European Ancestors – Understanding France (34) – Overseas Territories, Empire and Slavery

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Flag adopted 15 Feb 1794

This post is part of a series about genealogy in France. You can read the complete series HERE.

Building on from Part 20 where we looked at territories located outside of France; in this part I want to address the facts resources relating to researching those who were enslaved. Some of this might not be easy reading, and for that I hope I am forgiven. Alas we cannot change the past, instead I want to acknowledge the facts as gently as I can and hope the information contained here is useful.

France was the third largest slave trading country, elevated to that position due to the number of Africans arriving in Haiti (Saint-Domingue) during the latter part of the eighteenth century. It is believed there were about 1, Africans transported on French ships during this period and around about 1,165.000 survived, arriving in the French Caribbean colonies. The Africans would have been loaded into the ships, having spent time, already incarcerated, perhaps on land or even on board ships in port. Then they endured weeks at sea, encountering what would have been pretty brutal conditions, before moving across land to the final stop on the journey.

Substantial numbers, around 73,000 sailed to Guadeloupe, with 217,000 to Martinique, the vast majority, but 773,000, went to Saint-Domingue which was the most profitable colony during the eighteenth century.

The French locations in the Caribbean were considerably larger than the British and Spanish lands in the region. Voyages were often beginning from Le Havre which was France’s first major slave trading port which deposited Africans to Martinique, French Guiana, and mostly Saint-Domingue. There were also large number of voyages from regions in west Africa to West Central Africa, to the Dutch and French Guianas, Islands of the Caribbean, Spanish Caribbean, and even the State of Louisiana. The sugar plantations of France, in Saint-Domingue, remained the destination for African survivors until 1791 when the Haitian Revolution commences.

The French Empire abolished slavery in April 1848. Thousands of people became full citizens. For a great many people there was no records available, those in Martinique found that a new type of registration, actes d’individualité was to be introduced. This was a standard format, declaring the name and age of the person, place of birth, names of parents and the registration from the Slave Register if applicable to them. The records have been filmed and can be viewed HERE

Each individual was required to visit the Mairie, or town hall, in each Commune, to claim their citizenship. If the individual did not have a surname, they were asked to choose one. Some were unsure of what to choose and the clerk was able to give a surname. Some choose names of the plantation, of the master or owner, some chose a name that meant something to them, perhaps linked to the location or work undertaken.

Not everyone who ventured to overseas territories of France was enslaved. Some wanted a new life and took opportunities where they were present – more on that in another post.


About Julie Goucher

Genealogist, Author, Presenter, native Guildfordian, avid note taker and journal writer. Lover of Books, Stationery & History; Surnames, Butcher & Orlando One-Name Studies. Pharos Tutor for all One-Name Studies/surname courses as well as Researching Ancestors from Continental Europe.
This entry was posted in European Ancestors, Europeans beyond Europe, France, Genealogy, Understanding France Series. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.