From the late 1700’s and into the 1800’s, slaves were considered one of the most important economic commodities that an individual, or country, could possess. Like many European countries of the time period, France played a significant role in the transatlantic slave trade. The Old Regime of France is what dictated their participation in the transatlantic slave trade. Revolutionary France began the process to abolish slavery in the French Colonies and it then became official in 1794. This was primarily due to an uprising in the French Colonies of the Caribbean – specifically the Haitian Revolution. The French Revolution continued to go great lengths in determining where slaves fit within the newly formed France and its National Assembly. When Napoleon Bonaparte came into power, he did his best to turn France into an empire – this included reversing the decision to abolish slavery. In 1804, by the hand of Napoleon, slavery was made legal once again. It was not until 1848 that slavery in France and its colonies was abolished for the second and final time. From the late 18th-century to the mid-19th-century, the enslaved peoples of France and their rights was a topic of great discussion in both the time following the Revolution and the end of Napoleon’s reign.
Under the Old Regime, France held onto the ideology that “there are no slaves in France.” The French prided themselves that they may be one of the only European countries not to have slaves – their Caribbean colonies were not noteworthy when they made the “no slaves” statement. While the Black peoples on France made up less than 3% of the population, these were not all free men. As part of the transatlantic slave trade, France was the third largest contributor to the slave trade in the late 1700’s to the mid-1800’s. Slaves were sent in large numbers to the French Colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Tobago, San Lucie, and San Martin, though France gained the rank of third because of the sheer amount of slaves that were sent to the French Colony of San Domingue – what is now known as Haiti. San Domingue was viewed as the New World’s most profitable eighteen-century colony. Economically, slavery was vital to the French colonies where the main exports were sugar and coffee. Frequent voyages were made from the French ports of Nantes, Bordeaux, and La Rochelle. The ship Marie Séraphique was one of the many slave ships that sailed from Nantes (pictured above is the plan, profile, and layout of the ship) . It is estimated that 1,400,000 Africans were taken by France as part of the slave trade, though only 1,165,000 survived the Middle Passage – the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Slavery was a normal part of life for individuals of the time; it was not until the Revolution began that there were discussions concerning the slaves of France.
The French Revolution began in the Spring of 1789 – in which there were a series of uprisings across France – and with the Revolution a new government was introduced. The National Assembly was now the governing body in France, and in of August of the same year, they embraced The Declaration of the Rights of Man as the new composition of the land. It stated that, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” , yet did not give any thought to the enslaved peoples of in the Caribbean. There were many individuals and groups who came to the National Assembly to either speak against abolition or for it. One of the various groups that petitioned to speak for abolition in the wake of the Revolution was the Société des amis des Noirs.
The Society of the Friends of the Blacks formed in 1788. They followed the lead of English and American abolitionists, with Enlightenment-influenced rhetoric, and began to speak of emancipation. They spoke of how King Louis XVI, in 1788, he abolished serfdom on all royal lands, of how the last French serfs gained their freedom and rights with the National Assembly in 1789, and why should this right of freedom not be extended to the “Negroes who live under [the] Law?” – which included the slaves in the Colonies. The Society of the Friends of the Blacks defined their main goals as “granting full rights to Africans and biracial people in the colonies who were already free and [the abolition] of the slave trade” – two goals they hoped would be received well and not seen as too controversial. Many others spoke out against slavery as well. There was the infamous Olympe de Gouges who said: “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?”
Even free Blacks from the Colonies addressed the Assembly. They told of the conditions that one must endure while in slavery and that while they had “their legal freedom, they could not do enjoy full rights as a citizen of France.” Despite mush political debate, the marketable interest of the plantations won out, and the slaves of the French Colonies did not receive their much wanted freedom. It was not until the slave revolution in San Domingue that there began to be sincere consideration concerning the rights of the slaves of France.
As is known with any slave plantation, the conditions are brutal and the work intense – this was no different for the slaves that resided at San Domingue. The revolts began when the French Republic would not recognize the rights of the slaves. Vincent Ogé, one of the leading members of the first revolt, who the was sequentially executed for his part, often took it upon himself to go to Paris and plead the case of civil rights, but alas this did not prove fruitful. In October of 1790, the first of many revolts happened in San Domingue. Three hundred and fifty mulattos rebelled, and while the rebellion was put down, on May 15th the National Assembly yielded to the pressure and granted political rights to all free blacks and mulattos who were born of free mothers and fathers. This did not affect many individuals of San Domingue, but those in charge of the plantations were furious and would not uphold the decree. On August 22nd, 1791, the slaves came together and rose up once again – this became the first successful slave revolt in history. Not even a month later, the National Assembly reversed their decree in retaliation.
The slaves revolted once again; they showed their outrage by burning plantations and killing the plantation owners. The new Legislative Assembly – which had replaced the National Assembly in October of 1791 – met at the end of March 1792 and voted to reinstate the rights of free blacks and mulattos, yet nothing was decided regarding slavery. It was also at this time that Toussaint L’Ouverture (pictured above) became leader of the rebellion. Toussaint was the son of an educated slave – his father was taken from the shores in Africa, while he was born into slavery – that later became a free man. He assembled a group of slaves and mulattos, and successfully fought the Europeans forces that threated the San Domingue. The rebellion had greatly weakened San Domingue’s economy and thus the National Convention – the Legislative Assembly’s replacement as led by radical Jacobins – decided in to abolish slavery in all the French Colonies on February 4, 1794.
Slavery was of great significance to France and the French colonies in the late 18th century and the early to mid-19th century. It began with France being the third largest supporter of the transatlantic slave trade. This was part of France’s Old Regime. Slavery was abolished for the first time in 1794. This was because of both the Haitian and French Revolution. There were then many decisions to be made about where the former slaves would fit in with French society, as well as part of the National Assembly. It was when Napoleon Bonaparte came into power that there was a significant reversal in French society. Napoleon wanted to transform revolutionary France into an empire, and with this came many changes. One of the changes was that slavery was deemed legal once again in 1804. It would not be for another forty-four years that slavery would be abolished once again. As with many European countries of the time, it is important to learn about the economic impact of slavery as it was such an important factor of the time period.