In the early 1640s, Françoise d’Aubigné moved with her father (newly released from prison) to the Caribbean colony of Martinique. Following a dream of colonial riches, d’Aubigné’s father repeatedly tried, but failed, to make a fortune: as a trader, a property-owner, and a planter. Dragged with her father around the Atlantic amidst these pursuits, Françoise finally returned France as an orphan. In the early 1780s, Jeanne Elisabeth Fourniols’s husband, Jean Descordes (a lawyer and planter), dissipated their fortune through gambling and was convicted of fraud in Martinique. Before he could be sentenced, however, he ran away to New England and disappeared, though rumors circulated that he had landed in Bordeaux, France where he was living under a pseudonym.

How did early modern women such as d’Aubigné and Fourniols handle such financial and familial calamity? And how could they recover, at least in part, the assets and livelihoods that their fathers and husbands squandered? D’Aubigné vaulted herself, via a good marriage and better social connections, to a place next to the king of France. She became Louis XIV’s favorite mistress and later his secret wife. Fourniols leveraged her established trading family to pursue Descordes to the highest courts of France. Many other women died alone and destitute.

Risks & Realities evaluates unexplored personal financial relationships within families (and their associates) that were stretched across France’s early modern empire, concentrated in Atlantic and Indian Ocean colonies. Wealth enabled by credit and generated by enslaved labor fueled the emergence of a global capitalist economy: a well-known story. But more often, wealth vanished through death, natural disasters, and financial catastrophes–as d’Aubigné and Fourniols knew well. Their lives, documented alongside cases of marital abandonment and accidental death, together attest to the disconnections that were endemic to early modern colonial enterprises. Such evidence foregrounds the widows and orphans who sought to recover from disaster. These heirs reckoned with rapacious relatives and an emerging but indebted French state, which increasingly sought to capture abandoned property and related assets. The French state thereby developed a perverse interest in the failure, not just the success, of its subjects.

See also: Recovering the Debris of Fortunes between France and Its Colonies in the 18th Century. Journal of Social History 51, no. 4 (Summer 2018). doi:10.1093/jsh/shw135.


– Detail, Map of Mascarene Islands: Reunion, Mauritius, Rodrigues, Rigoberto Bonne and Guillaume Raynal, 1780