Fall 2019 MRSEAH Meeting with University of Arkansas Little Rock Prof. Nathan E. Marvin

 11/15/2019

For the second of two Fall 2019 meetings of the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History, participants will discuss a chapter from University of Arkansas-Little Rock Assistant Professor of History Nathan Marvin’s book manuscript. The chapter, “‘Few Famiiles Here Are Free of Black Blood’: Negotiating Whiteness in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies (1767-1790),” focuses on the eighteenth-century preoccupation with racial “purity” in the French colonial world, looking specifically at how, although the majority of free families on the island of Réunion had non-European ancestors, most were able to disappear into the historical record as “white” through the manipulation of the official paperwork of church and state (see abstract below).

Washington University Assistant Professor of History Alexandre Dubé will serve as interlocutor for the discussion, which will be held on Friday, November 15 in St. Louis. Parties interested in attending should email Thomas Kane, KaneTC@missouri.edu, for more information. A copy of Prof. Marvin’s paper can be downloaded here.

Abstract

The French colonial world of the late eighteenth century was one increasingly preoccupied with the racial “purity” of those who claimed to be “white.” Prominent colonial families, in the French West Indies especially, went to great lengths to prove the absence of African (or indigenous) forebears in their pedigrees—or, conversely, to demonstrate the non-European ancestry of their enemies. Historians no longer take an uncritical approach to the official census records of the period that offer a neat separation between free “white” persons and those registered as being “of color,” recognizing that the boundaries of these categories remained in constant flux. One French colonial context, that of the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, remains an extreme yet understudied example of the “whitening” strategies pursued by French colonial families. This chapter demonstrates the ways in which Réunionnais families of mixed European and African, Malagasy, and/or Indian descent “whitened” their pedigrees by manipulating the official paperwork of church and state. So effective were these strategies, I show, that although the majority of free families on the island had non-European ancestors, most were able to disappear into the historical record as “white.” These efforts proved surprisingly effective and long-lasting: despite the heterogenous roots of the island’s settler population, by the 20th century, Réunionnais authors, philosophers, and politicians were making the argument that theirs was the “most French” (read: whitest) of France’s colonies.

 

Nathan E. Marvin received his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Johns Hopkins University, completing his dissertation, “Bourbon Island Creoles: Race and Revolution in the French Indian Ocean Colony of Réunion, 1767-1803,” with Profs. Pier M. Larson and Todd Shepard. He currently serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of History at University of Arkansas-Little Rock. He has published scholarship in Oxford Bibliographies Online: Atlantic History, French History, and Outre Mers: Revue d’histoire, among other places, and has received research fellowships from the Charles Singleton Center for the Study of Premodern Europe, the John Carter Brown Library, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.