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In 1757, officials in Fort St. Jean Baptiste at Natchitoches, Louisiana initiated a criminal investigation to look into the theft of textiles and other goods stolen from French settlers. According to the court record, the accomplices in the robbery were all working under the direction of an enslaved woman named Marion who deployed goods both as a business (which spanned French and Spanish settlements), and as a form of patronage. The scale and brazenness of her commercial activities expands the definition of freedom. Marion secured an impressive measure of autonomy all the while remaining legally enslaved. Her freedom may well have been relative, temporary and impermanent, yet for an unspecified number of years she succeeded in establishing herself as a formidable entrepreneur with liberty to trade between French and Spanish settlements, and with authority over many others, both slave and free. While her reign lasted, she made room for enslaved men and women in Natchitoches, and some free ones, to earn additional funds, to procure and design apparel to their own taste, and to feast with conviviality on beignets, grilled chicken and wild game washed down with suitable libations.
Chapter One traces the development of local legal regimes in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana in which blackness was identified with enslavement and social degradation. We demonstrate that legal and social precedents such as those invoked by Frank Tannenbaum and Alan Watson mattered deeply to the development of these new slave societies, yet not in the way traditional comparisons argued. By the time the Iberians arrived in the New World, they were familiar with the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans, and set about immediately to establish a racially based society in Cuba. In Virginia, by contrast, distinctions of race were not systematized in law until slave status was set in stone decades after the colony’s settlement. The French arrived in Louisiana at a much later point in the development of their empire, and had already written a code for slaves and “noirs.” Across the regions, colonial legislators established a degraded status for people of African descent, but they did so much more quickly in Cuba and Louisiana.
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