. In an era where population size meant power, French colonial officials declared that they needed to “populate these colonies immediately with French subjects”[1] so as to hold on to their imperial claims along the Mississippi River Basin.

The Mississippi Company’s emigration of forçats, or forced exiles, to the Louisiana colony in the 1720s and 1730s seemed to answer the population crisis. This program was supposed to move adult convicts, vagrants, and other unsavory characters from France to her colonies. But by 1732, the Mississippi Company had forcibly migrated at least 1,129 youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty five[2] across the Atlantic Ocean. Few, if any, of these youths were convicts. Instead, most were shipped to Louisiana as a result of a highly orchestrated trafficking scheme that focused on seizing minors from state institutions, like poor houses and orphanages, as well as through bounty-hunters who rounded up children in the streets.

1952-3The program started during the fall of 1719 when John Law, the head of the Mississippi Company, arranged the transfer of 497 boys and girls to Louisiana. Law socially engineered[3] the population of Louisiana, taking “an equal amount of boys and girls” from Parisian poor houses to ensure that there “would not be an over population of males” in the colonies.[4] Ideally, Law wanted these children to marry before they left for Louisiana, ensuring that “families could flourish” in the new territory. On September 18, 1719, Law coordinated the mass marriage of 184 young couples in the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in Paris. These couples, all at least sixteen years of age but no older than twenty, had met the previous day[5] in the church’s priory. There “the poor girls chose their husbands from a large number of boys.” After the mass ceremony, the couples were shackled together, “the husband with his wife,” and marched out of the city on foot, escorted by twenty royal archers, to the Atlantic port city of La Rochelle. The forced marriages were often fleeting, with more than half of the women and nearly a quarter of the men perishing in the overland journey and the voyage across the Atlantic.

With the high mortality rate that came with moving bodies to, and across, the Atlantic, the Company realized that they still had an overabundance of males, making it necessary to import more females to Louisiana. At first, the Mississippi Company tried to use economic incentives to create a more favorable gender ratio by arranging for any girl who moved to the Louisiana colony to receive a sizeable dowry of 100 livres, payable to her husband on her wedding day. To the dismay of the Company, only 3 girls, all suspected prostitutes, volunteered to move to Louisiana in 1719.[6] Since there was little interest in migrating to the territory, the Company realized they would have to round-up vulnerable girls from Paris and Marseille to move to the Mississippi.

But, these girls did not go to Louisiana without a fight. In November 1719, for example, 150 girls, all of whom had been rounded up in Paris by the Company, rioted as they awaited to board a ship. Throwing themselves on guards, ripping out hair, biting, scratching, and even gauging out one guard’s eyes, about a dozen girls were able to escape. Company archers killed another six girls as they tried to flee the docks. The remaining girls, fearful for their lives, boarded the ship to the Mississippi. For many of them, the voyage was a death sentence—only 69 of the girls who boarded survived the trip.[7]

Another riot, this time involving both boys and girls, occurred in January 1720, when approximately 50 boys and girls were preparing to leave Paris for La Rochelle. Just as the guards were beginning to load children onto the ship, 20 boys and 18 girls attacked two archers and four Company guards, seizing the keys to the shackles that bound the boys and the keys to the carts that carried the girls. In total, 48 boys and girls escaped and avoided being sent to Louisiana. By March 1720, two more riots broke out, either when transporting people to La Rochelle or immediately before embarkation. 127 children out of 210 escaped in these two incidents.[8]  Rumors of rampant disease, harsh living conditions, hostile natives, and high mortality rates in Louisiana likely convinced many boys and girls that their forced migration was a death sentence.

1971-34Frustrated by the rebellious nature of the children, the Mississippi Company implored municipal authorities to assist them in “rounding up children from the streets.” In both La Rochelle and Paris, police forces began to use “brigades of guards, water carriers, blackguards, and more roguish gentlemen” as bounty hunters, called “bandoliers du Mississippi,” to arrest and detain children suspected of being runaway migrants. For each person arrested, the bandoliers received a bounty between 10 and 20 livres. Without much oversight, bandoliers arrested children from peasant families in villages around Paris, La Rochelle, and even Orléans, claiming that these children “had to be runaways because they could not prove otherwise.”[9] The burden of proof for bandoliers and the Company was reduced to a child’s inability to prove they were not a runaway. Without proper documentation, like their baptismal record, which few children carried or were able to produce, bandoliers arrested any child they viewed as an easy target.

In March 1720 alone, within the confines of Paris, bandoliers arrested 119 children. It is unlikely that all of these children were runways. Instead, most of these children, like Etienne Caper, a fifteen year-old apprentice, were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. According to Etienne, two bandoliers seized him and his friend, Jean, on their way home from a tavern.  Neither of the boys were migrant runaways, nor had either been to a Parisian poor house. The bandoliers shackled them anyway and forced them to a holding facility. Thanks to Etienne’s loud screaming, several of his neighbors, including the parish priest, followed the bandoliers and the boys to the Paris poor house. At this point, the neighbors and the priest were able to negotiate the boys’ release.[10] For most arrested children, officials made no effort to locate the child on previous ships’ registers. In many ways, the Company practiced colonization by abduction as they seized children off the streets of Paris, La Rochelle, and Orléans and forced them to become colonial settlers.

The Parisian poor quickly reacted to these child abductions, attacking bandoliers in the street. On March 29, 1720, in the place du grève, nearly 300 members of Paris’s poor swarmed a group of fifteen bandoliers who had arrested four adult vagabonds, six prostitutes, and twelve children. Although the poor had little problem with the vagabonds and prostitutes being arrested, the people loudly condemned the arrest of the children, claiming that this was “simple kidnapping” and that the bandoliers were “shipping children to their deaths.” As the mob grew angrier, the bandoliers tried to escape, but their efforts to flee the scene resulted in violence, with seven of the bandoliers murdered and the remaining eight severely injured. By the summer of 1720, seventeen bandoliers were murdered in Paris and another three were murdered in La Rochelle. Seeing the chaos that bandoliers and the Company caused among the masses, the king put a stop to bandoliers, outlawing their practices in 1722.

Although the Company continued to receive children from Parisian poor houses, orphanages, and hospitals until 1732, after bandoliers were outlawed, it no longer made attempts to recover or replace runaways. Furthermore, the Company’s actions became much more furtive. Previously, the Company staged elaborate parades, marching children from Paris’ city center to the city’s walls in order to showcase future migrants. The Company often dressed the children in fanciful attire, putting ribbons in their hair and adorning them with various flags, suggesting this migration was a celebratory event. Yet, they were shackled, just like convicts. These curious images only fueled the Parisian mobs’ anger towards the Company. After bandoliers were outlawed, the Company voluntarily stopped the public parade of children through the streets of Paris. Instead, they were often transported late at night through the streets of Paris in order to avoid public demonstration.

Reflecting on this story as well as others of child trafficking and separation, I am struck by how much of it resonates with current events. Poor record keeping, judgment calls about the morality of the children themselves, and the power of the state – all of these loom large not only in history but also in contemporary events. Policies of family separation and child abduction belong in the past, not in our present.

Julia M. Gosssard can be found on Twitter at: @jmgossard.

[1] “Mission d’inspection de Monsieur de la Boulaye,” 1699-1700, Archives Nationales.

[2] Childhood was understood as a much longer period in this era, stretching all the way twenty-five years of age, in many circumstances. See: Julia M Gossard, “Tattletales: Childhood and Authority in Eighteenth-Century France,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, vol. 10, no. 2, Spring 2017, 169-187.

[3] This is a phrase Shannon Lee Dawdy uses to describe eighteenth-century civil planning in New Orleans and the larger Louisiana territory.  See: Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans (Chicago, 2008).

[4] James D. Hardy Jr., “The Transportation of Convicts to Colonial Louisiana,” Louisiana History 7 (1966): 207-20.

[5] Instead of assigning marital spouses, the Company let boys and girls pick each other. But this resulted in mass pandemonium in the church priory. Several fights broke out among both girls and boys who were unhappy with their choices.  Although the mass marriage ceremony remained calm, the previous day was full of chaos and rebellion.

[6] “Au sujet de la Compagnie de M. Law,” AN Col/13a/12

[7] “Le Receuil de la Louisiane,” AN Col/13a/14.

[8] ibid.

[9] “Les bandoliers,” BN ms. français, 11978.

[10] “Etienne Caper,” Archives d’Assisstance Publique, Hôpitaux de Paris, Hôpital Général Liasse 153.

[11] Hardy, “The Transportation of Convicts to Colonial Louisiana,” Louisiana History 7 (1966): 215-6.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Julia de Recour, the Digital Archive, and the Histories of Atlantic Children of Color « The Junto

  2. Pingback: New Orleans at 300: A Year in Review and a Look to the Future « The Junto


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