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French Professor Edits 19th-Century French Play on Slave Trading

September 3, 2008

Professor Barbara T. Cooper, of the department of languages, literatures and cultures, has recently edited “La Traite des Noirs” (The Slave Trade), a 19th-century French melodrama set in the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion and Madagascar that were, at the time, French colonial possessions.

The play, written by Charles Desnoyer and Jules-Édouard Alboize du Pujol, was first staged in Paris in 1835 with spectacular special effects including shipwrecks and naval battles. Cooper’s edition is part of the “Autrement mêmes” collection published by the Editions L’Harmattan in Paris.

This reedition of “La Traite des Noirs”, which includes a lengthy introduction, a number of previously unpublished documents, and several  19th- century illustrations, shows how the play fits within the literary and political context of its time.

“Although the French had officially abolished slave trading in 1814,” Cooper notes, “clandestine slave trading continued for some time afterward.  La Traite was clearly meant as a protest against the ineffectiveness of the government’s efforts to disrupt slave trafficking. It is also very much a work of popular entertainment, rather like Spielberg’s film “Amistad.” 

The creation of La Traite figures in the history of French maritime fiction as well.  Inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper, maritime novels were particularly in vogue in France in the 1830s.  New periodicals devoted to geography, maritime travel, and global exploration likewise found willing readers.

Cooper’s edition of “La Traite des Noirs” joins Jules Barbier’s “Cora, ou l’Esclavage” (Cora, or Slavery), a 19th-century French drama set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which Cooper published in 2006 with the Editions L’Harmattan. Cooper has also edited Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” for the Barnes and Noble Classics Series and several scholarly works.  She is the author of numerous scholarly articles on 19th-century French literature and drama.

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