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Madeleine's Children

Family, Freedom, Secrets, and Lies in France's Indian Ocean Colonies

Sue Peabody

Publication Date - April 2022

ISBN: 9780197563618

344 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


Madeleine's Children uncovers a multigenerational saga of an enslaved family in India and two islands, Réunion and Mauritius, in the eastern empires of France and Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A tale of legal intrigue, it reveals the lives and secret relationships between slaves and free people that have remained obscure for two centuries.

As a child, Madeleine was pawned by her impoverished family and became the slave of a French woman in Bengal. She accompanied her mistress to France as a teenager, but she did not challenge her enslavement there on the basis of France's Free Soil principle, a consideration that did not come to light until future lawyers investigated her story. In France, a new master and mistress purchased her, despite laws prohibiting the sale of slaves within the kingdom. The couple transported Madeleine across the ocean to their plantation in the Indian Ocean colonies, where she eventually gave birth to three children: Maurice, Constance, and Furcy. One died a slave and two eventually became free, but under very different circumstances. On 21 November 1817, Furcy exited the gates of his master's mansion and declared himself a free man. The lawsuit waged by Furcy to challenge his wrongful enslavement ultimately brought him before the Royal Court of Paris, despite the extreme measures that his putative master, Joseph Lory, deployed to retain him as his slave.

A meticulous work of archival detection, Madeleine's Children investigates the cunning, clandestine, and brutal strategies that masters devised to keep slaves under their control-and paints a vivid picture of the unique and evolving meanings of slavery and freedom in the Indian Ocean world.


  • A rare narrative in world history of an enslaved person challenging his status in court and winning his freedom.
  • The first full length biography tracing slavery in the Indian Ocean world.
  • Detailed family saga of love, betrayal, hope, and struggle set against the broader context of plantation slavery, Parisian society, and colonization.

About the Author(s)

Sue Peabody is Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and History at Washington State University Vancouver. She is the author of "There Are No Slaves in France": The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Regime (OUP, 1996) and the co-editor of The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France and Slavery, Freedom and the Law in the Atlantic World.


"Peabody has sifted the documentary record with exquisite care in order to portray the contradictory ties of intimacy, exploitation, solidarity and betrayal that characterized the extended families that bound masters and servants in slave societies.... Madeleine's Children...offers a quiet but necessary revision to much of the literature about slaves' search for freedom in the age of abolition." -- Paul Cheney, French History

"As Sue Peabody shows in this impressive study of the family history of Madeleine, an enslaved woman from Bengal, the experiences of slaves in the Francophone world lacked for neither drama nor didactic imprint. Following Madeleine and her two children...Peabody delivers a tale of personal tragedy and salvation, set against a global backdrop of revolution, restoration, and imperial rivalry. The result is not only a compelling glimpse of figures marginally represented within the historical record, but also a provocative analysis of what it actually means to be free....Peabody has given us a readable, nuanced, and compelling piece of historical scholarship, one that is at once informative to specialists and accessible to a wider audience." -- Gregory Mole, H-France

"A welcome addition to the historiography of French imperialism and slavery....French history does not have an equivalent of Equiano or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl....While this study is not autobiographical, as are some of the English-language accounts of slavery, Peabody does reconstruct Furcy's life and incorporates the testimony he gave in various court cases. This analysis sheds light on some of his experiences as an enslaved person as well as his sense of the true implications of his legal status. For scholars of slavery and the history of the family, Furcy's testimony also offers valuable insights into what it means to be a father when one is nominally free, but not free in a total sense." -- Margaret Cook Andersen, English Historical Review

"Peabody seeks to deepen understandings of freedom and slavery by enlarging the focus to include the French empire as it reached beyond the Atlantic. Her attention to the slave smuggling triggered by the abolition of transoceanic slave trading reinforces studies of contraband in the late eighteenth century. And while Madeleine, Marie Anne and Eugénie all inhabited a reality far from the revolutionary feminists in mainland France, Peabody is deeply invested in understanding the experiences of women, including highlighting the entangling practices of employing enslaved women as midwives and wet-nurses. Focusing on one family's experiences reveals the complex and messy underbelly of an empire in the process of transformation and France's bumpy trajectory toward the promises of the 1789 revolution." -- Isabelle Headrick, Not Even Past

"A meticulous and insightful study of the life of a woman who, as a child, was sold into slavery in India, and it also chronicles the later struggles of her children to obtain freedom in the French Mascarenes in the first half of the nineteenth century ... Madeleine's Children, in the best tradition of microhistory, moves beyond this individual and exceptional story to provide insights into wider issues of race, abolitionism, and governance in the French colonial world of the period." -- Nigel Worden, American Historical Review

"This volume will be of particular interest to those who wish to better understand the work of historians, as well as for those studying the construction of race and indentity in relation to slavery and freedom." -- Virginie Ems-Bléneau, French Review

"[A]s a collective study of masters' and enslaved families, it is compelling. The book has surprising contemporary relevance. Close reading suggests how legal machinations and deceptive cloaking enable slaving practices to survive, even thrive, in today's globalized economy."--CHOICE

"What does it mean to be free? To be a slave? To belong to a family? In this remarkable book, historian Sue Peabody--one of the world's leading authorities on slavery in the French Empire--shows that these big questions are often intertwined. Through an intimate portrait of one enslaved man fighting for his dignity, Peabody shines a brilliant light on the worlds in which he and his forebears lived, stretching from India to the Mascarene Islands to the courts of Paris. This is both biography and global history at their very best."--Brett Rushforth, author of Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France

"This gripping family history of slavery and freedom in France and its Indian Ocean empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resurrects in inviting detail the lives of Madeleine--sold into slavery in India and freed on Bourbon Island, though not told of her manumission for nineteen years--and of her children. With help from family and friends, Furcy, one of those children held in slavery by ruse, vigorously pursued legal recognition of his free status in the Mascarene Islands of the Indian Ocean and in France--and won. Drawing on thousands of pages of archival and legal documents to reconstruct their lives with astonishing detail, Peabody presents us with the first autobiographical narrative of slaves held by French citizens and in the process illuminates the internal architectures of slavery and freedom in France's Indian Ocean colonies."--Pier M. Larson, The Johns Hopkins University

"'Madeleine's Children' is a detailed exposition of the lives of slaves in the Indian Ocean world in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. Based on years of meticulous research, it brings vividly to life the tensions between slave-owners and slaves during a tumultuous period of shifting legal challenges to, and definitions of, slavery. Thoroughly recommended to scholars of the Indian Ocean world and of slavery."--Gwyn Campbell, Director, Indian Ocean World Centre, McGill University

Table of Contents

    1. Madeleine: A Child Slave in Pre-Colonial India
    2. Crossings: Oceans, Islands, and Free Soil
    3. Madeleine's Children: Family Secrets
    4. The Revolution: Emancipation without Freedom
    5. The Limits of Law: Madeleine's Betrayal
    6. A Perfect Storm
    7. Incendiary Arguments, Justice Suspended
    8. English Liberties
    9. Freedom Papers Hidden in His Shoe
    10. Damages and Interest

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