In 1719, a ship named La Mutine (the mutinous woman), sailed from the French port of Le Havre, bound for the Mississippi. It was loaded with urgently needed goods for the fledgling French colony, but its principal commodity was a new kind of export: women. Falsely accused of sex crimes, these women were prisoners, shackled in the ship’s hold. Of the 132 women who were sent this way, only 62 survived. But these women carved out a place for themselves in the colonies that would have been impossible in France, making advantageous marriages and accumulating property.
Gripping from its opening scene ... Through astounding research in French and Louisiana archives, including police files from the women’s arrests and trials, Ms. DeJean, a French literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reconstructs the lives of nearly every one of these largely unknown women ... Ms. DeJean uses her knowledge as a scholar of early modern France to great effect. Paris comes alive as a place where women and men lived and died, trying to take care of themselves and their families ... By discovering these poor women from the colonial past, Mutinous Women conveys a fascinating history and a reminder that all kinds of people helped to build what became the United States.
Working with a chaotic and often confusing historical record, DeJean traces the constellation of forces — including avarice, corruption and misogyny — that permitted the rapid roundup of another 96 or so female prisoners to be transported in the dank hold of La Mutine. The horrific conditions of the women’s journey, and the will to survive that must have sustained them when they were set down, largely without resources, in a barren, swampy, inhospitable land, are evoked in vivid detail ... Perhaps it’s inevitable that a group portrait of some 130 women, all of them with complex back stories, many with multiple marriages, and seemingly half of them named Marie, is stymied by problems of pacing, repetition and narrative structure. For me, keeping the women’s identities straight as they reappeared over the course of DeJean’s nearly 400 pages proved challenging ... Did any of them dream of a life beyond the harsh confines of frontier hearth and home? DeJean offers us tantalizing glimpses of such aspirations ... I longed to hear Baron’s and other women’s voices, to find them taking on more flesh and character, but perhaps that would take a novelist’s skill ... hugely ambitious, sometimes unwieldy.
DeJean does a wonderful job of tracing the lives of these women through government and parish records, plotting their marriages, deaths, births and financial fortunes through succeeding decades ... The level of detail in this scrupulously researched tale makes for slow reading at times but it brings to light the contribution of these formidable women to the early history of Gulf Coast France, a contribution till now has largely swept under the carpet. A fascinating book for history lovers, not just academics.