The abolition of slavery. 1848
In 1848, the provisional government abolished slavery but left many questions unanswered, notably those related to the indemnity provided to colonists as well as the fate of newly liberated individuals.
A historic decree
The abolition of slavery constitutes one of the most noteworthy political decisions in modern French history. For the second time, France put an end to this unjust system of ownership and exploitation of human beings by other human beings which, grounded in racial ideology, had developed in France’s overseas territories starting in the 17th century. Above all else, with the signing of the decree to abolish slavery, April 17, 1848 became a fundamental date for the nearly 250.000 women, men, and children who became French citizens through the provisional government’s decree, recovering both their liberty and their dignity.
Several factors combined to bring about this historic decision. Moral philosophy preaching the equality of all human beings, abolition campaigns in France, influenced by British and US models, pressures exerted by enslaved people on the slave system, as well as economic conditions – all contributed to the abolition decree.
A troubled system
In the 1830s – 1840s, the colonies suffered an economic decline caused by the low price of cane sugar on the international market as well as competition with beet-sugar varieties. This generated numerous debates on the cost-effectiveness of slavery. Intrinsically complex and unequal, the economic system based on slavery created a multitude of sometimes contradictory circumstances. In addition to rendering precarious the lives of enslaved people, it created difficulties for other economic actors: even as it allowed a small elite of landlords and merchants to reap large profits, the economic model of slavery drove a large portion of the colonies’ most modest property owners into debt and ended up being very costly for the state. However, this economic reality does not explain the decision to abolish the institution which played out against a moral and political background supported by the anti-slavery movement of the era, as expressed in numerous petitions calling for abolition.
The French abolitionists, coming for the most part from intellectual and political Parisian elites, were in contact with their British counterparts. Starting in 1820s, the latter multiplied their interventions in Paris and in great French provincial cities, where committees formed little by little, emulating those already constituted in Paris – such as the Society of Christian Morality, founded in 1821, which published “Faits relatifs à la traite des Noirs” (Facts related to the slave trade) in 1826. Gradually, a national movement emerged. The 1830s were marked by a redoubling of abolitionist efforts, with the 1834 creation of the French Society for the abolition of slavery. The profile of the advocates of the abolitionist cause also changed to include free people of color from the colonies – freed or descendants of freed individuals – who had themselves experienced the racial prejudice at the heart of these societies.
Abolitionists valued principles of moral justice above economic interests even though their positions were supported by the calculations of major economists. Justice and utility therefore became the two foundational pillars of the abolitionist cause.
Sluggishness and reluctance
Despite their determination, abolitionists struggled to impose their views. In the opposite camp, fringe groups of colonial property owners defended a reactionary position, arguing that the emancipation of enslaved people would ruin the planters and the colonies alike, causing grave damage to the economy of the metropole and throwing the formerly enslaved people, whom they considered indolent, into destitution. Many proposals for progressive or gradual approaches to abolition, all influenced by British models, were studied but remained unachieved, in favor of an approach of reforming and softening the regime of servitude. The Mackau law of 1845 announced new rights for enslaved persons – the right to property among those – and clarified the reciprocal rights and duties of enslavers and enslaved persons, especially in matters of labor.
The situation evolved only after the proclamation of the second republic, with its focus on egalitarian idealism. The February 1848 Revolution in Paris accelerated the proclamation of abolition. Two months later, the decree was published. The conflicting interests of formerly enslaved persons, colonists, and the state were decided amid conditions of urgency. It was in these circumstances that indemnity was granted to “dispossessed colonists” whose diversity of profiles (women, free people of color, creditors, metropolitan merchants) reveals the complexity of colonial and slave societies. In fact, most actors in the economic system benefited from the indemnity, as illustrated by the 1848 petition of delegates from port cities. No indemnity, however, would be granted to the people who were formerly enslaved, despite several proposals along these lines formulated by Victor Schoelcher.
Acknowledged as a central figure of French abolitionism, Victor Schoelcher undoubtedly paved the way to the general emancipation of 1848. His determination and his personal investment in the cause were remarkable. Having a good grasp of colonial affairs, it was he who, on March 3rd, obtained a commitment to the principle of abolition after intensely lobbying the Minister of the Marine and of colonies, François Arago. On March 6th, Schoechler was named chair of the commission for the abolition of slavery. Members met 42 times before the commission dissolved on 21 July. During their meetings, several issues came up for sharp debate, and failed to be completely settled: access to land ownership by the newly freed, modes of organizing free labor, and indemnification for former slaveholders. Acting in haste, the abolitionists would leave many of these crucial questions unanswered. The issue of indemnity would finally be decided in 1849, after a committee specifically designed for the purpose decided the sums and the modalities of disbursement. The debates influenced Victor Schoelcher’s position, as pragmatism ultimately led him to approve the indemnity.
The action of enslaved persons
However, the abolition of slavery was not the work of abolitionists alone. We think of the 1804 independence of Haiti, won by the enslaved people of Saint Dominque in the struggle that started in 1791. The Haiti revolution offers the kind of example of emancipation by violent means that colonial authorities much feared. The threat of seeing such a situation reproduce in the colonies exerted considerable pressure on the colonists and the colonial authorities confronted with the various means by which the established order was challenged by enslaved people, who increased attempts at escape, poisoning, and other forms of sabotage. The restlessness and the revolts that agitated the Prêcheur workshops at Morne-Rouge and at Saint-Pierre on 22 May 1848, and the bloody events that followed, shed light on the roles that enslaved persons played in seizing their own freedom before official abolition. They forced the authorities to proclaim abolition in an anticipatory fashion on May 23, well before the decree was officially delivered into the hands of Auguste Perrinon, a free person of color, on 4 June 1849.
Liberty, equality, or oblivion?
The Second Republic bestowed citizenship on people who were formerly enslaved: with the proclamation of civil equality, the newly free individuals acceded to the political rights long awaited by free people of color. Yet these new civil and political rights were countermanded by an array of liberty-destroying social measures that imposed a system of obligations that, in some respects, resembled the situation these citizens had just left behind. In addition to such constraints, citizens were presented with the explicit demand that they forget the past and show gratitude for the republic which granted them freedom. The effective realization of citizenship and equality remained in question until France’s organization into departments in 1946, and even beyond, with persistent derogations of civil law. As for forgetting the past, it was not until the 2001 Taubira Law that slavery was recognized as a crime against humanity. The history of slavery and of its abolitions is a history in continuous reconstruction, sometimes colliding, even nowadays, with conflicting collective memories. Personalities such as Victor Schoelcher have come under renewed scrutiny: in June 2020, his statue was dismantled at Basse-Terre, in Guadeloupe.
Published in june 2023
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