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Quadroon, octoroon and, more rarely, quintroon were historically racial categories of hypodescent used to describe proportion of African ancestry of mixed-race people in the slave societies of Latin America and parts of the 19th century Southern United States, particularly Louisianamarker.

In Australia the terms referred to the proportion of Aboriginal ancestry which a person had, compared with European ancestry.

Various terms

Quadroon usually referred to someone of one-quarter black ancestry; that is, with three white grandparents but also refers to a person of one-quarter caucasian ancestry and three-quarters black ancestry. A quadroon has a biracial (mulatto) parent (black and white) and one white parent. Conversely the term Sambo is used if one parent is a mulatto and the other is black.

Octoroon means a person of fourth-generation black ancestry. Genealogically, it means one-eighth black. Typically an Octoroon has one great-grandparent who is of full African descent and seven great-grandparents who are not.

Quintroon is a rarely used term that means a person of fifth-generation black ancestry. A quintroon has one parent who is an octoroon and one white parent. Hexadecaroon, meaning one-sixteenth black, is an even less common term for the same ethnic mix. Mestee was also used for a person with less than one-eighth black ancestry.

These words are mainly derived from Latin roots: quadroon is borrowed from Spanish cuarterón (ultimately from Latin quartus "fourth"), and octoroon is modeled on this, from Latin octo "eight" (or equivalently Greek okto). Quintus is Latin "fifth", but quintroon does not follow the same logic; it refers to the generation rather than the racial proportion. The alternative hexadecaroon, from Greek hexadeka "sixteen", expresses this proportion directly.

Problems with these terms

These designations usually refer to the number of full-blooded black ancestors (one black grandparent for quadroon, one black great-grandparent for octoroon, etc). However, the same ethnic makeup can come from other combinations. An Octoroon could have four quadroon great-grandparents, or two mulatto (half-black) great-grandparents. Also two parents of one genetic makeup, will have children of the same makeup. (ie. two quadroon parents will have quadroon children.)

All of these designations are faulty, in that they assume the pertinent recent black ancestors are of one hundred percent sub-Saharan African descent. But a quadroon's black great grandparents may have some non-black ancestors, or their white great-grandparents may themselves be octoroon.

Regardless of the relative genetic contributions, any bi-racial (or multi-racial) person with black and white ancestry is broadly considered "mulatto." Persons that are more than half black are considered mulatto, or black. Technically all these terms are correct in the inverse; a person with 3 black and one white grandparents should be a quadroon, but more likely he would be considered mulatto, or simply black.

Defining an individual mathematically is inherently reductive, and these terms derived from the slave trade which treated these people as chattel. The terms were used in part to attempt to describe appearance. As such, calling someone a mulatto, quadroon or octoroon can be a grave insult. The terms are better used in the abstract for studies of genetics, anthropology, sociology and population data, as in censuses.

Culture and law

In French and Spanish cultures, a third class of mixed-race people established a separate status, often achieving freedom, education and wealth. This is where the gradations of color and descent were used most frequently. In New Orleansmarker, for instance, often young mixed-race women became official mistresses of French Creole men in a system called plaçage. This system began when there were few French women in the colony. Later, men continued to take mistresses for some years before they married. If the woman was enslaved, her lover often freed her and any resulting children, as well as making property arrangements as part of a settlement. The mixed-race Creoles were recognized as having a higher social status than field slaves, who were chiefly of African ancestry. This was in part based on their proportion of white ancestry.

Nevertheless, people of minority black ancestry in these cultures were still heavily discriminated against and often subject to slavery. In antebellum America, any child born to an enslaved woman took the status of slave, and was owned by the mother's master.

In the late 19th century southern states, legislatures passed Jim Crow laws to establish racial segregation. They were generally based on the idea that a person of any African ancestry would be classified as black, known as the one-drop rule. In the case of Homer Plessy, a Louisiana man of one-eighth black ancestry was prevented from sitting in a railroad car reserved for whites.

By the later 20th century, these terms had almost totally faded from use and were generally considered obsolete.

In literature

  • Walt Whitman's 1855 poem "Song of Myself" refers to a "quadroon girl" who is sold at a slave auction.
  • The Quadroon - a novel by Thomas Mayne Reid, written in 1856.
  • The Octoroon, a play by Dion Boucicault adapted from Reid's The Quadroon, was first performed at New York City’s Winter Garden on December 12, 1859. The play describes the turmoil that is brought upon Zoe, the octoroon, as her dreams are torn away due to the discovery of an African lineage.
  • In the The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Pontellier's nurse is described as a quadroon.
  • Charles Bon's first wife/mistress was an octoroon, in the novel Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner.
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe published in 1852, described Eliza and her son Henry as quadroons. Henry's father was described as a mulatto.
  • In the James Bond novel The Man With The Golden Gun, the character of Tiffy is described as an attractive octoroon.
  • In Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, one of Jo's boys at Plumfield is described as a merry little quadroon.
  • In Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Florentino Ariza's mother Transito is described as a "freed quadroon".
  • Anne Rice's novel The Feast of All Saints features the gens de couleur libres, which is the Creole French term for "free people of color" such as quadroons, octoroons and other mulattos.

See also

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