Locating Enslaved Black Wet Nurses in the Literature of French Slavery

Locating Enslaved Black Wet Nurses in the Literature of French Slavery

“Enslaved women and their children enter the archives in little more than fragments.”1

In George Sand’s 1832 idealist novel, Indiana, the eponymous protagonist is raised alongside her sœur de lait or “milk sister” Noun in the French Indian Ocean colony of Île Bourbon (present day Réunion). A “milk sister” was the daughter of the often enslaved wet nurse, and under French slave laws, children of enslaved women carried the enslaved status of their mothers. Since Sand emphasizes Noun’s mixed-race features throughout the novel, we can assume that she is the child of a coerced sexual encounter between her mother and a planter.

Even though the colonial kinship between these two women is a major aspect of the novel’s plot, Noun’s enslaved mother is nameless and mostly absent from the novel. In the few instances she is mentioned, her breast milk is regarded as a colonial commodity for the nourishment of Indiana, whose family owns the plantation on Île Bourbon. Sand’s exclusion of Noun’s mother thus raises questions about the novel’s plot, the colonial setting, and its colonial characters.

Scholars of George Sand have frequently characterized Indiana as an abolitionist text since Indiana and her husband Ralph liberate the enslaved persons working on their plantation at the end of the novel.2 Except for Noun, Sand presents the enslaved as a homogenous group, without any subjectivity. And so if Noun is the only enslaved character named in the novel, where is her mother, the wet nurse, who makes Noun’s relationship to Indiana possible? Did Sand really lack for models of enslaved wet nurses when conceiving of her novel? While we cannot know Sand’s intent, the case of Noun’s missing mother in the literary realm still represents the potential to locate individual enslaved wet nurses in other sources. The literary-historical archives of French letters, for example, show us that enslaved wet nurses make many appearances in penal and medical records as well as didactic fiction. In all of these sources, like with Noun and her mother, either the mother or their children remain unaccounted for in the violence of the archive.

Painting of an enslaved black woman breastfeeding a white infant while a black infant is on the floor at her feet.
Mae preta. (African Globe)

Historians of Atlantic history and the African Diaspora have begun revisiting colonial texts to shift the archive’s gaze and grant subjectivity to women for whom it was perpetually denied.3 Historian Marisa Fuentes convincingly argues that by “changing the perspective of a document’s author to that of an enslaved subject, questioning the archive’s veracity and filling out miniscule fragmentary mentions […] our historical intervention shifts to the enslaved viewpoint in important ways.”4

This project entails not only accounting for the mere presence of enslaved women, but the full potential of their humanity. For, as Sasha Turner writes: “[delving] into enslaved women’s emotional lives … peels away another layer in understanding slavery as more than just corporeal exhibitions of violence.”5 Analyzing traditional historical documents like port records in conjunction with literary sources like didactic fiction opens up new spaces for the thoughts, fears, and lived conditions of enslaved wet nurses in the French Empire.

Imprisoning Enslaved Wet Nurses in Nantes

Towards the end of the 1770s, the number of people of color in France, both free(d) and enslaved, totaled around 5,000. Most arrived to the colonial metropole as contraband, as their owners did not declare their presence when returning from a stint in the Caribbean.6 Erick Noël reveals in his study of enslaved Africans in Nantes, one of the most active slave ports along the French Atlantic coast, that the Admiralty Court held individuals in captivity in the Bouffay prison until their owners paid importation taxes and duties.7 Other times, officials deported enslaved people back to the Americas.

Among the enslaved persons who found themselves in this geographic limbo were the wet nurses Julienne, Laurence, Clère, and Félicité whose occupation afforded them a particular physical mobility in late 1780s Nantes. Both Julienne and Laurence were detained because their master, Monsieur Ballast, was delinquent on his taxes, yet they obtained the legal right to leave the prison during the day to feed Ballast’s children. Clère and Félicité were authorized to not only feed their owner’s children, those of M. De Berniole, but were rented out to feed M. Mosneron’s children as well.8

While it is unclear as to whether these women were released on their own recognizance or if their owners escorted them, they were granted an intermediate legal status in Nantes, neither imprisoned nor free. Equally unclear is whether all of these women were separated from their biological children from the point when they left the colony, whether their enslaved children resided with their masters in Nantes, or whether they were even still alive.

Emotional Manipulation and the Didactic Use of Enslaved Wet Nurses

Enslaved wet nurses in the Caribbean and in France’s other overseas colonies possessed an intimate knowledge of plants, local culture, and medicine. White French writers both born in France and in the Caribbean also portrayed wet nurses as a literary trope, as centers of care and sacrifice for the children under their watch. The anonymously published Le nouveau Momus français (The New French Momus)included a series of stories concerning slavery. In one, the short tale “La Négresse nourice [sic]” (The Black Wet Nurse), the author describes the story of an unnamed wet nurse in Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) who dies after allegedly saving the master’s child during an earthquake in 1770.

A brief short story in French, copied from a document published in 1800.
Anonymous, “La Négresse nourice.” (Paris: Chez Moutardier, 1800)

The enslaved woman was alone with the white child she was nursing when the house began to shake. As everyone outside ran for cover, the wet nurse held the child in her arms while the house fell down on top of her, which she endured, according to the narrator, “with heroic courage.” For the modern reader, the woman’s courage is no doubt a case of tragic irony in a volume of stories intended to “refresh [readers’] blood by making them laugh.”9

At the end of the story, the wet nurse dies days after the quake as a “victim of her generosity.” Even though the woman is able to behave generously, she is incapable of sadness and sorrow. For instance, we also have no idea whether her own children were alive before or after the earthquake. The author of the story essentially monopolizes the emotional pain of enslaved mothers by assuming that the death of this woman is more painful than the daily violence of caring for a child that is not her own. Ultimately supporting the colonial argument that the enslaved would naturally obey their owners, the story not only denies the enslaved the potential for subjective thinking and behavior, it also participates in the colonial disavowal of slave revolt and resistance.

Back to the Archive; or Complicating Literary-Historical Narratives

Real and fictional models of enslaved wet nurses existed for George Sand to craft Noun’s mother in Indiana. Sand could have created a separate plot-line that explained the intricacies of Noun’s mother’s situation in particular and the status of enslaved wet nurses in French law more generally. Or, as “The Black Wet Nurse” reveals, Sand might have cast Noun’s mother aside, yet again, as a didactic rhetorical device to draw even more attention to the potential “plight” of free white and creole characters in this colonial narrative. As with other abolitionist literature of the nineteenth century, Sand falls into the same dynamic where enslaved persons are used as plot devices to signal a moral imperative to absolve a white, literate, metropolitan audience.

Where Le Nouveau Momus denies interiority for enslaved women, including even a name, Erick Noël’s work suggests that re-examining archival documents like inmate lists and tax records may help grant subjectivity to women lost in the machinations of colonialism in the Atlantic world. By attending to the emotional capacities and the realities of enslaved wet nurses, we can better understand the complicated, interwoven history of breastfeeding and slavery in France as well as in its former colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere.10


  1. Sasha Turner, “The Nameless and the Forgotten: Maternal Grief, Sacred Protection, and the Archive of Slavery,” Slavery & Abolition 38, no. 2 (2017): 232. Return to text.
  2. Margaret Cohen, The Sentimental Education of the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002) 153-162; K. Adele Okoli, “‘Que ne sommes-nous assez riches’: Colonialist Reverie in George Sand’s Indiana,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 44, no. 3 & 4 (2016): 201-203. Return to text.
  3. See, for example, Ashley D. Farmer, “In Search of the Black Women’s History Archive,” Modern American History, 2018, 1–5; and Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). Return to text.
  4. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 4. Return to text.
  5. Turner, “The Nameless and Forgotten,” 234. See also, Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016). Return to text.
  6. Erick Nöel, “Noirs Dans Les Prisons de Nantes,” Cahiers Des Anneaux de La Mémoire, no. 10 (2007): 201. Return to text.
  7. In the context of French Atlantic slavery, it was rather uncommon for enslaved persons to be imprisoned as a form of punishment because Black Codes, like the French Code Noir, either condemned slaves to death or legislated certain forms of bodily torture. Return to text.
  8. Only seven of the forty-three wet nurses fell in to the same category as Clère and Félicité, so most wet nurses served only one family at a time. Nöel, “Noirs Dans Les Prisons de Nantes,” 206-7. Return to text.
  9. Le Nouveau Momus Français: Ou Recueil Contenant Tout Ce Qu’il y a de plus Agréable et de plus Amusant En Fait d’anecdotes, Aventures, Bons Mots, Facéties … (Paris: Chez Moutardier, 1800) iv. Return to text.
  10. For crucial recent studies of wet nurses in the Antebellum US south and Latin America see the special issue of Slavery and AbolitionMothering Slaves: Motherhood, Childlessness and the Care of Children in Atlantic Slave Societies” 38, no.2; and Emily West, “Mothers Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South,” The Journal of Southern History LXXXIII, no. 1 (2017): 37–68. Return to text.

Featured image caption: P. J. Benoit and P. Lauters, “Laitière et négresses portant du lait” from Voyage a Surinam description des possessions néerlandaises dans la Guyane, 1839. (Courtesy Bibliotheque Numerique Caribe Amazonie Plateau des Guyanes)

Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and performance from the colonial era to the present. He is a content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. He is also the co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation,” which interviews translators of Haitian writing. Nathan has published articles, reviews, and translations in journals such as sx archipelagos, the Journal of Haitian Studies, Contemporary French Civilization, and sx salon.