The French are coming to grips with their history as a slavery power

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tags: slavery, France, Mapping Memories of Enslavement

Like all European countries, France has a long history of participating in slavery, from slave labor in France’s colony of Saint Domingue that ultimately produced a massive slave revolt and the declaration of an independent Haiti, to forced labor in France’s African colonies that was modeled after the notorious system in the Belgian King Leopold’s Congo. The French revolutionary government of 1789 abolished slavery in France, but not in the colonies, where plantation owners practiced it widely. It was only after former slaves in Saint Domingue had already abolished slavery (and after radical Jacobins had taken control in Paris) that the National Convention outlawed it in the colonies in 1794, decreeing that “all men, without distinction of color, residing in the colonies, are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights assured by the constitution.”[1] When Napoleon came to power, he reinstated slavery in 1802. The revolutionary government of 1848 again abolished slavery, an event celebrated 150 years later in 1998 as the end of slavery in France and its territories. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the French brutally forced Africans to produce large amounts of rubber in colonies in equatorial Africa, resulting in a population loss of roughly 50 percent among the indigenous people (Adam Hochschild describes a similar murderous process in the case of Leopold’s Congo in his well-known book King Leopold’s Ghost).[2] This practice didn’t end until after the Second World War, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the French government recognized the slave trade and slavery as a “crime against humanity.” The resulting law (known as the Taubira law after Christiane Taubira, the politician who initiated it, a native of French Guiana, and a former Justice Minister who resigned in January 2016 to protest France’s anti-terrorism policies) established what is today the National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery in order to assist the government with the “research, education, preservation, diffusion, or transmission of the history and memories of the slave trade, slavery, and their abolition.”[3]

Mapping Memories of Enslavement,” a project whose website has just launched, hopes to facilitate the analysis and commemoration of this history and its continuing effects. Largely the brainchild of scholar Dr. Nicola Frith, a Leadership Fellow with the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and the primary researcher on the project, the website provides an interactive map of locations – “sites of memory” – and associated information relevant to the history and commemoration of slavery in France and its overseas territories. The “Memorial to the Sacrifice of Louis Delgrès and His Companions,” in Les Abymes, Guadeloupe, one such site, is the work of Guadeloupian sculptor Jacky Poulier and commemorates the armed fight in Guadeloupe against Napoleon’s troops and his attempt to reinstate slavery in 1802.[4] (An image of the sculpture can be found here.) The map also charts the network of contemporary activists, cultural associations, and government groups involved in bringing to light “France’s participation in the enslavement of peoples of African ancestry and the ways in which this history continues to negatively impact contemporary society.”[5] For example, on the map one can find information on the group “Blue roots routes de blues,” located on the Île de le Cité near the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which aims to “promote musical exchanges among musicians of different cultures” and to “undertake work towards the remembrance of slavery.”[6] The “International Movement for Reparations,” another association represented on the map, in Fort-de-France, Martinique, was “the first organization to file a complaint against the French State calling for reparations for slavery” in 2005 after the passing of the Taubira law, and also works to “defend the memory of Africans who were deported then enslaved, as well as all peoples historically and currently who are victims of crimes against humanity and colonization, by putting in place procedures of reappropriation and preservation of their natural, historical, and cultural patrimony.”[7]

Read entire article at Historians Against Slavery

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