Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in French and Spanish slave colonies of North America (including the Caribbean) by which ethnic European men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of color, of African, Native American and mixed-race descent. The term comes from the French placer meaning "to place with". The women were not legally recognized as wives but were known as placées; their relationships were recognized among the free people of color as mariages de la main gauche or left-handed marriages. They became institutionalized with contracts or negotiations that settled property on the woman and her children, and in some cases gave them freedom if enslaved. The system flourished throughout the French and Spanish colonial periods, reaching its zenith during the latter, between 1769 and 1803.
It was most practiced in New Orleans, where planter society had created enough wealth to support the system. It also took place in the Latin-influenced cities of Natchez and Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; St. Augustine and Pensacola, Florida; as well as Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Plaçage became associated with New Orleans as part of its cosmopolitan society.
The plaçage system developed from the predominance of men among early colonial populations, who took women as consorts from Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Later there developed a class of free people of color in Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, during the colonial years, from whom wealthy men would choose. In this period there was a shortage of European women, as the colonies were dominated in the early day by male explorers and colonists. Given the harsh conditions in Louisiana, persuading women to follow the men was not easy. France recruited willing farm- and city-dwelling women, known as casket or casquette girls, because they brought all their possessions to the colonies in a small trunk or casket. France also sent females convicted along with their debtor husbands, and in 1719, deported 209 women felons "who were of a character to be sent to the French settlement in Louisiana." (France also relocated young women orphans known as filles du roi to their colonies for marriage: to both Canada and Louisiana.)
Historian Joan Martin maintains that there is little documentation that 'casket girls,' considered among the ancestors of white French Creoles, were brought to Louisiana. (The Ursuline order of nuns that supposedly chaperoned the arrivals until they married has denied this as any practice they followed.) Martin suggests this was a myth, and that interracial relationships occurred from the beginning of the encounter among Europeans, Native Americans and Africans. She also writes that some Creole families who today identify as white had ancestors during the colonial period who were African or mixed-race, and whose descendants married white over generations.
Through warfare and raids, Native American women were often captured to be traded, sold, or taken as wives. At first, the colony generally imported male Africans to use as slave labor because of the heavy work of clearing to develop plantations. Over time, it also imported African female slaves. Marriage between the races was forbidden according to the Code Noir of the eighteenth century, but interracial sex continued. The upper class European men during this period often did not marry until their late twenties or early thirties. Premarital sex with an intended white bride, especially if she was of high rank, was not permitted socially.
White male colonists, often the younger sons of noblemen, military men, and planters, who needed to accumulate some wealth before they could marry, took women of color as consorts before marriage. Merchants and administrators also followed this practice if they were wealthy enough. A white man might take a slave as young as twelve as a lover. When the women bore children, they were sometimes emancipated along with their children. Both the woman and her children might take the surnames of the man. When Creole men reached an age when they were expected to marry, some also kept their relationships with their placées, but this was less common. A wealthy white Creole man could have two (or more) families: one legal, and the other not. Their mixed-race children became the nucleus of the class of free people of color or gens de couleur libres in Louisiana and Saint-Domingue. After the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many refugees came to New Orleans, adding a new wave of French-speaking free people of color. During the period of French and Spanish rule, the gens de couleur came to constitute a third class in New Orleans and other former French cities - between the white Creoles and the mass of black slaves. They had certain status and rights, and often acquired education and property. Later their descendants became leaders in New Orleans, holding political office in the city and state, and becoming part of what developed as the black middle class in the United States.
By 1788, 1,500 Creole women of color and black women were being maintained by white men. Certain customs had evolved. It was common for a wealthy, married Creole to live primarily outside New Orleans on his plantation with his white family. He often kept a second address in the city to use for entertaining and socializing among the white elite. He had built or bought a house for his placée and their children. She and her children were part of the society of Creoles of color. The white world might not recognize the placée as a wife legally and socially, but she was recognized as such among the Creoles of color. Some of the women acquired slaves and plantations. Particularly during the Spanish colonial era, a woman might be listed as owning slaves; these were sometimes relatives who she intended to free after earning enough money to buy their freedom.
While in New Orleans (or other cities), the man would cohabit with the placée as an official 'boarder' at her Creole cottage or house. Many were located near Rampart Street in New Orleans —once the demarcation line or wall between the city and the frontier. Other popular neighborhoods for Creoles of color were the Faubourg Marigny and Tremé. If the man was not married, he might keep a separate residence, preferably next door or in the same or next block as his placée. He often took part in and arranged for the upbringing and education of their children. For a time both boys and girls were educated in France, as there were no schools in New Orleans for mixed-race children. As supporting such a plaçage arrangement(s) ran into thousands of dollars per year, it was limited to the wealthy.
Upon the death of her protector, the placée and her family could, on legal challenge, expect up to a third of the man's property. Some white lovers tried, and succeeded, in making their mixed-race children primary heirs over other white descendants or relatives. The women in these relationships often worked to develop assets: acquiring property, running a legitimate rooming-house, or a small business as a hairdresser, marchande (female street or country merchant/vendor), or a seamstress. She could also become a placée to another white Creole. She sometimes taught her daughters to become placées, by education and informal schooling in dress, comportment, and ways to behave. A mother negotiated with a young man for the dowry or property settlement, sometimes by contract, for her daughter if a white Creole were interested in her. A former placée could also marry or to cohabit with a Creole man of color and have more children.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, placées were not and did not become prostitutes. Creole men of color objected to the practice as denigrating the virtue of Creole women of color, but some, as descendants of white males, benefited by the transfer of social capital. Martin writes, "They did not choose to live in concubinage; what they chose was to survive."
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after Reconstruction and with the re-assertion of white supremacy across the former Confederacy, the white Creole historians, Charles Gayarré and Alcée Fortier, wrote histories that did not address plaçage in much detail. They suggested that little race mixing had occurred during the colonial period, and that the placées had seduced or led white Creole men astray. (Gayarré, when younger, was said to have taken a woman of color as his placée and she had their children to his later shame. He married a white woman late in life. His earlier experience inspired his novel, Fernando de Lemos). They wrote that the French Creoles (in the sense of having long been native to Louisiana) were ethnic Europeans who were threatened by the spectre of race-mixing like other Southern whites.
In his 1787 analysis of the Code Noir's significance, Louis Sala-Molins claimed that its two primary objectives were to assert French sovereignty in her colonies and to secure the future of the cane sugar plantation economy. Central to these goals was control of the slave trade. The Code aimed to provide a legal framework for slavery, to establish protocols governing the conditions of colonial inhabitants, and to end the illegal slave trade. Religious morals also governed the crafting of the Code Noir; it was in part a result of the influence of the influx of Catholic leaders arriving in Martinique between 1673 and 1685.
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