Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue

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By the late 1700s, half the free population of Saint Domingue was black. The French Caribbean colony offered a high degree of social, economic, and physical mobility to free people of color. Covering the period 1776-1791, this study offers the most comprehensive portrait to date of Saint Domingue’s free black elites on the eve of the colony's transformation into the republic of Haiti.

Stewart R. King identifies two distinctive groups that shared Saint Domingue’s free black upper stratum, one consisting of planters and merchants and the other of members of the army and police forces. With the aid of individual and family case studies, King documents how the two groups used different strategies to pursue the common goal of economic and social advancement. Among other aspects, King looks at the rural or urban bases of these groups’ networks, their relationships with whites and free blacks of lesser means, and their attitudes toward the acquisition, use, and sale of land, slaves, and other property.

King’s main source is the notarial archives of Saint Domingue, whose holdings offer an especially rich glimpse of free black elite life. Because elites were keenly aware of how a bureaucratic paper trail could help cement their status, the archives divulge a wealth of details on personal and public matters.

Blue Coat or Powdered Wig is a vivid portrayal of race relations far from the European centers of colonial power, where the interactions of free blacks and whites were governed as much by practicalities and shared concerns as by the law.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The past two decades have witnessed important strides in research on the free colored experience in Saint Domingue. . . . King offers a significant contribution to this literature by presenting a striking examination of the free colored population in Saint Domingue upon the eve of the Haitian Revolution. . . . King's rich study of free colored society offers ready comparisons with other parts of the colonial Atlantic world."—American Historical Review

“Grounded in extensive research in the rich notarial records of Saint Domingue, Blue Coat or Powdered Wig tells a fascinating story of people of African descent who, in the face of racial discrimination and within the confines of America's richest plantation colony, become successful landowners, merchants, and officers. In the process, the book paints a vivid portrait of a society on the verge of revolution.”—Laurent Dubois, author of A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

"King has many fresh things to say about free-colored marriages and families, manumission practices, entrepreneurship, housing, religiousness, color consciousness, godparenthood, status aspirations, social mobility, and sexual behavior. . . . Saint Domingue produced one of the wealthiest classes of free-colored slaveholders in the history of the Americas. In this assiduously researched volume, King succeeds admirably in achieving a stated goal of bringing depth and complexity to a subject too easily ignored or glossed over by historians of slavery in the Americas.”—Journal of Social History

"Distinguishing between two sectors of the free colored elite—planters who associated more with whites and members of the armed forces who associated more with poorer people of color—King erodes many stereotypes about this social stratum. . . . The author could have said more about how the elite's quest for wealth and status played an important part in the dynamics leading to revolution in 1791 and the transformation of the society after independence, but his book is a pleasure to read and a major contribution to Haitian and Caribbean history and the comparative study of slave societies. Highly recommended."—Choice

"Debunks the stereotypical image of the deprived non-white ruthlessly cut down by the color line, and thus compelled to eke out a living on the margins of Caribbean society. In its place, the author highlights resourceful ex-slaves and free coloreds who cleverly employed various familial, communal, economic and political strategies to carve out a niche for themselves."—Americas

"[An] elegant study . . . King reveals divisions within the free colored population and refutes old claims that it represented a homogeneous racial or economic class. He demonstrates the substantial free colored contributions to the colony’s economy and its military structures and analyzes the complex relationship of free people of color to the rest of colonial society. . . . This is an important book based on careful research. It should be of great interest to all students of the revolution in Saint Domingue as well as to historians of the French colonies."—H-France

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820330297
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 1,064,670
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Stewart R. King is an associate professor of history at Mount Angel Seminary, St. Benedict, Oregon.

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