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The end of slavery in France: the active role of black abolitionists

The end of slavery in France: the active role of black abolitionists

The abolition of slavery in France generally evokes a name, Victor Schœlcher, and a date, 1848. In reality, it is a long and complex process that goes back to the 14th century, when Louis X Le Hutin promulgated the edict of July 3, 1315. This text put an end to serfdom by proclaiming that "according to the law of nature, everyone must be born free": from then on, French soil freed the slave who touched it.

A few cases of jurisprudence took place during the following decades, particularly in the South of France, and several slaves were freed for having set foot on French soil. The generally accepted idea," summarizes archivist and paleographer Julie Duprat, author of the specialized blog Noire Métropole, "is that France was a land of freedom where slavery had no place. Except that from the moment slavery in the colonies was essential to the French economy, this discourse quickly faded."

A first French colonial empire in the West Indies

From the 17th century, France established its colonial empire in Antilles. Planters imported slaves from Africa to work in the fields or in domestic service. The Code Noir of Louis XIV, adopted in 1685, regulated slavery in the West Indies, then in French Guiana and Reunion. The large landowners, who sometimes brought their slaves by force to France to take on domestic duties, feared that their labor would be taken away from them.

Lobbies of colonists brought their case to court, and obtained that the edict of 1315 was no longer applied. "From the beginning of the 18th century, new laws regulated the arrival of slaves in France in order to keep them in servitude," summarizes Julie Duprat.

The adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

"Abolitionist thought is as old as slavery itself," says the archivist. For as long as slavery has existed, there have been people who have spoken out against it." For centuries, abolitionist networks remained marginal: in the 18th century, one in 10 Frenchmen made a living from the colonial trade. But the French Revolution changed all that.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in 1789, proclaimed freedom among the "natural and imprescriptible rights of man. For the first time, French Afro-descendants could enter politics and demand their own emancipation.

Julien Raimond and Jeanne Odo: two emblematic figures of the struggle for the abolition of slavery

Among them was the mestizo Julien Raimond, born free of Creole parents in Santo Domingo, then the most prosperous of the French colonies. He went to Paris in 1787 to demand equal civil rights for whites and "free people of color" in Haiti. He is an emblematic figure of the early civil rights struggle," says Julie Duprat. He mobilized the aspirations of Afro-descendants in the metropolis, where a mass of freedmen and mestizos made their living as small craftsmen or soldiers in the army." He won a first victory in 1791, when the Assembly recognized the equality in law to Haitians "of color" born of free father and mother.

But Julien Raimond demanded more: the abolition of slavery in the colonies. In June 1793, he led the delegation of the Society of Colored Citizens to the National Convention, along with other abolitionist figures such as Jeanne Odo, a former slave who was a hundred years old at the time of the Revolution. The latter becomes, according to Julie Duprat, "a symbolic figure of the movement, almost maternal", while Julien Raimond returns to Santo Domingo to collaborate with Toussaint Louverture. For on the margins of the political battles, other abolitionists chose to take up arms.

Toussaint Louverture, committed against the slave trade

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slave revolts intensified in the colonies, culminating in 1791 with the outbreak of Toussaint Louverture's revolt in Saint-Domingue. The joint struggles of abolitionists, led in particular by Julien Raimond, Toussaint Louverture and the latter's right-hand man, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, finally paid off: slavery was abolished for the first time in Saint-Domingue in 1793. The abolition was extended the following year to all French colonies.

But this achievement will last only the time of the Republic. In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte had Toussaint Louverture arrested, who died the following year in detention, and re-established slavery in France, reigniting hostilities between Saint-Domingue and the metropolis. Having become the leader of the insurrection, Dessalines and his troops finally defeated the French in 1803. Saint-Domingue could then become the first independent black republic: Haiti.

After Napoleon, it would take 46 years for the anti-slavery movement to win their case. At the beginning of the 19th century, men of letters such as Abbé Grégoire and Gabriel-Jacques Laisné de Villévêque circulated treatises and pamphlets in favor of civil rights, while members of parliament such as Victor de Broglie, who was to become President of the Council under the July Monarchy, brought the abolitionist cause before the king.

Cyrille Bissette, abolitionist forgotten by history

But it was above all the Martiniquan Cyrille Bissette, a "free man of color" and illegitimate nephew of Empress Josephine de Beauharnais, who was one of the great architects of the abolition. Denounced for his anti-slavery activities, branded with iron and imprisoned for three years, he was finally banished from Martinique and settled in Paris. There he founded in 1834 the Revue des colonies, which participated in the diffusion of abolitionist years in France. Bissette published a bill for the immediate abolition of all slaves.

He soon became the rival of the journalist Victor Schœlcher, who in the 1830s argued for a gradual abolition in order not to "infect active society," he wrote, "with several million brutes decorated with the title of citizens, who would ultimately be a vast nursery of beggars and proletarians. Schœlcher finally changed his mind in the early 1840s, and in turn became a supporter of immediate abolition."

In 1848, under pressure from public opinion, an Emancipation Commission was created by the provisional government under the supervision of the Minister of the Navy. Bissette was removed from the Commission and Schœlcher was appointed to head it. The decree of April 27, 1848 finally abolished slavery in all the French colonies, a success largely attributed to Schœlcher. In 1849, Bissette won the legislative election in Martinique against his rival, but it was Schœlcher's name that was to be remembered in the following centuries. "It was easier, in a racist society, to glorify a white character", Julie Duprat summarizes.