Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
While Africans in America were still enduring the atrocities of slavery toward the end of the 18th century, France was embroiled in a revolution, which yielded a shocking result.
On February 4, 1794, a French decree was put forth that called for the abolishment of slavery. The slave trade benefited France greatly. However, ironically, slavery and the French Revolution became intertwined. Many prominent French citizens were critical of the practice of keeping unpaid servants.
At one point, 500,000 persons were enslaved in Saint Domingue (later became known as Haiti). Sugar, coffee and cotton plantations were staffed by Black and mixed race workers who lived under a stiff set of rules known as the “Code Noir.”
With the French Revolution underway, mixed-race free men of Saint Domingue began to speak out against the lack of rights that free Blacks held. They took this matter to the National Assembly of France. However, French Assembly members were divided on the slavery issue.
This was because some were members of an abolitionist organization called the Society of the Friends of Blacks.
While many French establishment members ignored the call for abolishment, more than 28,000 free Black and mixed-race persons continued to fight for equal rights – with some owning slaves of their own. Many of these freedom fighters had supporters on the other side.
White French political activist and writer Olympe de Gouges was one of the more vocal abolitionists of her time. She published a pamphlet titled “Reflections On Black People” in 1788. In it, she wrote the following:
“Why are Black people enslaved? The color of people’s skin only suggests a slight difference. There is no discord between day and night, the sun and the moon, and between the stars and dark sky. All is varied; it is the beauty of nature. Why destroy nature’s work?”
White and mixed-race landowners alike had to quell the tensions of the free Blacks within the enslaved French colonies. They were afraid that officials in the French capital of Paris would strike down slavery and end their trade production. This would obviously spell the end of their tortuous reign.
Vincent Ogé, an influential man of color, was responsible for leading a revolt in Saint Domingue in 1789. This rebellion was inspired by the lack of cooperation from White landowners who did not administer them fair treatment. Nonetheless, the uprising led to severe consequences.
Although he was successful in his initial attack, Ogé would later be publicly executed for the infraction. But with the help of free Blacks and other abolitionists, revolutionaries still continued to hold uprisings. France responded by denying certain rights to Blacks in Saint Domingue’s colonies.
After years of fighting from the rebels, which halted the production of the crop hauls in Saint Domingue, the National Convention took a more radical approach than the National Assembly by voting to abolish slavery in the colonies for good.
Some slave owners (both White and those of color) were very much angered by the decree and left the island. Unfortunately, the law was more symbolic than anything else. Landowners continued to enforce slavery and victimized anyone who sought to stand for the rights of slaves.
Ten years later in 1804, however, Saint Domingue would become the first country ever to record a successful slave revolt. The aggressive wartime strategies of commanders, such as ex-slave Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Francois Papillon were instrumental in this success.
French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte reinstituted slavery and attempt to seize Haiti back under France’s control. But ultimately, he suffered defeat at the skilled fighting hands of the revolutionary Louverture and his ally Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
France abolishing slavery in 1794 was the perfect precursor to the eventual end of the Haitian Revolution. This gave formerly enslaved Black people a right to freedom and independence that was robbed from them for centuries (Chandler, 2013).
Reference: Chandler, D. (2013, February 04) France Abolishes Slavery On This Day In 1794, 71 Years Before America. Retrieved from https://newsone.com/2183397/france-slavery/
*BlackThen.com writer/historian Victor Trammell edited and contributed to this report.