Freedom, Kinship, and Property: Free Women of African Descent in the French Atlantic, 1685-1810

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“Freedom, Kinship, and Property: Free Women of African Descent in the French Atlantic, 1685-1810” examines the role kinship and property played in the lives of free women of African descent in the Atlantic ports of Senegal, Saint-Domingue, and Gulf Coast Louisiana. Over the course of the long eighteenth century, a distinct cohort of African women and women of African descent recognized as not enslaved, enjoyed status and position in the slaveholding French Atlantic. Free status allowed them to claim their own labor, establish families, accumulate property, and demand the rights that accompanied freedom. However, free women of color’s claims to freedom, kinship, and property were not always recognized, and during the tumultuous era of the founding of the French Atlantic world these women struggled to secure livelihoods for themselves and their progeny. “Freedom, Kinship, and Property” explores the ways French Atlantic free women of African descent labored to give meaning to their freedom.

This study developed out of my broader interests in Atlantic slavery, diaspora studies, and the histories of black women and of free people of color.  Using travel narratives, notarial records, parish registers, and civil and criminal court records, “Freedom, Kinship, and Property” describes the lives of women of African descent in eighteenth-century Senegal, Saint-Domingue, and Gulf Coast Louisiana.  In Senegal, African and Eurafrican women's commercial networks and liaisons with European men secured them prized positions in local trading networks and the society being built at the comptoirs.  In Saint-Domingue and Gulf Coast Louisiana, free women of color manipulated manumission laws, built complicated kinship networks, and speculated in property to support families of their own.  Free women of African descent created kinship networks, established material wealth, and maneuvered through a world of slave trading, international warfare, and revolution.  Considering how free women of color negotiated kinship and property as they moved with slaves and goods between Atlantic port cities sheds important light on the formation of the black Atlantic over time.