Bodies for the Care of Souls: Slavery and the Colonial Clergy in the French Empire, 1764-1848


ACLS Project Development Grants




This is the first historical overview of the practice of slavery by Catholic orders and congregations in the French colonial empire. It centers the lives and experiences of the thousands held in bondage by these organizations across France’s Atlantic and Indian Ocean colonies. They built and labored in churches, mission stations, schools, and hospitals, as well as the plantations that underwrote them. Government administrators recognized the importance of these enterprises for sustaining the imperial project, but increasingly saw them as something to control and contain. They attempted to leverage the colonial clergy as guarantors of the social order, and their enslaved dependents as a source of revenue. While the second goal was violently achieved after 1789, when Revolutionary officials “nationalized” ecclesiastical slaves, the first was largely a failure: many of these same men and women emerged as prominent figures in the fight against slavery during the French and Haitian Revolutions.