2017 Mary Alice and Philip Boucher Book Prize
Jennifer L. Palmer, Intimate Bonds: Family and Slavery in the French Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
Jennifer L. Palmer’s Intimate Bonds is a rich and vital contribution to French colonial history, the history of slavery, and the history of early modern families. It focuses on people and ideas circulating between the French port town of La Rochelle and the plantations of Saint-Domingue in the eighteenth century. Examining the tensions that emerged as La Rochelle became home to a growing number of absentee planters and people of African descent—both enslaved and free—the manuscript sheds important new light on the contested, constructed, and shifting meanings of “race” in the French Atlantic world.
By analyzing a much broader range of actors than previous historians, Palmer is able to demonstrate that these larger cultural and legal shifts followed distinctive paths in different areas of the French Atlantic, and that even in an era of intensifying racial classification people of color in France creatively adapted to the growing barriers being erected around them. Nor was it only people of color who resisted the racial turn: white planters who had formed families with women of color often found ways to work around or mitigate the effects of race-based regulations.
At the core of these negotiations lay ideas about the patriarchal family, both biological and metaphorical, which undergirded both French ideals of mastery and French rationales for racial exclusion. As a result, people of color were sometimes able to use the gendered rhetoric of family to their benefit. Children of planters demanded that white Frenchmen live up to their supposedly superior fatherly instincts, and men of color proffered their success as patriarchal protectors and providers as evidence of their fitness for independence. Women of color, too, appealed to gendered ideals of femininity in their efforts to mitigate the effects of legal restrictions and social stigmas designed to marginalize and manage them.
By focusing on a range of intimate relationships, Palmer is able to show that “race, while certainly an important social category, was also a fluid one understood in relation to family and lineage as well as skin color.” The book, then, unlike many histories involving racial ideology and the law, is about people. Its argument unfolds as a series of deeply-contextualized stories about different transatlantic families and the ways that they imagined, implemented, resisted, and redefined prevailing attitudes about people of African descent. There is no question that the association of blackness with slavery and other forms of civil death grew stronger over the course of the eighteenth century. But by showing how that happened—and, significantly, how it sometimes did not happen—Palmer’s book dramatically advances our understanding of slavery, race, law, and the family in early modern France and its Atlantic colonies.
Other Books Submitted
Ann Little, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, 2016)
Gilles Havard, Histoire des coureurs de bois. Amérique du Nord 1600-1840 (Les Indes Savantes, 2016)
Philippe Girard, Toussaint-Louverture. A Revolutionary Life (Basic Books, 2016)
Lisa Poirier, Religion, Gender, and Kinship in Colonial New France (Syracuse University Press, 2016)
Pierre Force, Wealth and Disaster. Atlantic Migrations from a Pyrenean Town in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)
Joseph Gagné, Inconquis. Deux retraites françaises vers la Louisiane après 1760 (Septentrion, 2016)