Recognizing the slave trade in a postcolonial society

Many people, including myself, learnt that revolts during the revolutionary period took place not only in France but also in the French colony of Haiti. During the 100 years that France practised enslavement – from the establish­ment of the Black Code by Colbert in 1685 until the revolt of the slaves in 1791 – French sugar and coffee companies became increasingly wealthy. So much so, that by 1789, nearly two-thirds of France’s foreign investment was in Haiti. A number of revolts occurred against tyranical slave owners, but the summer of 1791 saw the largest revolt in the history of black slavery. Back in Paris, this contributed (after many attempts to defer the question), to the abolition of the slave trade by unanimous vote at the convention on 4 February 1794. Toussaint Louverture became the first black general of the French revolu­tionary army (Figure 7.5). His rise to power began and by 1801, he governed the entire island. As the second country in the Americas to free itself from colonial rule, Haiti experienced thirteen years of independence. In 1804 Napoleon (under conservative pressures) sent troops to put Toussaint Louverture in prison and re-establish slavery on the island. But his memory served subsequent independence movements and Toussaint Louverture is considered a founding member of Haiti.

In Le Monde’s special issue on slavery the question was repeatedly raised: how could such a silence have endured two centuries? How could France’s active role in the slave trade and its equivocation on implementing revolutionary principles when they interfered with economic prosperity be


Toussaint Louverture – the first black general of the French revolutionary army, painting by Duval Carrie, c.1800

ignored in French historiography? Historian Jacques Thibau explained that in mass culture as in academic milieux, French slavery continues to be ignored:

We have been interested in the American slave trade and Louisiana from Uncle Tom’s Cabin all the way to Roots, but never in French slavery and its predilection for Saint Domingue. . . . This collective amnesia could have been brought to light through the work of historians, but there is none. . . . When there is a lapse of memory there is embarrassment: the embarrassment of being faced with the frightful connection between the economic/political modernity of Europe and the enslavement of the black people.25

Le Monde made a connection between slavery and the growth of French capital, and at the same time, proposed a more complex set of arguments regarding the abolitionist movement. Abolitionists, they argued, put in place a ‘diabolical colonial machine, ready to conquer the world in the name of the ideals of justice and equality’.26 From Diderot to Montesquieu, the anti-slavery fight is proposed here as having prepared the way for the post-slavery economy. ‘Among the arguments developed by La Societe des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks, founded in February 1788) we find a series of projects aimed at abandoning the slave trade in order to establish a global colonial commerce’, where the ‘lights of Europe’ will be at the forefront of the modern colonial economy.27 Faced with the enormity of the links between slavery, colonialism and the current poverty of the third world, Le Monde concludes, ‘of all the upheavals created by the proclamation of human rights, the one regarding the status of blacks cries out for attention. A cry that is like a debt we have contracted with what is properly called: the Third World.’28

The performance of Jessye Norman at the Bastille Day parade and the press coverage around French slavery in the late eighteenth century broke a collective silence about this national ‘embarrassment’ in a way that rarely happens. In general, French popular culture is not very good at dealing with the country’s participation in morally ‘dirty’ dealings abroad. In contrast to the multiple American films about the Vietnam war for example, Indochine (1992) based on a book by Marguerite Duras, was the first commercial film to speak about France’s involvement in Vietnam. Similarly, the French slave trade has not been a subject of discussion in mass culture such as films, and academic criticism only reaches a small number of people. Among the well-to-do in Bordeaux – the major city involved in this human trade – the subject is still entirely taboo. The discussion of the French slave trade and the presence of a black performer singing the national anthem certainly began to deconstruct notions of race in relation to representations of the nation.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm