Black History

Free people of Colour – ‘Gens de Coleur Libres’

21/09/2014

4e31a1761ec1708953aacdf1c7766349I saw this photo on Pinterest and sat staring at it for a little while. It took me by surprise as I didn’t know that there was a community of blacks who were living outside the slave realm. Yes, you could say that these free blacks weren’t really “free” as they had a list of things they couldn’t do. Even still, they still had a lot more status than their fellow slave who had no voice – nothing. This picture screams out that there is a history untold. I’m only scratching the surface. Find out more here  –  but seriously, history is usually told from one perspective, usually the victors. But if we look or stumble across some things that contradict what the mainstream history story is, then we might find gems like this.

Just look at how the woman in purple is standing with such authority, foot on the edge of whatever it is, her fist on her hip, her deep complexion, the finery of her clothes.

It’s in the most unlikely areas in America, during the period of thousands of men and women of African descent were enslaved in the American South, Caribbean & Latin America, where we discover that there was another community of blacks who lived free from physical bondage.

The term “Gens de couleur libres” is French for “the free people of colour” and it was used throughout all the French colonies. This group of free blacks were special because of their successes to live among their fellow white brethren in near enough harmony… Near enough…

A quick back story: In Spain’s New World Empire, free blacks were important to the new society as they occupied jobs as artisans, sailors, soldiers and other labourers. Manumission, where slaves were allowed to purchase their freedom, had been a traditional trait in the Southern and Western European area (or simply, the Iberian Peninsula) from the Roman times. The Spanish and the Portuguese transferred these ideas to their new colonies in the Americas which is the reason why a large and successful population of blacks emerged.

Roman Catholics, initially, deterred the enslavement of any person who accepted Christianity. This is perhaps why the Spanish and Portuguese had a more liberal attitude towards the free blacks than say the British. The French seemed to have a similar approach to the Spaniards and the Portuguese, where their focus was on class and not so much about race. Provided, a black or white person was baptised into a Catholic Church, everyone was treated the same. In 1685, the French Code Noir protected the rights of free slaves however, they could not vote, run for a public position or marry a white person.

Fast Forward to the early 19th century: Though there were many restrictions in Louisiana, free blacks were migrating to Europe and other parts of the Spanish and French colonies, many blacks who stayed were benefitting from Louisiana’s rapidly growing economy. In this state, free blacks had the ability to own, inherit and sell their property. On the outskirts of New Orleans, large plantations were sold and divided up to create new neighbourhoods where free men and women purchased land alongside whites. Many free blacks became part of the community becoming involving in the social and cultural events and institutions such as the arts, social gatherings like balls, and the church…

Now of course, during this time blacks were almost silenced from history, then up pops the emancipation and all blacks are free. Though there’s so much to write about the Free People of Colour, I like to keep my posts short with bite size information. So I leave you with just enough to mull over…

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