I felt familiar enough with US slave history and current international human trafficking to believe I was reasonably well informed about slavery before reading Madeleine's Children by Sue Peabody. But I had no idea how much I didn't know about the complexity of the institution until I read this book. The subtitle is Family, Freedom, Secrets, and Lies in France's Indian Ocean Colonies and indeed, all those elements are vital to this story.
Peabody spent a decade researching one enslaved man and his very long battle to free himself using the legal system. Furcy Madeleine chose his mother's first name for his last, presumably to honor her. He is well known and greatly admired in the islands where he lived (Reunion and Mauritius) for winning his legal freedom.
In the process of her research, Peabody uncovered information about his mother Madeleine, sister Constance, and others. Much of the book provides a macro view of the forces that impacted each family member. Peabody was able to discover many surprising details from her research based on her trips across the globe to find and study original source documents. There are nearly 900 citations that comprise the final third of the book for those who want to dig deeper. It is a remarkable achievement of scholarly research about a population who suffered the horrors of slavery while seldom having their stories told. Peabody has done more than anyone else to tell as much of the history as anyone possibly could of this one remarkable family. As stated in the book, it is "the first full-length biographical history to explore what it meant to be a slave and to become free in France's Indian Ocean colonies."