An example among others: the French Empire

Several studies, including the seminal work by Emmanuelle Saada, offer a fairly accurate picture of the way in which the law took up the question, and of the practices that were used in the French Empire. Nevertheless, there are still blind spots, such as the history of mixed-race riflemen and Indochinese women, some of whom were taken to Africa and others of whom remained in Indochina, even though there was a massive repatriation of mixed-race French colonial or military men and Indochinese women to metropolitan France. Angle mort is also, to our knowledge, the case of North Africa.

The children born of these “mixed” unions were very rarely recognized by their fathers, fathers who most of the time abandoned them by changing jobs or returning to France. There were of course exceptions, such as Albert Nebout who returned to France with his “mousso” partner and their five children, or the colonial administrator Henri d’Arboussier who brought back his two children at the end of the First World War and gave them a brilliant education. The rule was therefore to leave these children on the soil where they had been conceived. The State made an issue of it, and sometimes took them away from their mothers, wanting to make them Europeans because of the “white blood” that ran in their veins. It was in a way the “one drop rule” reversed.  The fact remains that the half-breeds posed a problem for the imperial administrations: what to do with these children? Were they “natives” in the statutory sense of the term? In many cases, the children of these unions between colonizers and colonized were placed in “orphanages for half-breeds” to be raised in the European way. Today, some of them are asking for reparation. Specialized associations were concerned with their fate. Several works are interested more or less precisely in these orphanages, such as the studies of Owen White or Rachel Jean-Baptiste.

Legislation was enacted alternately in Indochina, French West Africa (AOF), Madagascar and French Equatorial Africa (AEF), and New Caledonia, legislation that introduced race into French law for the first time, as Emmanuelle Saada has shown. The legal status of mixed-race children born in the colonies to legally unknown parents was established first in Indochina in 1928, then in the French West Indies (AOF) by the decree of 5 September 1930, in the colony of Madagascar by the decree of 21 July 1931, and in the French West Indies (AEF) by a decree of 13 September 1936. But mestizos had, much earlier, been the object of investigations and attention, if not of various concerns. The Anthropological Society of Paris, for example, had sent a detailed questionnaire on mestizos to William Ponty, Governor General of the French West Indies, as early as 1908, asking him to pass it on to the appropriate people. The results of the survey were published in the Revue Anthropologique in 1912. Miscegenation was defined as follows:

“One must understand, in a general way, by mestizo the individuals coming from the union of 2 persons belonging to clearly different races. Rejecting any a priori theory on the origin of human types, we understand by pure race any ethnic type currently well constituted and sufficiently stable to have deserved a definite appellation. We therefore call miscegenation the unions between White and Negro, Yellow and White, Negro and American Indian, European and Hindu, Semite and European, Negro and Chinese, etc.”

The administrators’ responses mostly reflected their embarrassment in describing and identifying mestizos:

“Slightly dark colored skin”; “Very white colored skin”; “Dark complexion”; “Very dark skin”; “Very white”; “Dark”; “Light complexion”; “As dark as his mother’s”; “Fairly light complexion”; “Very white”; “Light yellowish-brown skin”; “Fairly light skin”; “Very black skin”; “Brown skin.”

Since color was obviously not an indicator, the Empire, in order to “unmask” mestizos, or rather those who claimed to be mestizos and were not, instituted various protocols, such as medical examinations and certificates, and in a general way, endeavored to deal with this “question”, which it had in fact invented.