The word ‘slave’ has been used to mean different things in many different languages. I was immediately questioned on my own usage of the term following a paper I presented last week on the subversive potential of costuming as colonial resistance at the Royal Holloway Postgraduate Colloquium. I had to admit that in my translation of various other French terms to describe the actors on France’s colonial stage in preparation for the paper, I had became acutely aware of the need to explain these labels in all their detail.
Since the colloquium I have been considering whether it is appropriate to use ‘slave’ in the context of writing about resistance to slavery in the French colonies in the eighteenth century. Surely if my aim is to avoid repeating the colonists’ version of history I should stay clear of terms used by colonial writers in the eighteenth century. Currently I use ‘slave’ and ‘enslaved people’ interchangeably in my written analysis of archival sources. Yet to differentiate between these terms seems important, particularly as I refer to the different categories of divergence from this forced status in colonial Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe and Martinique. My preference for the French terms, such as ‘gens de couleur’, ‘affranchis’ or ‘marrons’, in designating these social roles also seems to work as a distancing mechanism, invoking the spatial specificity but also the ways in which the archive fixes such discourse in time.
The ‘en’ of ‘enslaved’ implies a process. It is a transitive prefix for what can be considered a transitional process of becoming the material property of white enslavers. The word ‘slave’, as many have argued, does not adequately describe the power struggle involved in the resistance and submission of African and Creole people transported to the Caribbean. Much of the secondary material I draw on (Jenson, Fouchard, Dubois), utilizes the word ‘slave’ or ‘esclave’ without problematizing the term itself. While ‘slave’ implies the dehumanizing condition of bondage, can it or any word be employed to describe the realities of this condition, which is often very difficult to determine given the bias of archival sources.
There have been numerous discussion threads between academics around the use of this contentious word (see in particular the H-Net listserv) and a common argument is that, whichever term is employed, importance should be placed on explaining slavery in all its detail. This however does not seem enough, and the question of my own employment of ‘slave’ made me think of the ‘Mango-esclave‘ episode earlier this year, as a reminder of the power of language. The jewellery line, by Spanish clothing brand ‘Mango’, included a ‘slave necklace’ or ‘collier style esclave’ provoking a torrent of protest back in March, including an online petition. Mango apologized and put it down to a translation error.
Reactions to the insensitivity of adopting the word as a descriptor of a certain style seem to further suggest such a term is in need of decolonization. This is an example of how colonial discourse, both aesthetic and linguistic, gets repeated and internalised over time. Decolonizing the word therefore proves crucial, not only when discussing agency within the context of the eighteenth century, but also as part of a long-term political process of emancipation in order to move beyond simple dichotomies of slave vs. master and slavery vs. freedom.