Testimonies

Descendants of French slaves: 'Retracing their footsteps, trying to understand, has comforted me'

Tribute to the slaves on the island of Reunion
Tribute to the slaves on the island of Reunion © agences

Genealogy workshops led by a West Indian memorial association have allowed more than 500 French people to learn the names and trace the histories of their enslaved ancestors. These were personal quests, but also a way to pay tribute to the victims of the slave trade.

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For Béatrice Farouil, the year 1848 means a lot. About 15 years ago, when this Guadeloupe-born Frenchwoman began her search for her ancestors, it was in 1848 that she got stuck. The date marks the abolition of slavery in France. "It's not surprising; slaves had no civil status in French law, the only people whose records could be found in the state registers before 1848 were emancipated", explained Emmanuel Gordien, president of the Committee of the May 23, 1998 March (CM98). His French West Indian group has been organizing genealogical workshops for more than twenty years to help people trying to learn the history of their ancestors, who were victims of the slave trade.

"The idea of these workshops is to find our ancestors so that we can finally honour them," said Gordien, himself a descendant of a slave who lived in Benin. "This is fundamental, because we are bringing them back into existence through our research. When the slaves were sent to the islands, they were uprooted. It's that lost connection that we're reconstructing." 

Stalled in her research, Farouil approached the CM98. She wanted to know more about Rose, a slave in Abymes, Guadeloupe, from whom she descended on her mother's side. Thanks to the database created by the association, which purchased 25,000 euros worth of carefully digitized notarial documents, Béatrice was able to search beyond 1848. 

'It comforted me' 

These massive archives provide concrete information on where the slaves lived, their monetary value, their state of health. "I found the prices of my ancestors: 1350 francs for Rose and her child Reine," said Farouil. She also learned that Reine and her children were bequeathed to a freed slave, who was the mistress of an owner. "I felt no hatred or anger, all that was normal at that time. Retracing their footsteps, trying to understand, has soothed me," she confided, although she preferred not to know certain details, such as whether they were well treated.

"In families, there is a culture of silence, this is a period that is not talked about, because at the abolition of slavery, the emancipated slaves were asked to forget this past. At home, on my father's side, my father did not know that his distant relatives were slaves, I was the one who informed him," Farouil said.

'The discovery of certain information requires support'

Thanks to the data collected, CM98's digital database, based on civil registers dating from the time of the abolition of slavery, is unparalleled. These documents contain the names of 140,000 slaves held in the French West Indies.

"We make our data and studies available to all those who wish to access them," said Gordien. The information is freely accessible on the website Anchoukaj, which means "the root of the tree" in Creole. A simple search by family name provides access to a great deal of information, including the slave registration number of ancestors with the same surname.

"The discovery of certain information requires support," cautioned Gordien. He recalled a traveling exhibition in the town of Le Moule, in Guadeloupe, in 2004: "We had collected the names of all the slaves who had lived in this town and we printed signs paying them tribute. Men and women began to cry at the sight of their parents' registration numbers. That's when we decided we had to start these genealogy workshops." More than 500 people have been assisted since their inception.

Leading these sessions, which continue weekly on Zoom despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Farouil emphasizes the importance of interacting with others who have been through the process. "Participants freely open up about their family history and we process it together.”

Little research is done in Africa

"Some discoveries are more painful than others," noted Gordien. "There are cases of births following rape, incest, or stories of slaves who helped stop fellow slaves who tried to swim away. No one wants to know that one of their ancestors was involved in that kind of thing."

The group doesn’t always have the answers people are looking for. "Even before knowing where they come from in the West Indies, some people write to us to find out from 'which African village' they originate," said Farouil. "Others have even resorted to DNA testing." Few manage to trace their ancestors back to Africa as Gordien did.

After abolition, French registrars were dispatched to the West Indies to choose names for the emancipated slaves. "Directives had been received, names from the Gregorian calendar, from ancient history or names invented by anagrams were to be given. Some of the freed people wanted to keep their African names and luckily, some conciliatory officers accepted. That was the case with my relative, who bore the name of an ethnic group in Benin," said Gordien.

A memorial with the names of the French victims

For Gordien, there is a way to "reconcile our history with Africa". To that end, his organization approached the Beninese government and proposed the erection of a monument in the port of Ouidah, one of the main points of departure for the export of slaves to the West Indies, bearing the 200,000 names of the victims of the slave trade to the West Indies, as well as to Guyana and Réunion Island.

"The Republic also needs to honour the victims of these crimes", added Gordien, whose group called for the construction of a memorial to former slaves who became French citizens in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, promised to do so, but the project stalled after a controversy over the shortlisted artists. At issue is the fact that a number of the selected works do not include the 200,000 names of emancipated French slaves. "The inscription of these hundreds of thousands of names of slaves who became citizens in 1848 is essential," said Gordien. "They are our forefathers".

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