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The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France

The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France

by Sue Peabody

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France has long defined itself as a color-blind nation where racial bias has no place. Even today, the French universal curriculum for secondary students makes no mention of race or slavery, and many French scholars still resist addressing racial questions. Yet, as this groundbreaking volume shows, color and other racial markers have been major factors in French


France has long defined itself as a color-blind nation where racial bias has no place. Even today, the French universal curriculum for secondary students makes no mention of race or slavery, and many French scholars still resist addressing racial questions. Yet, as this groundbreaking volume shows, color and other racial markers have been major factors in French national life for more than three hundred years. The sixteen essays in The Color of Liberty offer a wealth of innovative research on the neglected history of race in France, ranging from the early modern period to the present.

The Color of Liberty addresses four major themes: the evolution of race as an idea in France; representations of "the other" in French literature, art, government, and trade; the international dimensions of French racial thinking, particularly in relation to colonialism; and the impact of racial differences on the shaping of the modern French city. The many permutations of race in French history—as assigned identity, consumer product icon, scientific discourse, philosophical problem, by-product of migration, or tool in empire building—here receive nuanced treatments confronting the malleability of ideas about race and the uses to which they have been put.

Contributors. Leora Auslander, Claude Blanckaert, Alice Conklin, Fred Constant, Laurent Dubois, Yaël Simpson Fletcher, Richard Fogarty, John Garrigus, Dana Hale, Thomas C. Holt, Patricia M. E. Lorcin, Dennis McEnnerney, Michael A. Osborne, Lynn Palermo, Sue Peabody, Pierre H. Boulle, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, Tyler Stovall, Michael G. Vann, Gary Wilder

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“‘The French are not racists like the Americans!’ ‘But are they French racists?’ All of us, both French and American observers, have been bedeviled by some variant of this exchange I once had about the homeland of universal equality. This collection of transatlantic essays is the first systematic sounding of the praxis of race in French history. The contributions by American, Caribbean, and European-French specialists are universally fascinating and smart. The Color of Liberty is now the best thing on the subject in any language. We need it.”—Herman Lebovics, author of True France: The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900–1945

“According to some observers, color-coded racism is an American problem that the French have, for the most part, managed to avoid. This fine collection of essays raises considerable doubt about that assumption. The authors show that race has been constructed somewhat differently in the two republics, but also demonstrate that the French, like the Americans, have often failed to live up to their own egalitarian principles when it came to relations with people whom they considered nonwhite.”—George M. Fredrickson, author of Racism: A Short History

“Enfin! Stovall and Peabody take up the call to place race at the center of French history and enlist a range of skilled scholars to show its tenacious filaments and deeply French roots. This volume gives substance to the diverse genealogies of racisms in the making of France while accounting for their troubling contemporary presence.”—Ann L. Stoler, author of Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things

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The color of liberty

Histories of race in France
By Sue Peabody

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3117-9

Chapter One

Pierre H. Boulle

Francois Bernier and the Origins of the Modern Concept of Race

In 1684, the journal of the French Academy of Sciences, the Journal des scavans, published an anonymous article entitled "A New Division of the Earth, according to the Different Species or Races of Men Who Inhabit It." This short piece, correctly ascribed to Francois Bernier (1620-88), has been cited as the first presentation of the modern concept of race, but it is usually mentioned as a mere curiosity. When studying the origins of modern racial thinking in France, more stress is placed either on the early-eighteenth-century theorist of noble race, Count Henri de Boulainvilliers (1658-1722), who has been called one of the "true ancestors of racism," or on the natural scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-88). Indeed, few are those who have bothered to study Bernier's text.

And yet Bernier was not an insignificant personage. He had been the student and friend of the libertine philosopher Pierre Gassend dit Gassendi (1592-1655). A medical doctor, he was best known for his travels to Southeast Asia, which he visited from 1655 to 1667, and the account he published of his eight-year residence in Agra as a practicing physician at the court of the Mogul ruler, Aurengzeb. While in Agra, he corresponded withvarious French deskbound erudits and on his return reported on India to the French government. He also earned a reputation as a philosopher in his own right with his Abrege de la philosophie de Gassendi (1674), published as a defense of his old master and recognized, at least in its vastly enlarged revised edition (1682), as more than a mere replication of the latter's ideas. Although the "New Division of the Earth" is characteristic of the writing of Paris salons, to which Bernier, on his return from the east, became a welcomed participant under the nickname of Bernier-Mogol, it deserves some attention. But first, what did race mean at the time Bernier wrote?

The Meaning of Race in Bernier's Time

The term race entered French usage in the late fifteenth century, probably with the many other contemporary borrowings from the Italian (razza). Used first to define the qualities sought in breeding animals for the hunt or for warfare, race was quickly applied to humans supposed to possess similarly valuable inherited qualities. The term was first applied to the king and his ascendants with whom he shared the peculiar attributes of the monarch. Thus the Capetians were deemed the third race of kings, following the Merovingians and the Carolingians. By the 1550s, usage had been extended by analogy to other old families within the nobility, the noblesse de race, differentiating them from both the new nobles and the "vulgar." In short, the term was first associated simply with lineage, rather than with fixed, physically defined differentiations between broad human groups, as it is today.

Yet race was never an entirely value-free concept. At the time of the term's introduction into French, the nobility came under severe stress owing to the rise of new men into the army and the requirement of new skills for state offices. Race replaced more neutral terms describing noble lineage, such as maison (household) or famille, precisely because it distinguished between good breeding and the absence of breeding. Gentility and other traits inherited through birth came to differentiate gentilshommes (that is, the well-bred) from mere nobles, who could be manufactured by the king. From the first, therefore, the term focused on natural-what we would now call biological-differences and placed great value on the possession of inherited character traits.

Unlike the modern advocates of race, however, noble theorists of the sixteenth century did not see such qualities as fixed or inevitable. Not only was there a real sentiment that the nobility could degenerate, but most thinkers believed that new nobles, after three or four generations, could shed their "vulgar" origins. Furthermore, the transmission of noble qualities had as much to do with familial training as with natural inheritance. Indeed, good breeding was not only a matter of proper parentage, but also of an appropriate education, and even of the proper diet. Race, then, in the sixteenth-century context, remained narrowly defined as direct lineage and had none of the generic connotations of its modern counterpart. Even the much vaunted Frankish origins of the nobility, used to differentiate gentilshommes from roturiers by right of conquest, did not imply a common biological origin of the nobility, since the Franks were regarded not so much as a tribe than as a group of free warriors, unconnected by blood.

Little movement appears to have occurred from these positions until Bernier's time. Indeed, as late as the early eighteenth century, Boulainvilliers retained much of the sixteenth-century vision. The Franks, from whose greatness the nobility had, according to him, declined to its current sorry state, were no more racially unified than they had been perceived one hundred years earlier. Indeed, in Boulainvilliers's view, the Franks, decimated by wars, had soon been joined by some of the worthier Gauls, with whom they intermarried, and later by other northern peoples who "earned ... the right to bear the name of French," so that these "various peoples," originally distinguished by separate "mores, languages, and customs ... in the fullness of time became a single nation." Furthermore, repeated use of race and blood notwithstanding, Boulainvilliers placed as much emphasis on education and diet as sixteenth-century theorists. It was not inherited physical or mental attributes which counted, but the placing of an individual in a family with a long history of noble deeds. True nobility, he argued, "consists in a tradition of virtue, glory, honor, sentiments for dignity and good." This is why he so valued genealogical studies, which encouraged emulation by educating nobles through the examples of a particular set of distinguished ancestors and which discouraged them from shaming these ancestors by ignoble conduct. In short, and perhaps most significantly, Boulainvilliers differed from modern racial thinkers in continuing to equate races with families, each of which possessed its own peculiar qualities and characteristics.

The "Nouvelle Division de la Terre"

Bernier's 1684 article proposes an entirely different approach to races, which he there defines as broad human categories characterized by distinct physical traits. The article begins thus:

Until now, geographers have divided the earth only by the different countries and regions which are found there. What I have noted about men during my long and frequent voyages gave me the idea of dividing it differently. For, even though men almost always differ from each other in the external form of the body and principally the face, according to the various regions of the earth they inhabit, so that those who have traveled extensively can often without error distinguish by these features each nation in particular, I have noticed that there are mostly four or five species or races of men so noticeably different from each other that they can serve as a justifiable basis for a new division of the earth.

Bernier's first race includes the peoples of Europe, "leaving aside a part of Muscovy"; it also includes those living in a broad band of territory extending from the Mediterranean coast of Africa to parts of Borneo, via Arabia, Persia, India, and Siam. This first race is left undefined, except for the absence in "ourselves" of the features defining the other three races: the Africans, the Asians, and the Samoeds of Lapland. What characterizes each of these three is a combination of physical features and skin color, though the latter, in order to play a role, must be a fixed attribute, as in Africa, where "blackness ... is an essential feature of theirs ... not caused by the sun's hot rays, as is usually thought, since, if an African couple is transported to a cold country, their children and all their descendants will be no less black than they, until they marry white women." On the other hand, "even though the Egyptians ... and the Indians are quite black or, rather, swarthy, this color is only accidental, resulting from their exposure to the sun, since those who protect themselves and are not required to expose themselves as often as the common people, are no darker than many Spaniards."

More significant are other, essential features. In addition to the color black, Africans have thick lips, flat noses, woolly hair, and an oily skin. Although Asians are "truly white," they have flat noses, piglike eyes, and practically no beard. The worst are the Samoeds, though Bernier admits that "I have only seen two of them, in Danzig": "They are small and short [de petits courtaux], with thick legs, large shoulders, a short neck, and a face that I can only describe as drawn-out [je ne scay comment tire en long], quite frightful and which seems to derive from the bear ... they are ugly animals."

The categories are broad, and Bernier recognizes that many groups within each race diverge somewhat from the norm: "It is true that most [East] Indians differ somewhat from us in the shape of their face and in their color, which leans toward the yellow, but this does not seem sufficient reason to make them into a separate specie; otherwise, we would have to turn the Spaniards into one as well, and the Germans into another, and so on for some other European peoples." It is precisely for this reason that he finally rejects the idea that the Native Americans form a fifth race. Despite the fact that "they are, in truth, olive-skinned for the most part, and their face is shaped differently from ours," he considers them part of the first race, that of the Europeans.

Bernier's perception of race is somewhat idiosyncratic, apparently having much to do with personal canons of aesthetics, especially related to the type of women he found attractive. It differs in some details from the categorization of human races, notably on the basis of color, which marks anthropological discourse from the eighteenth century onward. His description of Asians as "truly white" with piglike eyes (des petits yeux de porc) is drawn from his encounter with Tartars in India rather than with other more typical groups, such as the Chinese, whom he apparently did not know. Indeed, it is worth recalling that he assimilated yellow-skinned south Asians with the race of Europeans, as he did also Native Americans. This last association, however, may have resulted from his readings about Amerindians from New France, usually described in that period as resembling Europeans. In any event, Bernier's view of the Americains is consistent with depictions, both iconographic and literary, found in popular collections of voyages available to contemporaries. On the other hand, Bernier's affirmation that differences in the coloring of East Indians stem purely from exposure to the elements is surprising. Not only is it wrong-in failing to take into account the vast mixture of human types in India, resulting over time from invasions by northern peoples and their assimilation into Indian society-it also contradicts his own remarks concerning color prejudice and marriage practices in Mogul India in his earlier travel accounts, where he notes that newcomers seek to find brides from Kashmir, "so as to have children who will be whiter than the Indians, and can pass for true Moguls."

It remains that Bernier's use of the term race fundamentally differs from its original meaning in discourse concerning the nobility. Not only does the "New Division of the Earth" extend the concept to mankind in general, but it also focuses, as modern racial distinctions do, on fixed physical features. Of particular note is the distinction made between inherent skin pigmentation and that which results from exposure to the elements. Of equal importance is Bernier's insistence that the transmission of characteristics by inheritance predominates over environmental or cultural determinants. This constitutes a startling departure from contemporary beliefs, which Bernier himself seems to have shared when, in an earlier text, he argued that members of the Mogul elite in India, over three or four generations, "have taken the brown face and the slow humor of the country." Indeed, in this respect, he is more "modern" than Buffon, who posited a hierarchy of races according to climate. Each race had degenerated from the white European norm, found in its perfection in temperate Europe. The further the distance north or south from this region was the habitat, the more debased were the inhabitants.

Even though Bernier's description of the races does not openly suggest a hierarchy, the very ranking, from "we Europeans" to the Samoeds suggests a gradation of values. That this was not entirely unconscious is shown not only by the likening of the latter to "ugly animals," but by the description of some Venuslike African slave women he encountered in Moka as exceptions among a people with "ugly faces," characterized by "those thick lips and that squashed nose." Indeed, Bernier's use of races and species as synonymous terms places a huge distance between the Europeans and the others.

Influences on Bernier

Three particular influences may be suggested as significant for the development of Bernier's ideas. The first relates to his youthful libertine contacts; the second, to his medical training; the third, to his travels. To these should be added the French intellectual context of the 1670s and 1680s, notably within the Parisian aristocratic circles which Bernier joined on his return from the east.

As a young man, Bernier had obtained a privileged position within libertine circles, that group of intellectuals who, in the first half of the seventeenth century, contested orthodox thinking. As I have noted, Bernier was the student and close companion of Pierre Gassendi, from the mid-1640s to the latter's death in 1655. Gassendi, by then a professor at the College Royal, was one of the major figures of the libertine movement, an innovator considered at the time "the equal of Descartes, if not his superior." His libertinism consisted of a systematic refusal of authority in all but theology. All other realms-philosophy, physics, natural sciences, and the like-were to be studied through experience and observation. A thorough materialist in all these fields, Gassendi took a keen if eclectic interest in all aspects of nature. From his nearly two decades of close contact with Gassendi, Bernier must have learned a habit of inquisitiveness unshackled by preconceptions, a habit reflected in his observations on the Mogul Empire and, later in life, in his Abrege, which questions even his master's own ideas.

On the surface, Bernier's medical education at Montpellier would appear to have confirmed these tendencies. The medical faculty at Montpellier was the great rival of the Paris school, and many considered it as the more "modern" of the two. Montpellier was the first to modify the traditional curriculum by the inclusion of nonclassical authorities like Vesalius, Paracelsus, and Ambroise Pare; it also emphasized observation and anatomical studies, as well as providing students with information on pharmacology based on a jardin des plantes it had created. However, the mid-seventeenth century, during which Bernier was a student, seems to have been a less than distinguished period in Montpellier. The regent professors, who previously had been selected in open competition, had become royal appointees, so that patronage rather than talent characterized most of them. The exception may have been Lazare Riviere, who held the chair of surgery and pharmacology from 1622 until his death in 1655 and who authored a number of respected works, notable for their emphasis on observation. More typical was the dean of the faculty, Simeon Courtaud, whose sole notable publication was a defense of the privileges of Montpellier against its Parisian rival, written in such bad Latin and filled with such errors that the Paris doctors had an easy time drowning the attack in laughter.


Excerpted from The color of liberty by Sue Peabody Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Herman Lebovics
The French are not racists like the Americans!' 'But are they French racists?' All of us, both French and American observers, have been bedeviled by some variant of thisexchange I once had about the homeland of universal equality. This collection of transatlantic essays is the first systematic sounding of the praxis of race in French history. The contributions by American, Caribbean, and European-French specialists are universally fascinating and smart. The Color of Liberty is now the best thing on the subject in any language. We need it.
— author of True France: The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945

Meet the Author

Sue Peabody is Associate Professor of History at Washington State University Vancouver and the author of "There Are No Slaves in France": The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime.

Tyler Stovall is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include France since the Second World War, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, and The Rise of the Paris Red Belt.

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