Whiteness, Gender and Slavery in Enlightenment Le Havre: Marie Le Masson Le Golft’s Self-Fashioning as a Femme des Lettres
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It is because of fortunate circumstances, MM, and even more so because of the strategic location of my native region, that I have been able to acquire the expertise that I could not have either in the capital or in provinces farther from the sea. Le Havre being an important port for long-distance trade, its ships and those aboard them [offer] the inestimable advantage of being able to converse with scholars from all nations, and often to see individuals from every one of the varieties exhibited by mankind. The four corners of the earth [offer up] a prodigious quantity of interesting objects related to natural history, from elephants and orangutans to mosquitoes.
—Marie Le Masson Le Golft, 1787
Acceptance Letter to the Académie d’Arras
The eighteenth century was full of travel opportunities for young European men. Whether on scientific, commercial, or military expeditions, white men of all classes had unprecedented freedom to travel, through the Atlantic and beyond. These trips allowed aspiring male scientists to make “discoveries” which would earn them a place in the republic of letters. Indeed, colonial expeditions launched innumerable scientific careers.
What, however, if you were a French woman curious about the world and eager to establish a reputation in the Enlightenment world of letters? French women did not have equal access to travel opportunities, which were not seen as appropriately feminine. Only rare exceptions like Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717), who did botanical research in Surinam in 1699, found ways to choose a place – and go there. In addition to the difficulties in travelling, it was hard for a woman to gain recognition for her own ideas in the eighteenth century. Far more common in the Enlightenment than women writers were salon hostesses, a role deemed more suitable for women’s “civilizing nature.” Some women, like Marie-Anne Lavoisier (1758 – 1836) or Emilie de Châtelet (1706 – 1749), were credited for their contributions to science because of their influential male partners (respectively, Antoine Lavoisier and Voltaire). But it was much harder for a young woman scholar to gain renown on her own.
This essay explores an exceptional figure who would shatter such barriers and earn her own reputation in the republic of letters: Marie Le Masson Le Golft (1749 – 1826), one of the first women elected to a scientific academy in France. Despite her many firsts, she was long ignored by scholars. While a crop of new studies and reeditions of her work have appeared in the last decade, they have tended to focus on scientific and local issues, rather than her ideas about colonialism and slavery. In this essay I ask: How was Le Masson Le Golft able to make a name for herself in natural history in the 1780s, despite her gender and inability to travel? What did she think about colonialism and slavery, living in one of France’s leading slavetrading centers – in direct contact both with those who derived their incomes from slavery and with unfortunate Africans forced to travel through her city’s port? How did her city of residence enable her to gain membership in a republic of letters which largely excluded women scientists?
To answer these questions, I explore how Le Masson Le Golft’s whiteness and geographical location gave her opportunities to transcend her gender and earn acclaim from male luminaries – even those who ordinarily dismissed women’s participation in science. In examining her subject position, I scrutinize Le Masson Le Golft’s complicated relationship to slavery, which I see as epitomizing a particular kind of Enlightenment ambivalence about this institution. While Le Masson Le Golft made a number of antislavery pronouncements privately (something noteworthy for a havraise, or Le Havre resident), she hesitated to critique it publicly. In fact, as I shall argue, she helped build her career by using – and propagating – noxious ideas about race. Emphasizing her whiteness and Frenchness, rather than her gender, helped her establish her authority as a scholar and gain recognition at a time when few women did.
Le Masson Le Golft’s biography differs from other scientists of her era in many ways. In addition to not being able to go on colonial expeditions like white male counterparts, she lived too far from Paris to participate in the intellectual and social life of its salons and scientific academies. Marie had a relatively simple social life, as a pious single woman living with her mother. She spent almost all of her life in Le Havre (before later moving to Rouen); she seems to have made only one visit to Paris, once the Revolution began.
Being based in Le Havre, however, made Le Masson Le Golft uniquely situated as an aspiring woman scientist; residing there offered her opportunities unavailable to men in most provincial cities as well as in Paris. Though she could not sail off to identify unfamiliar plants in South American jungles, she could comb beaches in Normandy in search of little-known marine life. Moreover, in the late eighteenth century, Le Havre had gained renown from its newly expanded port. Through it, ships streamed in from around the Atlantic: from England, Africa, the Americas, and points beyond. Mlle. Le Masson Le Golft thus had a signal advantage not only over other French women, but also over men in interior regions of France. The port brought interesting visitors, letters from the New World, and tales from returning relatives. Simply by walking there, an activity she deemed suitable for women and men, she gained access to information on (and was exposed to the realities of) the colonial trade in ways French people elsewhere were not.
Even more than other havrais, she was especially well-placed to use her geographical location in service of her academic aspirations. Because the city of 18,000 lacked the intellectual tradition of its larger neighbor Rouen, she was one of Le Havre’s most learned residents. A student and protégée of local scientist the abbé Dicquemare (1733 – 1789) and an esteemed author herself, travelers like Arthur Young and Bourbon countesses were directed to meet her when they came to visit. She was also unique because of who her colonial correspondents were: not relatives but rather the Cercle des Philadelphes, which inducted her (upon the suggestion of Étienne Lefebvre-Deshayes and the abbé Dicquemare) as their first associate in Le Havre and their first female member anywhere. Belonging to the Cercle, the de facto scientific academy of Saint-Domingue, was a point of pride for her, an honor she brandished on the title page of her publications. By the mid-1780s, Le Masson Le Golft’s natural history writings had earned her an international reputation, with correspondents like the comte de Buffon (1707 – 1788). Her standing also ensured that visitors brought her interesting “specimens” to study and draw.
Of course, the port did not only present opportunities for Le Masson Le Golft. As for other havrais, the colonial trade brought pain as well as profit. With a ship’s captain for a father and a merchant’s daughter for a mother, she was keenly aware of the dangers which transatlantic travel posed. Indeed, one day a ship brought the news that she and her mother had long dreaded: Marie’s father Jean, like his father before him, had perished at sea. The livelihood of her family and of others she knew was also at stake in the colonies: most of the city’s merchants, as well as people from more humble statuses, were invested in the colonial trade. As Lucie Maquerlot has explained, workers often sought to supplement their incomes by selling small bundles of goods to the colonies through a customs exemption called the pacotille. As Le Masson Le Golft noted in 1778, “my shoemaker... recently complained to me about the loss that he suffered of a pretty large pacotille of shoes; our cook told me with a very solemn expression that she had invested a louis in a pacotille.”
Because Le Havre residents had so much at stake personally in the colonial trade, it is no surprise that the city included some of the country’s staunchest defenders of slavery on the eve of the Revolution. Whether against Amis des Noirs trying to ban the slave trade or Creoles seeking to end the exclusif (colonial monopoly), Le Havre residents were eager to preserve the colonial status quo. When a local editor (a Paris transplant) tried to introduce a critique of slavery into his newspaper in 1786, he must have faced deep resistance: the topic disappeared quickly, and by 1788 he had reversed his opinion, defending the slave trade in print. When the Revolution erupted in 1789, the municipality fought against any reforms related to slavery or free people of color.
Le Masson Le Golft, who was a passionate champion of her city, shared local mentalités in many ways. Like others there, she did not condemn the slave trade wholesale; she viewed it as a fact of life. But she was also complicit with this system in taking advantage of the comings and goings of captive Africans to satisfy her (and Dicquemare’s) research curiosities.
For instance, Le Masson Le Golft took great pride in the drawing of a “négresse blanche” that Dicquemare had prepared. Dicquemare had been given special access to a famed research “subject” - a young African-descended Albino woman named Geneviève, born into slavery in Dominica and later brought to Martinique, Le Havre, Versailles and Paris. After Dicquemare’s death, Le Masson Le Golft worked to have this drawing published, never using Geneviève’s name but only this racial label (“négresse blanche”). In her campaign to publish Dicquemare’s drawing, Le Masson Le Golft promoted herself in circles that had dehumanized Geneviève, circulated her as a scientific specimen and forced her to pose naked in demeaning positions (a few decades before the analogous treatment of Sarah Baartman). Le Masson Le Golft does not seem to have empathized with Geneviève nor did she condemn others’ treatment of her. In addition to promoting Dicquemare’s research on Geneviève, Le Masson Le Golft was proud of the access the slave trade gave her to pursuing her own science. In accepting election to the Academy of Arras in 1787, Le Masson Le Golft credited her research success to being able in Le Havre to meet scholars visiting from abroad and to gaze at “individuals from every one of the varieties exhibited by man.”
Given this background, we might be surprised to discover that three recent studies of attitudes towards slavery in Le Havre have considered Le Masson Le Golft a rare havraise opponent of slavery. It is true that, as early as the 1770s, Le Masson Le Golft wrote sympathetically of the plight of enslaved people, presenting a story about a visitor to Le Havre who was horrified by conditions aboard slave ships and hinting that she empathized with his position. In 1784, she praised an antislavery text by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737 – 1814). And by the time of the Revolution, we see an even more exasperated statement in her journal: “Tuesday 9 March ... A messenger has just brought the decree of the National Assembly favoring the slave trade. Here the National Assembly is contradicting itself, because it previously declared – decreed even – man to be free.” By 1793, she had become acquainted with the famous abolitionist Henri Grégoire (1750 – 1831); though he otherwise disapproved of women who departed from domestic roles, he worked to get her funding from the National Convention for a scientific process she had developed to lift ink from paper. By 1810, she and Grégoire had a warm friendship; she shared research materials about slavery with him and encouraged him to continue defending “this unhappy class of men whom greed, under the guise of so-called philosophy, continues to place far below the Orang-Outang [orangutan].”
Where would these antislavery sentiments have come from in a bourgeois demoiselle from Le Havre? One explanation might be to look to her scientific beliefs. Le Masson Le Golft was a committed Buffonian and a proponent of the idea that mankind had a single origin. Against the followers of Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778), who saw Europeans and others as belong to separate species, she agreed with scholars who insist on the “common origin of [all] nations.” Her devout Catholicism, with its belief in the historicity of Genesis, reinforced this conviction. Yet neither Buffonianism nor Catholicism alone could make someone antislavery in the eighteenth century. After all, Buffonian science could be used to posit the “degeneracy” of non-whites even if climatological factors were said to have caused it. So from where would Le Masson Le Golft’s antislavery feelings have stemmed?
A tempting answer comes from Le Havre’s proximity to England. In the years before the Revolution, abolitionist men and women across the channel had launched a campaign against slavery. We might surmise that Le Masson Le Golft heard about these efforts, or met antislavery Englishwomen such as Helen Maria Williams (1759 – 1827) as they passed through Normandy en route to Paris. Yet though Williams and Le Masson Le Golft would share at least one friend, Grégoire, there is no evidence that the women knew each other by 1790; Williams arrived in France via Dieppe, and there is no indication that she visited Le Havre. It is also not clear whether Le Masson Le Golft would have felt herself to have much in common with the non-Catholic Williams. Unlike Anglophiles like Voltaire, Le Masson was highly patriotic, a supporter of both the French monarchy and church.
Could her antislavery views have resulted from reading antislavery Enlightenment treatises? A member of several royal academies, she certainly was exposed to antislavery ideas from writers such as Montesquieu, Raynal and Diderot. Yet as Christine Adams and Stephen Auerbach have shown, it was possible for admirers of the philosophes in slavetrading ports to simply ignore that strain of Enlightenment thought. Moreover, Enlightenment thinkers were hardly unanimous in their opposition to slavery and colonialism, nor were they free from racial prejudices. One need only look at the articles on “Nègre” et “Nègres” in the Encyclopédie to see that ideas of racial superiority were perfectly at home in Enlightenment circles.
A tantalizing clue comes instead from a letter that Le Masson Le Golft wrote to Grégoire c. 1810. In it, she praised the abbé’s abolitionist writings, then shifted to a deeply personal story. In this letter to Grégoire, she alluded to a loss she suffered 35 years earlier, in the 1770s, of a brother who was a crew member aboard a slave-trading vessel. She told Grégoire:
If only I had a pen as fluid... as yours [so that I could] give an exact picture of the humanity, of the goodness, of the generosity... and of the complete selflessness of Tam-Cardos, a free Black from Albreda, along the banks of the Gambia.... Details about this Black man [were] given to me in 1775 by the Chevalier de Mobecq, the King’s Résident at the Albreda trading post, and by M. Ducasse, a surgeon who lived there. This Black man showered my brother with his kindnesses; he risked his life to protect him from the furor of the ship’s captain. As [my brother] had fallen ill from distress, Tam-Cardos waited for the moment when the captain was drunk, and convinced all of the other people on board, who all loved my unfortunate brother, to put him on their shoulders and carry him while swimming toward their shacks, where he hid my brother to shield him from being pursued. There, Tam-Cardos took care of him, and had him seen by the surgeon I mentioned, in whose hands he gave his last breaths. Before laying my brother to rest in the ditch that he himself had dug, out of respect, he said, for this young white, Tam-Cardos, following the advice of the Résident and the surgeon, went to inform the captain and to invite him to his dwelling to fill out the necessary forms. But would you believe, Monsieur l’Evêque, the captain carried his nastiness to the point of not wanting to fill out the forms, and he threw into the sea some small jewels that my brother had given to this Black man; he did this in order to show that it was sentiment alone that drove him and not greed. This captain, more tigrous than all tigers put together, was later killed... by the Blacks on his ship in the middle of the voyage from Gambia to Cap François.
The letter makes clear the deep love that Marie must have had for her brother and the terrible grief she felt after losing him – but also her gratitude toward Tam-Cardos for risking his life to protect him. She seems to have felt that an uprising by enslaved Africans which led them to kill their chief tormentor was poetic justice, karma the captain deserved. Le Masson Le Golft’s very proximity to the slave trade – and her family’s participation in it – thus helped convince her that proslavery arguments were based on stereotypes and lies.
Yet our story cannot end there – for even after this experience in the 1770s, Le Masson Le Golft did not become an antislavery campaigner. Whatever she thought about the institution, she does not seem to have believed that much could be done about it, given Le Havre’s dependence on the slave trade. While presenting in a 1781 work the story of her conversation with the out-of-town visitor horrified by slave ships, her response to him was simply: “The picture that you are painting, with such realistic detail, suits me as well, and is perhaps even better known to me than to you. [But] your regrets [on this subject] are not useful. Let us talk more on this subject in freer moments.” When including an excerpt from a proslavery pamphlet in her journal of local happenings (which she anticipated publishing), she did not criticize the author, but added only that “his business... is the slave trade, from which he has made a very considerable fortune.” Lucie Maquerlot has speculated that Le Masson Le Golft was hesitant to “polemicize too forcefully” for fear of alienating her neighbors, and that including the words of others was a way “to denounce the slave trade without implicating herself personally.” There is some truth to this; as a woman striving to be taken seriously as an author, Le Masson Le Golft needed to be circumspect in public and to avoid being seen as a traitor.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that she had become a fierce opponent of slavery but was simply unwilling to talk about it publicly. Le Masson Le Golft’s public statements about slavery were never as clear-cut as the comment on the National Assembly in her unpublished manuscript; many of her statements about non-Europeans are ambiguous. In her 1788 book Lettres relatives à l'éducation, Le Masson Le Golft encouraged Saint-Domingue’s white Creoles to keep impressionable children away from enslaved people. While she acknowledged that most of them were “owned by men who are hardly virtuous,” she charged that “the majority of this unhappy class... contracts, even if by imitation, vicious inclinations....”
Le Masson Le Golft’s association with the Cercle des Philadelphes also linked her to proslavery circles. The Cercle was hardly composed of abolitionists; James McClellan described it as “a profoundly racist institution and an unquestioning supporter of the slave society out of which it emerged.” Yet Le Masson Le Golft relished her membership in the group, advertising it prominently in her works and praising the potential of Creole men and women, whom she met frequently in Le Havre. Certainly, her gender played a role in her enthusiasm for the Cercle. Though she was later elected to several academies (such as Arras, Madrid, Saint Petersburg, Lyon, Bilbao and the Real Sociedad Bascongada de Amigos del País), many academies simply refused to admit women. She must have felt a special gratitude to the Saint-Domingue group. But her affection also undoubtedly stemmed from the close affinities between the havraise bourgeoisie and Saint-Domingue’s colonists and enslavers.
Le Masson Le Golft’s promotion of colonialism and racism, however, could also be quite direct. Her pioneering Esquisse d'un tableau général du genre humain (1787), likely the earliest ethnographic map of its kind, was suffused with negative depictions of non-Europeans. An educational theorist, she designed her map (fig. 1) to show pupils the state of the world and its peoples “at a glance”: with regard to religion, skin color, customs, and physical condition. This map, which has gone almost entirely unstudied, reveals an unabashed sense of European – especially French – superiority over other peoples, both cultural and physical. Symbols (see fig. 2) indicated whether a people were Catholics, schismatic Christians, idolaters or “Mahometans.” Another set specified whether a people were savage and nude or lived in society; whether they were humane or cruel; and whether they were beautiful or ugly, well-formed or malformed (fig. 3).
Indeed, despite her other pronouncements criticizing racism and slavery, Le Masson Le Golft’s map encouraged schoolchildren to think of non-Europeans as different and inferior; it sought to entrench harmful stereotypes in the French educational system. For Le Masson Le Golft, Frenchmen were the best of all peoples: educated and Catholic, they were civilized, humane, tall, beautiful and well-formed. None of France’s neighbors received all of these designations, though she conceded that some European nations (the Irish, English, Germans and Poles) were also characterized by beauty. Based on travel narratives, she was also willing to extend this label to residents of the Nicobar Islands near India, of one island in the South Pacific, and to some Central Asian peoples. However, for her, Africans were among the least civilized and least beautiful people. She granted that many West African peoples were of “strong constitution.” However, her most common symbols for Africa were the spear, to designate savages; the sun, to designate idolaters; and four dots, to show polygamists. She also characterized several African peoples – from Gabon to Southern Africa – outright as ugly (fig. 4).
Le Masson Le Golft hoped teachers would find her map useful for educating their pupils about physical and cultural differences between Europeans and Others, thus instilling a sense of European superiority. Ideally, the map would prompt pupils to ask questions, so a teacher could explain what made French customs superior. Upon seeing all of the non-Catholics, a teacher could explain “the eras [and] opinions which have distanced [other] nations from worshipping the one true God.” After pupils noticed the symbols for savagery and polygamy in places like Africa, teachers could educate them about “the peculiarity of opinions, customs and costumes... among semi-civilized peoples.” The Esquisse was well-received by Le Masson Le Golft’s fellow members of the Cercle des Philadelphes, as well as by other intellectuals. The Académie d’Arras singled it out when electing her, calling the Esquisse “an ingenious invention.” Indeed, Ferdinand Dubois de Fosseux (1742 – 1817), the academy’s perpetual secretary, indicated in his first letter to her that he was an admirer of her writings and was using the Esquisse to teach his son.
While the Tam-Cardos episode thus convinced Le Masson Le Golft that individual Blacks could be kind, she clearly accepted other stereotypes about Africans and other non-Europeans, portraying them as backward, savage and ugly. Moreover, she sought to advance her career (to “contribute” to science) by promulgating such stereotypes – and making them easier to disseminate to children.
It should be emphasized that, as a Buffonian, Le Masson Le Golft did not believe this backwardness to be irreversible. Indeed, after the map was printed, she regretted that she had not called it: “Tableau de l’état actuel des nations” (Overview of the Current State of Nations). This would have emphasized that the map only showed the current state of civilization among nations, not inherent differences between them. Moreover, in her Lettres relatives à l’éducation, Le Masson Le Golft had opposed the cruelty that could accompany European colonialism: “Immediately after the standard of religion marched that of barbarism.... And do we not see this continuing today in some of the European colonies?” Despite this comment, though, she still posited the physical inferiority (using terms like “ugly” and “malformed”) of non-Europeans. Moreover, even if Le Masson Le Golft believed that non-Catholics could be culturally regenerated through peaceful contact with European missionaries, this would not have reversed the physical inferiorities she ascribed to non-Europeans.
Le Masson Le Golft therefore presents an illuminating case study of how an aspiring woman intellectual could use her proximity to colonial and slave trade networks to advance her reputation. In this way, she parallels nineteenth-century figures like Isabelle Eberhardt, who used their whiteness to transcend limits normally placed on women in France and its empire. Le Masson Le Golft was unusual in her city for opposing slavery at all – something which seems to have been prompted by her brother’s tragic experiences rather than by Enlightenment texts or British antislavery tracts. Still, living in Le Havre, Le Masson Le Golft prioritized advancing her career as a scientist over championing this cause; she did not turn her dislike of slavery into active abolitionism. Indeed, even during the Directory, Le Masson Le Golft does not seem to have sought to join the Société des Amis des Noirs et des Colonies, though they admitted other women as members. Nor did her antislavery sentiments preclude her from having procolonial and racist views. Her story shows that one opening for women to succeed in the Old Regime republic of letters was to minimize their sexual difference by contrasting themselves with racialized Others. As Le Masson Le Golft vaunted her association with the Cercle des Philadelphes, and made a map which taught others to identify Africans and other non-Europeans as “ugly,” “idolatrous” and “savage,” she sought to make her whiteness and Catholicism matter more to other scholars than her gender.
*I dedicate this article to the late Nancy Fitch, who cheered on my early work on this project. I am grateful also to Nina Gelbart, Kathleen Wellman, Dominique Rogers, François Regourd, Keith Baker, Marcel Dorigny, Colin Jones, Lucie Maquerlot, Sue Peabody, Tyler Stovall, Pierre Boulle, Elizabeth Colwill, Paula Findlen, Deborah Kennedy, and Andrew Curran for input while I developed this project; to Christy Pichichero, Jennifer Heuer, Sara Pugach, Julia Osman and the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts; and to the staffs of the Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen (BMR), the Archives départementales du Pas-de-Calais (ADPC), the Archives départementales de la Seine-Maritime (ADSM), Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), the Bibliothèque de la Société de Port-Royal (BSPR) and the California State University-San Marcos Library.
Le Masson Le Golft, “Copie du discours ou plutôt remerciement de Mlle Le Masson Le Golft à l’Académie Rale des B-Lettres d’Arras . . .,” BMR Ms. g. 15 , fol. 147, . Le Masson Le Golft spelled her name variously; she signed some letters Le Masson-Le Golft, others Le Masson Le-Golft. In her will she used Marie Le-Masson-Le-Golft (ADSM, 2 E 6/247). The title pages of her publications and later writings about her list her as Marie Le Masson Le Golft; I am using this spelling for consistency.
See Neil Safier, Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and James E. McClellan III and François Regourd, The Colonial Machine: French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011).
On the history of coding travel as masculine, see Eric J. Leed, The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 111 – 126; and Ian Littlewood, Sultry Climates: Travel and Sex (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo), 2001. On exceptional cases of early modern women travelling, see Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1995); and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, “Cross-Dressing Pirates on the Margins of Empire: Women Pirates and the Narrative of the Caribbean,” in Women at Sea: Travel Writing and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse, ed. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 59 – 97.
See Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); and Meghan Roberts, Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). On other neglected women scientists in eighteenth-century France, see Nina Rattner Gelbart, Minerva’s French Sisters; Women of Science in Enlightenment France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).
N. N. Oursel’s Une havraise oubliée: Marie Le Masson Le Golft (1749 - 1826) (Evreux: Impr. de l’Eure, 1908) was for decades the lone study of Le Masson Le Golft. After I began my research in the late 1990s, several new articles appeared: Aline Lemonnier-Mercier, “L’abbé Dicquemare (1733-1789). Marie Le Masson Le Golft (1749-1826). Deux ‘intellectuels’ havrais du siècle des Lumières,” Cahiers havrais de recherche historique, no. 62 (2004): 155-73; Lemonnier-Mercier, “Mademoiselle Marie Le Masson Le Golft, une intellectuelle pédagogue au Havre au XVIIIe siècle,” in Femmes éducatrices au siècle des lumières, eds. Isabelle Brouard-Arends and Marie-Emmanuelle Plagnol-Diéval (Rennes: PU Rennes, 2007), 157–66; Cyril Le Meur, “Marie Le Masson Le Golft dans sa petite Ithaque, ou le parcours intellectuel d’une Havraise au tournant des Lumières,” Dix-huitième siècle (2004), no. 36, 345-60; and Le Meur, “Épigones provinciaux de l’écriture apologétique de la nature: l’abbé Dicquemare et Marie Le Masson Le Golft,” in Écrire la nature au XVIIIe siècle. Autour de l’abbé Pluche, eds. Françoise Gevrey, Julie Boch, and Jean-Louis Haquette (Paris: PUPS, 2006), 177-88. New reprint editions include Le Havre au jour le jour (see note 8); Balance de la nature: La femme qui notait la nature, ed. and with introduction by Marc Decimo (Dijon: Presses du réel, 2005); Coup d’œil sur l’état ancien et présent du Havre, 1778, ed. Hervé Chabannes (Mont-Saint-Aignan: PU de Rouen et du Havre, 2017); and facsimile reprints of Balance de la Nature (1784; 2019), Lettres relatives à l’éducation (1788; 2019), and Entretien sur le Havre (1781; 2018). One of the most important newer studies is Bridgette Byrd O’Connor’s “Marie Le Masson Le Golft, 1749-1826: Eighteenth-Century Educator, Historian, and Natural Philosopher,” D.Phil. diss, University of Oxford, 2005; however, it spends only a few pages discussing slavery (190-92, 194). Characterizing Le Masson Le Golft as “opposed to slavery,” it does not consider her relation to her whiteness, her complicity in the trade, nor the racism of her Esquisse d’un tableau général du genre humain. Olivier Perru takes a similar stance; his “Marie Le Masson Le Golft (1749-1826): Le progrès des idées là où on ne l’attend pas,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History of Ideas 5, no. 9, pt. 2: 1-25 (2016) focuses on her science, while describing her as fiercely antislavery (6, 24). Sonia Cherrad, Le discours pédagogique féminin au temps des Lumières (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2015), which includes a discussion of Le Masson Le Golft’s educational ideas, characterizes her Esquisse d’un tableau général positively, saying it gave students an appreciation for “human diversity” (188). In my article “Robespierre, Old Regime Feminist? Gender, the Late Eighteenth Century and the French Revolution Revisited,” Journal of Modern History 82, no. 1 (2010): 1 – 29, I discussed Le Masson Le Golft’s election to the Academy of Arras, but did not have room to discuss the content of her works.
On ideas of race in French history and how this notion was deployed far earlier than the nineteenth century, as was previously assumed, see Sue Peabody and Tyler E. Stovall, eds., The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), esp. the editors’ Introduction and the essay by Pierre Boulle (“François Bernier and the Origins of the Modern Concept of Race,” 11 – 27). See also Boulle, “In Defense of Slavery: Eighteenth Century Opposition to Abolition and the Origins of a Racist Ideology in France,” in History from Below. Studies in Popular Protest and Popular Ideology, ed. Frederick Krantz (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 219 – 246.
On her 1791 trip to Paris seeking funds promised by the king in 1786 to her mentor the abbé Dicquemare, so she could publish his works posthumously, see Oursel, 56. On these funds being pledged to her (though it seems they were never sent), see Fernand Gerbaux and Charles Schmidt, eds., Procès-verbaux des Comités d’agriculture et de commerce de la Constituante, de la Législative et de la Convention, 2 vols (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1907), II: 380 (séance de 17 août 1791).
Le Masson Le Golft, Entretien sur le Havre... Avec approbation, et permission (Le Havre: Chez les libraires, 1781); and her “Annales de jour à jour, ” BMR Ms. Y.45 [reprinted as Le Havre au jour le jour de 1778 à 1790: Édition du manuscrit “Annales depuis 1778” de Marie Le Masson Le Golft. . ., texte présenté et annoté par Philippe Manneville (Rouen: Société de l’histoire de Normandie, 1999)]. For more on Le Havre in the Atlantic slavetrading system, see Alan Forrest, The Death of the French Atlantic: Trade, War, and Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).
André Corvisier estimates Le Havre’s population at 14,653 for 1763, and 18,000 for 1787, in Histoire du Havre (Toulouse: Privat, 1983), 109. Arthur Young discusses meeting her in Le Havre in his travel narrative, published as Arthur Young’s Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, 1789, ed. Matilda Betham-Edwards (London: George Bell and Sons, 1909), available at https://archive.org/stream/arthuryoungstra00bethgoog/arthuryoungstra00bethgoog_djvu.txt). See discussions of other visitors in Oursel.
See her correspondence with them in BMR Ms. g. 15; and brief discussion of her election in James E. McClellan, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue in the Old Regime (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 237. Data on the Cercle’s composition is drawn from the Tableaux du Cercle des Philadelphes for 1787-91 (information courtesy of François Regourd).
Lucie Maquerlot, “L’opinion publique à Rouen et au Havre face aux questions de l’abolition de l’esclavage et de la traite des noirs, 1783 - 1794” (Mémoire de maîtrise, Université de Rouen, sous la dir. de Michel Zylberberg, 1997), 21-23; Le Masson Le Golft, “Coup d'œil sur l’état ancien et présent du Havre (1778),” BMR Ms. Y.45, fol. 371, cited in Maquerlot, 25; also Jean Legoy, “L’opinion publique au Havre face au problème de la liberté des Hommes de couleur et l’abolition de la traite des noirs,” Annales de Normandie 39, no. 2 (1989): 135 – 153; and Maquerlot, “Rouen et Le Havre face à la traite et à l’esclavage: le mouvement de l’opinion (1783 - 1794),” in Esclavage, résistances et abolitions, ed. Marcel Dorigny (Paris: CTHS, 1999), 165 – 186 [all subsequent citations of Maquerlot refer to the maîtrise]. The pacotille system is explained in more detail in Annika Raapke, “A Business for Everybody? Pacotille Economies in the Ancien Régime,” unpublished ms. (communicated to author).
Maquerlot, 38 – 45, 57 – 59; and Eric Wauters, “Le journal de Normandie (1785 - 1789), l’étranger et l’outre-mer: Les horizons géographiques d’un journal de province à la veille de la révolution,” Annales de Normandie 45, no. 3 (1995): 301–25.
Dicquemare’s drawing is conserved in BMR Mss. I.3 and I.22 (“Portefeuille inédit de M. l’abbé Dicquemare sur les Mollusques et autres parties de l’Histoire naturelle, terminé et rédigé par mademoiselle Le Masson Le Golft, son élève, membre de plusieurs académies”), Planche IV, fol. 767. See also Le Masson Le Golft’s comments on it at I. 22, fol. 19, and her grouping Dicquemare’s study of Geneviève alongside his work on “les fous” and other curiosities, in Le Masson Le Golft, Entretien sur le Havre, 149. Though Le Masson Le Golft labored to get Dicquemare’s drawing of the “négresse blanche” published with his other illustrations (see note 7), the project was never completed. More traces of Geneviève - and how she was made into an object of research - can be found in “Observation de l’abbé Dicquemare, sur une Négresse blanche/Planche 3,” in abbé Rozier, Observations sur la physique, sur l’histoire naturelle et sur les arts (mai 1777), 357 – 360, at https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k9602542z/f379.item.r=dicquemare. As Dicquemare described Geneviève, “this Négresse blanche appears timid like certain Nègres; her voice is soothing [douce] like theirs; she also has their smell, which is known to be different than that of whites.” He also suggested that she had “excited the curiosity” of local colonists in Martinique who thought that her uniqueness could “improve the fortunes of the people whose slave she then was” (358). After Dicquemare, other scientists were permitted to examine Geneviève. Buffon did so in April 1777, describing her in lascivious terms; see his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, servant de suite à l’histoire naturelle de l’homme... Supplément. Tome 3è (Amsterdam: JH Schneider, 1778), 268- 270, which includes a nude illustration of Geneviève, forced to pose in a way that elevated her breasts. See also Andrew Curran, “Rethinking Race History: The Role of the Albino in the French Enlightenment Life Sciences,” History and Theory (2009) 48, no. 3, 166-69; and Julia Douthwaite, The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 207-9.
Le Masson Le Golft’s seeking to publish Dicquemare’s drawing posthumously is also mentioned in Madeleine Pinault-Sorensen, “Les négresses blanches de l’abbé Dicquemare,” Études normandes 57, no. 2 (2008): 31-37. Pinault-Sorensen appraises Dicquemare’s and Le Masson Le Golft’s turning an enslaved woman into an object of study positively; she says it shows “un mouvement... pour l’homme noir, la couleur de sa peau, ses divers langues et sa civilisation.” This depiction of Le Masson Le Golft and Dicquemare as respectful of African culture does not fit with Le Masson Le Golft’s portrayal of Africans in her Esquisse d’un tableau général, nor with Dicquemare’s research as described above by Rozier.
Another trace of Geneviève can be found in Pierre Bardin, “La population noire dans le Paris du XVIIIème siècle,” Généalogie et Histoire de la Caraïbe (2015), https://www.ghcaraibe.org/articles/2015-art20.pdf. In his list of archives which offer evidence of Blacks in Paris, Bardin found a complaint Geneviève brought in 1781 (at age 22), against a man who had seduced, impregnated, and abandoned her. The document Bardin found (in the actes des Commissaires au Châtelet) indicates that, despite the freedom principle in the metropole, Geneviève remained enslaved; it names her enslaver as Mme de la Revellière. In 1800, the naturalist Jacques-Christophe Valmont de Bomare recalled that he had also examined Geneviève in 1778 and 1779 – and that “Mme ***, her maîtresse, tried unsuccessfully to place her among the rare animals in the Ménagerie de Chantilly” (Dictionnaire raisonné universel d’histoire naturelle, Nouvelle édition... Tome Neuvième [Lyon: Chez Bruyset Ainé, 1800], 197). I hope that more sources might be found about Geneviève; she deserves research centering her, in the way Robin Mitchell has been able to do for Sarah Baartman and other Black women in France, in Venus Noire: Black Woman and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020).
M. J. Guillaume, Procès-Verbaux du Comité d’Instruction publique de la Convention nationale (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1891 – 1907), 6 vols, III: 41, 45-46; IV: 56-57, 448; Le Masson Le Golft to Grégoire, 4 octobre [c. 1810/11], BSPR, GR 1580 ms. On Grégoire’s general sexism, see Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). On their continued friendship in the nineteenth century, see Grégoire’s letters to Le Masson Le Golft (11 août 1807, 31 août 1811, 23 février 1813, 26 novembre 1814, and 11 mars 1823) in BMR Ms. p. 119. Grégoire indicates that both he and Madame Dubois (his closest friend and “adopted mother”; see Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire, 98) missed Le Masson Le Golft and talked about her often. In 1823, when she had fallen on hard times, Grégoire and Madame Dubois sent her 400 francs, with assurances that she should not feel bad because, “in supposing the roles were reversed [I know that] you would do the same thing for us.” (11 mars 1823, BMR Ms. p. 119).
Le Masson Le Golft, Lettres relatives à l’éducation (Paris: Buisson, 1788), 105; also her Esquisse d’un tableau général du genre humain où l’on apperçoit... les religions et les mœurs des différents peuples, ... et les principales variétés de forme et de couleur de chacun d’eux . . . (Paris: Moithey, ) [BNF, Cartes et plans, Ge C 8674], explanatory text, pars. 4-5, and drawing of the garden of Eden framing the map. On differences between Buffonian and Linnean systems, see Phillip Sloan, “The Gaze of Natural History,” in Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, ed. Christopher Fox, Roy Porter, and Robert Wokler (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 112 – 151.
See Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (New York: Routledge, 1992), ch. 2; and Deborah Kennedy, Helen Maria Williams and the Age of Revolution (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2002), 41-44.
Christine Adams, A Taste for Comfort and Status: A Bourgeois Family in Eighteenth-Century France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 203-4; Stephen Auerbach, "Encourager le commerce et répandre les lumières”: The Press, the Provinces and the Origins of the Revolution in France, 1750-1789,” Ph. D. diss., Louisiana State University, 2001.
On Enlightenment ambiguity about racial difference, see Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des lumières: Buffon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Helvétius, Diderot (Paris: F. Maspero, 1971); Jean-Henri-Samuel Formey, “Nègre,” Encyclopédie XI: 76, at https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/encyclopedie1117/navigate/11/438/; Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Romain, “Nègres,” Encyclopédie XI: 80-3, at https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/encyclopedie1117/navigate/11/441/; and Bernard Gainot, Marcel Dorigny, Jean Ehrard and Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, “Lumières et esclavages,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 380 (juin 2015): 149–69.
McClellan, Colonialism and Science, 239. He adds that “The Cercle’s involvement with slavery clearly reveals an institution committed to employing its resources and the resources of science to conserve and enhance rather than to challenge the existing colonial system in prerevolutionary Saint Domingue.”
Le Masson Le Golft, Lettres relatives à l’éducation, 148. See her featuring her association with the Cercle in both of her publications after her election, the Esquisse d’un tableau général and Lettres relatives à l’éducation.
See Arthur H. Robinson, Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), which suggests that ethnographic maps were not developed until at least 1806 (137); and Josef W. Konvitz, Cartography in France, 1660-1848: Science, Engineering, and Statecraft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), which calls the Esquisse one of the “most curious and original early thematic maps” in France (125).
See praise from the Cercle des Philadelphes in Arthaud to LMLG, 1786, BMR Ms. g. 15, fol. 119; “Paragraphe d’une lettre de l’Académie royale des belles-lettres d’Arras,” 8 octobre 1786, in Lettres relatives à l’éducation, xvi; Léon-Noël Berthe, Dictionnaire des correspondants de l’Académie d’Arras au temps de Robespierre (Arras: chez l’auteur, 1969), 141; and Dubois de Fosseux to Le Masson Le Golft, 1786, BMR Ms. g. 15, fol. 117. See also the open letter by the map’s engraver [Maurille Antoine] Moithey, Lettre de M. Moithey à Mlle. Lemasson Legolft, du cercle des philadelphes, &c. sur l’esquisse de son tableau général du Genre humain ([Paris]: Laporte, 1785). The map was also lauded in the Journal encyclopédique ou universel (fév. 1786) II, pt. 1, 171, as innovative and “extremely useful, especially for [teaching] young people”; and in the Mercure français (7 janv. 1786), 190-191, which called it innovative in offering learners a sweeping overview of the peoples of the world.
See Julia Clancy-Smith, “The ‘Passionate Nomad’ Reconsidered: A European Woman in l’Algérie Française (Isabelle Eberhardt, 1877-1904),” in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, eds. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 61-78.
On other women members, see A. J. Dugour, “Séance publique de la société des amis des noirs et des colonies,” Chronique universelle, no. 2219 : 2-3; and “Noms des personnes reçues membres de la Société des amis des noirs et des colonies pendant les mois de Brumaire et frimaire, an VII” (BSPR, GR 4262 ms). Grégoire does not seem to have thought to invite her into the SANC, though they were friends at the time.
On this issue more generally, see Yves Benot, La démence coloniale sous Napoléon (Paris: La Découverte, 1991), 307 and passim; Marcel Dorigny, “La Société des Amis des Noirs et les projets de colonisation en Afrique,” in Révolutions aux colonies (Paris: AHRF/Société des Études Robespierristes, 1993), 85 – 93; and Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution, ch. 6.