Sue Peabody’s seventh book, “Madeleine’s Children: Family, Freedom, Secrets, and Lies in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies,” published in 2017, is the signature achievement to date of her career as a historian. And it affirms her reputation as the world’s foremost expert on the law of slavery and race in the French Empire.
Peabody is the Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and History at Washington State University Vancouver. “Madeleine’s Children” is the first full-length biography tracing the lives of slaves in the Indian Ocean world. It is largely the story of the youngest of Madeleine’s three children, Furcy. Peabody calls it a “microhistory”—exploring the society at large through the life of one family.
Her publisher, Oxford University Press, describes the book as “a detailed family saga set against the broader context of plantation slavery, Parisian society and colonization.” The individual histories of family members illuminate the types of labor slaves performed and the varying nature of their relationships with society and plantation owners.
Through 10 years of research, what Peabody discovered was not what she had expected. Furcy—who had fought for his freedom in court for 25 years and finally won—soon became a slave owner himself.
“It was a disappointment to me to learn this,” said Peabody. “But it was not atypical for free people in the Indian Ocean world. Furcy was in a system and he made use of the system to advance himself.”
Owning slaves was a steppingstone to the middle class, she explained. “One of the first things free people of color did when they could afford it was to buy slaves,” Peabody said. The slave owner could rent out slaves and take the wages. “It was a capital accumulation process,” she said. “Over time, the master can use accumulated savings to buy more slaves and land, and rise slowly in status through this process.”
A story that many did not want told
But if Furcy was no abolitionist, he and his lawyers proferred many reasons to challenge his wrongful enslavement, and Peabody’s research uncovered the many ways that slave owners sought to keep his story hidden. “Careful attention to Furcy’s legal battles reveals the hypocrisy, contradictions, and outright fabrications deployed by planters, colonial legal officials, and metropolitan authorities to maintain slavery, as well as idealists’ efforts to reform corruption and exploitation,” she writes in the book. Furcy believed he should be free because his mother had worked for a plantation owner to purchase her son’s freedom, but was tricked out of the wages owed to her. Furcy’s lawyers, recognizing that his assertions could not hold sway in court, concocted other legal grounds: that Indians (as opposed to Africans) could not be legally enslaved, and that his mother’s brief residence on France’s “free soil” (in Europe) was sufficient to free her. It was the free soil argument that finally secured his status as a freeborn man, making him eligible for reparations.
Peabody traveled to Réunion three times, and Mauritius twice (as well as Paris, Aix-en-Provence and London) to find the crucial documents to tell Furcy’s story. Her research sources—most of which were in French—included “three grocery bags of documents the archivist in Réunion brought to me in 2008,” Peabody said. “I was the first historian to look at them. They had hardly been catalogued.” In addition, she pored over census records, parish records, notary records, letters and newspapers.
Recently, Peabody was invited to travel to Réunion for a conference on new sources for the study of slavery. Scholars from throughout the French empire attended, and Peabody gave a presentation on some of the problems of interpreting the sources. Her research was reported in the newspapers of Réunion and Mauritius, where Furcy is something of a cause célèbre.
Furcy‘s life has been celebrated in a novel, two plays and a song by Kaf Malbar; and to a group of contemporary activists, Furcy is a symbol against oppression. Peabody has met with members of the group “Liber nout Furcy [Let us free Furcy],” and while they too expressed disappointment that Furcy is not the hero they had initially thought him to be, they believe it is nevertheless essential to honor and memorialize his long fight for freedom. Freedom, Peabody writes, “meant belonging to family, acknowledging the debt to ancestors, and preparing a legacy for generations yet to come.”
As Kaf Malbar says in his song “ Furcy’s Gold,” “We need this story to tell to our children.”