In the early 1780s, Jeanne Elisabeth Fourniols’s husband, Jean Descordes (an attorney and planter), dissipated their fortune through gambling and was convicted of fraud in the French Caribbean colony of 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 Fourniols handle such financial and familial calamity? And how could they recover, at least in part, the assets and livelihoods that their husbands squandered?

Risks & Realities evaluates the complex, but largely unknown, personal financial relationships among family members (and sometimes non-related investors and officials) that were stretched across France’s early modern and revolutionary-era empire. These spanned West Indian plantation colonies, such as Martinique and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), and English America, where ne’er-do-well spouses hid from abandoned family members (and creditors). Some French family enterprises also became anchored in North American ports, such as Philadelphia and Charleston, and in Indian Ocean plantation colonies, such as Île de France and Île Bourbon. Analyzing previously untapped cases of marital abandonment and accidental death, this book delves into the lives of the people, especially women, who maintained a global early modern economy one family enterprise at a time over the course of the long eighteenth century.

Risks & Realities appraises the effects of death, natural disasters, and other catastrophes on these people and considers how credit enabled (and sometimes wrecked) their enterprises. It proposes that, while families sought to grow the fortunes they had made and lost, an emerging French state gained a vested interest in the failure, not just the success, of global family enterprises through passive state income generated by unclaimed successions. It thus seeks to inscribe upon the history of global capitalism the growth of cash-strapped imperial states, such as France. This growth depended upon the surprising and enduring contributions of groups—such as women, transient traders, and slaves—who built flexible and durable informal economies, but could also be captured by state treasuries when abandoned in the wake of disaster.

Embracing the global scope of family enterprises, it charts a new method for reconstructing histories from the fleeting impressions that these lives have left in the archives by assessing and synthesizing hitherto under-utilized civil litigation (especially regarding inheritances and mortgages) for the French Antilles and Mascarenes in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans respectively. Dense, but untapped archival collections document the grueling efforts of women like Fourniols to get compensated (or at legal title) for property they had rightfully inherited, claimed, or sold. Overcoming challenges such as legal status and race (for women of color), distance, and state incentives to acquire unclaimed family assets, they fought long civil (and sometimes criminal) legal battles to win property rights.

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