The Teaching Religious Orders and Slave Emancipation in Martinique
The religious orders “Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne” and “Soeurs de St
Joseph de Cluny” educated and Christianized male and female children of the enslaved and freedmen in the period of “amelioration of slavery” and after the abolition of slavery (1848) in the French overseas colonies. They were asked to do so by the French governments of 1830 and 1848, which also financed the teaching members of both orders. The male Teaching Order also preached to the enslaved in the fields. Both orders, like the Moravians, were not guided by abolitionist principles, in contrast to the abolitionist Baptists and Wesleyans. Their activities served to stabilize the social order of slavery. Independently of this, the evangelization of the enslaved included an emancipatory potential, as its basis was the affirmation of the humanity of the enslaved in a society where slaves were chattels by law. The social relations of the Sisters of St Joseph were marked by a greater distance from the slaves than those of the Brothers, as they were more closely connected with the interests of the white elite through their boarding school for the daughters of planters. Whereas the Brothers of Ploërmel reacted with a combination of joy and doubt to the abolition of slavery, the members of the female order saw the end of slavery above all as a threat to the social order and to their own economic interests.
The reports of both orders are a very useful source for the social history of the slave society in its last decade and the post-emancipation society on the island. Indirectly, these sources also allow us reconstruct the adaptive and resistant strategies of emancipation of (former) slaves who used the education received in the schools of the religious orders as a tool of social advancement. That is why the colonial government restricted the access to those schools, as it wanted, like the planters, former slaves stay dependent and underpaid fieldworkers.