Actes d’individualité

A few nights ago I resumed an online investigation that, to this point, had been a wild goose chase. I was simply hoping to find a contact from whom I could request records from Martinique, as I did when I requested records from St. Lucia. What I ended up finding was even better. I happened upon a blog that pointed me towards the website for La Banque Numérique des Patrimoines Martiniquais. I’ll quote from my fellow geneablogger Anne Morddel to explain just what can be found at the BNPM website:

“The actes d’individualité have a fairly standard format, giving the name and age of the individual, the place of birth, names of parents, and registration number from the slaves register if they had been registered on it. The Archives Départementales de la Martinique have filmed and indexed all of these records and they are available to search and view on the lovely, if quirky, website of La Banque Numérique des Patrimoines Martiniquais (The Digital Bank of Martinique Heritage), established by the Conseil général de la Martinique. For those tracing the genealogy of descendants of slaves of Martinique, this is an excellent resource.”

I did a small victory dance in my chair as I clicked on the link. I started off by typing the name Cadignan into the search field. I knew it couldn’t possibly be that easy, but I just wanted to see what would happen. I clicked the enter button and, to my complete and utter amazement, was taken to a list of results for several records for Cadignans from the town of Francois, the place all of my Cadignan leads always send me back to. These have to be my people! I clicked on the images of scanned records to figure out just what they were documenting. Using my knowledge of Spanish and online translation tools I spent a little bit of time trying to decipher the handwritten French documents. I eventually got tired and abandoned the chore, telling myself I’d have to delay gratification and ask one of my French-speaking friends to help me out over e-mail.

For the meantime I moved on to trying to understand the purpose of these documents. My unschooled, literal translation “acts of individuality” was fairly meaningless to me and my partial understanding of what the documents actually said was not sufficient. After googling myself into a maze of French-language websites I came upon a few sources that provided an explanation of the purpose of the documents and transcriptions of the standard language used. The website for Patrimoine Numerique, an organization dedicated to preserving French history and culture by digitizing records, described the set of records found on the BNPM site nicely.

Les registres des actes d’individualité sont des documents créant l’état civil des nouveaux-libres, anciens esclaves libérés en 1848. Prescrits par l’instruction ministérielle du 8 mai 1848, ils recensent environ 51 000 nouveaux-libres et constituent une source primordiale pour la recherche généalogique en Martinique.

[Slightly wonky translation provided by with minor edits and added emphasis from yours truly: The acts of individuality are vital documents identifying former slaves freed in 1848. Prescribed by the ministerial directive of 8 May 1848, they identify about 51,000 newly emancipated slaves and are a primary source for genealogical research in Martinique.]

“Slave Quarters, Sugar Plantation, Martinique, 1826”; Image Reference NW0309, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Wow. So this means that every person named in these records was born a slave and died a free person. And out of the 15 Cadignans named therein, there is a good chance that one of them is my direct ancestor.

I still felt there was something more to the purpose and import of the actes d’indivdualité, so I pressed on in my effort to understand the context in which these records were created. On another website I found what seemed to be that missing piece of the puzzle: the purpose of the ministerial directive of 1848 was to assign surnames to the newly freed population. Uh, WHOA! Forget doing a little dance, my jaw dropped as the historical enormity and genealogical value of these documents hit me. I read on:

Ceux qui ne seront pas encore libres lors de l’abolition de l’esclavage en 1848 se verront attribuer un patronyme laissé au choix des fonctionnaires. Ces derniers feront parfois racism de méchanceté, dénigrement, racism en affublant les nouveaux libres de patronymes ridicules, inconvenants ou moqueurs.

[Another translation brought to you by my people at Google, and me: Those who were not free at the time of the abolition of slavery in 1848 were to receive a surname at the discretion of officials. These names would sometimes indicate the official’s malice, denigration, or racism as their meanings were sometimes absurd, indecent or mocking.]

This last piece was not cool at all, but not surprising, either. It simply revealed a sad truth about how some of these names were chosen, providing a sober reminder of the times and circumstances these Cadignans lived under just a few generations ago. This bit of information indicates that the practice of taking on the surname of one’s master was not necessarily, or even typically, the source for the family names used by newly emancipated slaves in Martinique, something that is thought to have been a common practice in post-bellum U.S.

I’m anxious to complete my next self-assigned task, which is to pour over the records so that I can come up with sketches of family trees based on the parent-child relationships detailed in each acte. Given that I have to decipher those unique, identifying bits of information in old-timey script in a completely foreign language from scanned images that take considerably zooming, contrasting, and other maninpulations to even read, this will take me a bit of time.

For now, let’s itemize all of the goodies we will get from these records.

1. Names and ages of Cadignans living in Francois in the timeframe immediately following emancipation. Essentially, this is a list of former slaves in the Cadignan family that allows us to estimate their birthyears.

2. The names of the parents of each of the Cadignans listed, which allows us to understand how they are connected to each other. For the older Cadignans, the information on their parentage may provide us with names for members of the previous generation.

3. Place of birth. I haven’t gone through all of the Cadignan records yet, but I did spot the record of one of their neighbors that indicated the place of birth was L’Afrique. Africa! Wow.

4. Number in the slave register. Whenever I get my hands on this slave register I will be able to match names to each person who had originally only been identified in the official record by an impersonal, dehumanizing number.

Stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “Actes d’individualité

  1. I stumbled upon your blog today! I am also searching for ancestors from Martinique (who I just learned about in the last year or so), but mine made their way to Puerto Rico. I read your entire blog! I myself keep a blog and loved reading yours! I found some records in the actes d’individualité myself, one potentially being my 4th great grandmother and another of her mother who was born in Africa. There are a lot of similarities in the information which I don’t think are just coincidences. Hopefully one day I’ll know for sure! Keep writing!!! Best of luck! Suerte! :)

    • Hi Luis,
      Thank you so much for stopping by and your kind and supportive words! Your message is a welcome and needed reminder that I’ve been neglecting my baby for far too long this year :) I’d love to read about your own Martinique search and findings so please pass along a link to your blog!
      Best, Anulkah


  2. It was just by chance I came across your fascinating family blog. My great grandfather was also born in Martinique, 1850. His name was Firmin Francois Fortier. He and his brothers migrated to Louisiana. It’s extremely difficult to research family members outside of the U.S. How did you go about finding your family in Martinique?

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