The French Man Who Signed Slavery Back Into Law : Notes on Napoleon

Gros, Antoine-Jean. Premier Consul Bonaparte, 1802. Musée de la Légion d’honneur. Wikimedia copy of image in public domain.

Aug.15 is the birthday of one of the most famous men in history, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). But until recently little has been said about why he also is one of the most infamous men in history.

Napoleon holds a unique and awful record. He made France the only nation in history to make enslaving other humans legal after already having already abolished this crime.

Think about that for a minute. In 1802, Napoleon signed a law that made slavery legal again.

France outlawed slavery in 1794. That victory was the result of years of lobbying by advocates for freedom, who were opposed by people who had profited off the misery and pain of those enslaved in French colonies like Saint-Domingue, which became Haiti.

In an excellent book about the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, the historian and journalist C.L.R. James spoke of tortures inflicted on the people who were enslaved to keep them working long days in the baking hot fields. Some of them were buried alive. Others covered with boiling sugar cane. In their daily lives, the people who were enslaved “received the whip with more certainty and regularity than they received their food,” James writes.

In this book, James also tells of a French bourgeoisie made incredibly wealthy from this suffering.

He writes that some French families were rich enough to have their linens shipped across the ocean to that colony ¨to be washed, and to get the right colour and scent.¨ Their wine would make ¨two or three voyages… to give it the right flavour

The people who profited from slavery had fought its abolition to try to preserve their wealth. In 1802, Napoleon restored the legal status of slavery. He also sought to profit from the suffering of other people. He wanted more cash from France’s plantation islands to use for military conquests.

Copy of law signed by Napoleon restoring slavery. Wikimedia copy of image in public domain.

Napoleon thus condemned about 300,000 people to years of life in bondage, according to an article on the DW.com, the English language site of Deutsche Welle. France did not definitively abolished slavery until 1848, about 27 years after Napoleon’s death. (There’s a link at the end of this article to a bibliography with details on this Dw.com article and other sources I’ve used in writing this essay.)

The DW.com article tells of how an exhibit in honor of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death will include a section looking at his role in enslaving people in French territories. Original copies of the law Napoleon signed will be on display at the exhibit at the Parisian cultural center Grande Halle de la Villette.

Coinciding Anniversaries

France has been coming to terms in recent years with its legacy of slavery and racism.

May 2021 marked not only the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon, but the 20th anniversary of a French law that recognized slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity.

This is commonly known as Taubira’s Law, named for the woman who spearheaded its 2001 creation. Christiane Taubira then was a member of National Assembly representing French Guiana. She later served as France’s justice minister from 2012 to 2016.

Photo of Taubira, in orange. “File:Vote solennel loi mariage 23042013 35.jpg” by Ericwaltr is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Taubira is among the critics of French President Emmanuel Macron’s attitude at two May 2021 events.

On May 5, Macron spoke at an official commemoration of the death of Napoleon. But he did not do so when he appeared at a May 10 event in honor of the 2001 passage of la Loi Taubira.

A story posted on France24 quotes Taubira as saying “it is quite remarkable that the President of the Republic has not found anything to say about more than two centuries of French history, while five days ago he was waxing lyrical about Napoleon Bonaparte.”

In the video attached to this tweet seen above, Taubira speaks of her preference for military leaders who worked to free people rather than to enslave them. She cited as an example Toussaint L’ouverture, the general who helped the people of Saint-Domingue break free of France.

L’ouverture, as depicted in an 1802 French engraving. Wikipedia image.

“..this betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment”

In his May 5 speech, Macron did weave in a reference to Napoleon’s sin. Macron refers to Napoleon’s embrace of slavery as “cette trahison de l’esprit des Lumières ( this betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment).” And Macron noted that France finally a réparé cette faute by abolishing slavery for good in 1848.

Roger Cohen, the Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, said this marked the first time a French president had specifically condemned Napoleon’s re-establishment of slavery in the Caribbean.

“Mr. Macron used the word ‘faute,’ which in French carries greater solemnity and opprobrium than `mistake’ or `error’ in English, something closer to an offense,” Cohen wrote.

Cohen also notes that Macron is seeking to strike a delicate political balance. There are strong demands in France for a more accurate accounting of history, including the offenses of Napoleon. Taubira’s law has worked to make people uncover the truths about French history that were left out of earlier distorted takes on it.

But Macron also keeps an eye on the view of France’s right-wingers who worship of Napoleon. Cohen says Marine Le Pen, the rightist leader and Macron’s most serious challenger, “chose to commemorate the anniversary with the words `Long live the emperor! Long live greatness!’ ”

Taubira and others faulted Macron for falling short in his attempt to acknowledge Napoleon’s guilt. Consider the passages below, taken from Macron’s speech. He either has a happy talent for optimist imagery or employs writers who do.

“We love Napoleon because his life has the allure of the possible. Because it is an invitation to take your risk, to trust your imagination, to be fully yourself. (On aime Napoleon parce que sa vie a le goût du possible. Parce qu’elle est une invitation à prendre son risque, à faire confiance à l’imagination, à être pleinement soi,)” Macron said.

“..difference between teaching and glorifying”

In that speech, Macron described Napoleon in terms the late emperor would have appreciated.

Napoleon’s life began in fairly humble circumstances on the island of Corsica, where he spoke the local dialect and Italian as a child. Napoleon only learned French around age 10. Yet he rose to lead France and even in 1804 declared himself its emperor. By 1814, he lost power and was exiled to the island of Elba, between Corsica and Italy.

Screenshot of Goole Map showing Elba with red marker

Napoleon regained control of France in 1815. But he soon suffered a military defeat so significant that the name of the battle site, Waterloo, remains until this day shorthand for a personal setback or debacle. He was exiled again, this time much further from France on St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic Sea. He died there in 1821.

Screenshot of Google Map showing St. Helena Island with red mark

Napoleon himself lauded what he saw as his contributions to civic life, according to a book published by his doctor, Barry O’Meara (1786–1836). O’Meara, an Irishman, accompanied Napoleon into exile. In a book published in 1822, “Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice From St. Helena,” O’Meara depicts his patient ruminating on his place in history.

The doctor quotes Napoleon saying:

“..my elevation was unparalleled, because unaccompanied by crime. I have fought fifty pitched battles, almost all of which I have gained. I have framed and carried into effect a code of laws, that will bear my name to the most distant posterity. From nothing I raised myself to be the most powerful monarch in the world. Europe was at my feet.”

In Macron’s speech, we hear praise too for Napoleon’s contributions to the civic life of France that have persisted to this day.

These include a reverence for science and engineering and good government administration. People may laugh at that last one, but in doing so they would show ignorance. To live in a well-run country is a blessing too few people of the world have enjoyed, whether in our time, Napoleon’s or any other age of human history.

Macron talked as if these Napoleonic accomplishments were benefits universally shared .But some of his references to Napoleon that make sense only if one applies them to white people, and perhaps largely to white men. ,

In Macron’s view, Napoleon “set in stone the civil equality between men in
the Civil Code, the protection of the law for all with the Penal Code.( gravé dans le marbre l’égalité civile entre les hommes dans le Code civil, la protection de la loi pour tous avec le Code pénal.)”

Macron even says Napoleon’s life was “an epiphany of freedom” despite all of its “paradoxes” (Sa vie enfin est une épiphanie de la liberté…Malgré tous ces paradoxes.)

French journalist Rokhaya Diallo pointed out in an opinion article in the Washington Post that Macron made calculated political decisions in this speech. Diallo also details the ways in which Napoleon’s civil code is far from the completely benevolent work Macron described, but instead has been a tool for the subjugation of women.

When Macron “states, `We love Napoleon,’ he purposely erases the fact that Napoleon was a warlike, racist and misogynistic oppressor,” Diallo wrote.

Diallo calls for a new French “national storytelling that includes and respects” all of its people.

“Napoleon will not be erased: No one denies the fact that he had a major impact on French history,”Diallo wrote. “But he belongs to the history books, not modern commemorations. There is a difference between teaching and glorifying.”

Click here for my bibliography of works used in writing on Haiti for more details and links to the articles cited in this essay.

This bibliography on Haiti also includes some highly recommended works not mentioned here, such as Marlene Daut’s “When France extorted Haiti — the greatest heist in history” that appeared in The Conversation on June 30, 2020. Another important work is Julia Gaffield “Five myths about the Haitian Revolution”, which appeared in the Washington Post on April 4, 2021

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