Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Columbia University
Formally Free: Regulating Labor After Slavery in the French Empire, 1848–1914

My dissertation is a historical study of legal and extralegal practices regulating labor in the French empire from the abolition of slavery in 1848 to the First World War. Existing literature locates the emergence of French labor law in metropolitan France. I situate this development within the broader French imperial context, critically interrogating categories such as national space, national economy, and the rule of law. My work seeks to uncover how work after slavery produced both objects and social relations – marketable commodities, for instance – as well as racialized, gendered, and classed divisions of labor across the empire. I argue that the body of jurisprudence now known as French labor law, first codified in 1910, must be understood within global transformations in imperial capitalism and governance in the later nineteenth century. The central object of my study is the political, legal, and social project, led by state and private actors, to define work and manage production across the French empire. This project was shot through with incompatible aspirations for how the ‘putting to work,’ or mise au travail, should be accomplished. It was also the site of constant struggle between those formulating regulations and those to whom they applied, with day laborers and peasants on the front lines of resistance. Using a novel combination of sources – disciplinary proceedings, local decrees, cartographic evidence, and property records, set alongside ministerial directives and legislation – I account for unevenness in how labor law devised in the metropole was applied and adapted, and in many cases contravened and abandoned, in four post-slavery settings: Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, and La Réunion. I seek to clarify the ways in which metropolitan labor law underwrote a highly racialized division of labor which perdures to the present day.