A Comparison of Passenger Lists and the Delight of Detail
The Signature of the Freemason?

Tracing an Ancestor of Colour in Napoleonic France


Theatre ceiling

In February, 1792, France passed a law that ended slavery, though it had already been done in some colonies and was not so easy to enforce in others. Nor was it easy to change attitudes and, for various reasons, the governments of the Directoire and the First Empire made efforts to keep track of the people of African descent who were present in France. Whereas now, whenever a government wants to know something about the people under its rule, it simply goes to the computers in its spy centre, during the First Empire, the government asked the police to go and find out.  The prefect sent a message to all of the mayors and they had to send back whatever information was wanted. 

Arrete du gouvernement
Archives départementales de la Charente-Maritime. Cote: 5M7 art.1

 Many of the reports wanted were little censuses: lists of enemy nationals, especially the English, lists of traitorous sailors who might be working for the English, lists of anyone suspected of spying, and lists of people of colour, for this was also during and just after the Haitian Revolution. The lists of people of colour included everyone who was deemed to fit that description, French or not. Thus, these lists, many of which survive, could help trace an ancestor who merely travelled to France. 

Some examples:

  • In 1807, the town of Libourne in Gironde, counted thirteen people of colour and gave details about their ages, sex, employments, as well as differentiating between people who were black, mulatto or "carteron", that is, quadroon. It also says how long each person had been in France.
  • In 1810 the Minister for Marine and Colonies issued an order that he be informed of all people of colour arriving in France. He received a letter from the police prefect of Gironde informing him that an American merchant from New Orleans, a Mr. Gaillard, who was planning to live in Bordeaux for a while, brought with him a woman of colour named Rosette.
  • In Bordeaux, in 1807, a list similar to that for Libourne shows that there were  fifteen people of colour living in the city.  This also gives their places of origin: Port-au-Prince, Saint Domingue, Guadeloupe, etc.
  • Passenger lists, prisoner lists and any other type of list or census also noted if a person were of colour. Thus, a list of those requesting passports to travel from Bordeaux to the United States in 1796 contains one Rosalie, born in Martinique, who was going to accompany four-year-old Emilie Salles on a voyage to Louisiana. (The same passport list contains a number of people of colour accompanying families originally from Saint-Domingue and on their way to Louisiana.)

The above come from our continuing raid of the police records in Series M and L of Departmental Archives. They document in many different ways people of colour from all over the world who came to France and whose names were noted by this nation of list-makers. If your ancestor worked for those who may have travelled to France, it is worth checking these records, as it is if your ancestor came from the French colonies for they may have gone to their ultimate new home by way of France. 

©2014 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy