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The Center for Critical Democracy Studies

CCDS Hosts AUP’s Professor Miranda Spieler: The Case of Ourika


Professor Miranda Spieler

On Monday, May 2, 2022, Demos21, a series of lectures, roundtables and workshops organized by AUP’s Center for Critical Democracy Studies (CCDS), hosted CCDS fellow Miranda Spieler. Professor Spieler led a discussion on her forthcoming paper, “The Case of Ourika: Children, the French Slave Trade, and the End of the Rights of Man.” The hybrid event saw audience members attend both in person in CCDS’s conference hall in the Quai d’Orsay Learning Commons and online.

Professor Spieler was joined by Professor Christy Pichichero, Associate Professor of History and French at George Mason University. Their discussion examined the life and afterlife of a Senegambian girl who was brought to Paris at a young age as a slave and exchanged as a gift among the ruling class. Dr. Spieler discussed Ourika’s life in two contexts. She first recounted Ourika’s journey from Senegal to France considering elite imperial culture and the coinciding origins of the French antislavery movement. Second, she explored Ourika’s literary significance as found in the 1823 novel Ourika by Claire de Kersaint.

Professor Spieler discussed the significance of social connections in the practice of gifting children, as well as trading and diplomatic networks. When Ourika was given to the Bouffler family, she was described extensively in letters as a sort of stand-in for absent loved ones. African children were treated as commodities, but Ourika and her young counterparts experienced a status unrelated to their capacity to perform domestic labor. Using the narrative of Ourika’s life both historically and in fiction, Professor Spieler illustrated the rise of a contradictory form of humanitarianism, which sought to reconcile economic reliance on the slave trade with moral conscience.

Following Spieler’s talk, audience members raised questions about the archival research process and about historical practices of gifting children in France.