Guest Post: Julia de Recour, the Digital Archive, and the Histories of Atlantic Children of Color

Baltimore

Vue du Port de Baltimore, ca. 1834 by Louis Garneray (photo courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Free Library)

Today’s Guest Post comes from Nathan H. Dize, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University.  He specializes in Haitian literature and history. His dissertation, currently entitled “Mortuary Poetics: Power and the Performance of Mourning in the Haitian Literary Imaginary,” explores how Haitian writers and artists revivify the dead through creative acts of mourning to challenge official memories and mythologies of the Haitian past. He is a content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789.  He is also the co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation,” which interviews translators of Haitian writing. Nathan has published articles, reviews, and translations in journals such as sx archipelagos, the Journal of Haitian StudiesFrancosphèresSX SalonContemporary French Civilization, and the Haitian History Journal of which he is also an advisory board member. Follow him on Twitter @NathanHDize.

In September 1782, Julia de Recour boarded the St. Patrick in Cap Français with her mother, a woman of about 40, to join some relations in Baltimore. When she arrived, Charles Biddle writes that she had the “good fortune” of attracting the French First Consul, Charles François Adrien Le Paulmier le Chevalier d’Annemours, who immediately took her as his wife.[1] Biddle describes Julia as a lively French lady and a “spritely brown girl of 16.”[2] Biddle’s account of Julia’s travel on the St. Patrick is shrouded in innuendo, particularly when Julia took to the ship’s deck in the cold to dance and “perform some other monkey tricks.”[3] Without providing more information Biddle writes in his autobiography that we do not know when or where Julia died, but that it is reasonable to believe that she was not living in 1792. As Saidiya Hartman once wrote of the enslaved girl immortalized in William Wilberforce’s speech before the House of Commons in April of 1792, “a few musty lines […] are the entire story of a girl’s life.”[4]

Julia

It may be impossible to recover Julia de Recour’s story with any certainty, especially as it is foreclosed upon in Biddle’s rendering. Was she enslaved? Was she free? What was her life like in Cap Français? What caused she and her mother to leave for Baltimore, almost a decade prior to the waves of White colonials and free and enslaved people of color who fled the Haitian Revolution to Atlantic and Gulf port cities like Baltimore, Charleston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans?

Children and adolescents are often imperceptible in the archive of the Atlantic world. More often than not, children are visible only as a “countable” person in the context of the transatlantic slave trade where enslaved Africans were seen as property with associated values and other quantitative measures like an estimated age. The history of child trafficking reveals the persistent dehumanization of young people, especially children and adolescents of color and women. Institutions and physical archives provide access to documents and resources such as legal documents for locating stories of young people in the Atlantic world and their movements. However, these archives come with constraints for researchers and the children themselves. Children like Julia de Recour will not show up on a finding aid; she will not have boxes and folders associated with her surname and the years of her life. Instead, Julia appears only in the encyclopedic function of the digital archive.

A Google search returns a single entry on “Julia de Recour” drawn from the inaugural issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine shown above. While there is relatively little information about Julia apart from the episode with her mother aboard the St. Patrick, the six-page biographical sketch of her husband the Chevalier d’Annemours provides clues for how to understand Julia’s world even when details about her life are scarce. Julia also appears in the Autobiography of Charles Biddle, but both hers and the Chevalier d’Annemours’ names are redacted, making a “full text” search of the digitized copy in Google Books return no results.[5] The Maryland Historical Society article and Biddle’s biography mention that the two were soon married after Julia’s arrival in the port of Baltimore, however, there is no mention of the circumstances of their union beyond Julia’s “good fortune to attract the notice” of the Chevalier. As a woman of color from the Caribbean, the gaps between what we know and perhaps cannot know about Julia’s marriage to the Chevalier, which are located at the intersection of gender and sexuality in the context of Atlantic slavery, loom large.

While there are limits to what we can know for sure about Julia’s life in Baltimore, we are able to infer certain aspects of her world from the life and works of her husband. In August 2017, less than a week after Baltimore removed its Confederate memorials from the city, an activist took a sledgehammer to a monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus. One of the city’s oldest memorials, the Chevalier d’Annemours inaugurated the spire in 1792, the same year that Julia supposedly passed away. Due to increased interest in the smashing of the Columbus monument, Baltimore journalists went back through the digital copies of the Maryland Historical Magazine to locate where the Chevalier lived during his tenure in Baltimore as the French Consul of the Carolinas, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia from 1793 until 1796. The Belmont estate and its 50-acre plantation no longer exist as they were located where the current Baltimore City District Court currently sits on Harford Road and North Avenue.

Though there are no records from Belmont, the Chevalier d’Annemours was an enslaver.[6] When he relocated to the Ouachita Territory in French controlled Louisiana, he traveled from Baltimore with six enslaved persons: Zephire, Zenille, Louis, Pierrot, Jean, and Mathilde, all between the ages of 9 and 22.[7] As Biddle’s account confirmed, Julia de Recour was no longer with the Chevalier as late as 1796. In a 1799 letter to Governor-General Gayoso de Lemos the Marquis de Morne Rouge claimed that Julia and the Chevalier had divorced in Baltimore prior to his departure.[8]

Document A

Coming from the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1782, Julia de Recour if not enslaved herself would have been accustomed to the reality of chattel slavery––Baltimore was no different. However, when she first arrived in Baltimore, Julia was no longer legally defined by the vocabulary of French slavery. As we saw before, Biddle refers to her as a brown girl and a French woman. Unlike Julia, all of the enslaved persons traveling with the Chevalier, once they reached Louisiana, were immediately identified as not free and subjected to racial categorizations such as “nègre,” “griffe,” and “mulatre.” As this colonial bureaucratic process reveals, childhood and adolescence in the French Atlantic operated according to the opposing poles of freedom and enslavement. Because Julia died before she was able to be “counted,” some of the most vital details of her life are missing, perhaps forever.


[1] William Hand Browne and Louis Henry Dielman. “The Chevalier d’Annemours.” Maryland Historical Magazine 1, no. 1 (1910): 241–46.

[2] Ibid, 245.

[3] Ibid, 245.

[4] Saidiya Hartman. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) 138.

[5] Julia is referred to as “a sprightly brown girl” and a French woman. The Chevalier is called “Mr. ______, the French Consul.” See: Charles Biddle. Autobiography of Charles Biddle: Vice-President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. 1745-1821. (Philadelphia: E. Claxton, 1883.) 183-184.

[6] For more on writing about slavery and a crowd-sourced list of best practices see: P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al. “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help” crowdsourced document, 11/07/2018, 14:40, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A4TEdDgYslX-hlKezLodMIM71My3KTN0zxRv0IQTOQs/mobilebasic.

[7] Jennie O’Kelly Mitchell and Robert Dabney Calhoun. “The Marquis de Maison Rouge, The Baron of Bastrop, and Colonel Abraham Morehouse: Three Ouachita Valley Soldiers of Fortune.” The Louisiana Historical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1937): 326.

[8] Charles François Adrien Le Paulmier. Memoirs by Charles François Adrien Le Paulmier Le Chevalier D’Annemours. Translated by Samuel Dorris Dickinson. (Arkadelphia, AR: Clark County Historical Association, 1994) 4.

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