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Remembering that Napoleon reinstated slavery

May 4, 2021

As France marks the bicentenary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte on May 5, his role in reinstating slavery after it was abolished prompts a renewed look at his legacy.

A painting of Napoleon Bonaparte leading the War of the first coalition in 1796
Napoleon's death 200 years ago is commemorated all year in FranceImage: imago images

As part of the bicentenary of Napoleon's death, the Parisian cultural center Grande Halle de la Villette is hosting a major exhibition on Napoleon Bonaparte, which will open as soon as COVID restrictions are lifted and be held until September 19, 2021.  

Amid 150 exhibits embodying the dazzling imperial grandeur of the former French emperor — "a figure who is at once fascinating and controversial," as the show's trailer says — one section of the exhibition focuses on a darker side of his legacy.

It features the original copies of laws signed by Napoleon in 1802, which reversed the abolition of slavery that had been declared eight years previously, in the wake of the French Revolution. It made France the only country to have brought back slavery after outlawing it.

"When they hear of Napoleon, most people think of the great empire, France's many victories during the wars of that era. There is this glory about Napoleon which has eclipsed everything else he did," Dominique Taffin, director of the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery, told DW.

The foundation was responsible for that section of the exhibition: "We decided it was necessary to raise awareness about this dark part of his deeds to a wider audience," added Taffin.

Dominique Taffin, director of the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery
Dominique Taffin says Napoleon shouldn’t just be put on a pedestal but studied and questionedImage: Louise Allavoine/Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery

A major crime or a minor story?

"The decision to reestablish slavery isn't just a stain on Napoleon's legacy, it's a crime," Louis-Georges Tin, campaigner and honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), told DW.

Napoleon's decision in 1802 to reinstate slavery not only betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution, it also condemned an estimated 300,000 people into a life of bondage for several more years, before France definitively abolished slavery in 1848.

Painting Napoleon sitting at a table with officers at his side
Napoleon signed two laws in 1802 that reversed France's decision eight years previously to outlaw slavery in its territoriesImage: Bourguet Philippe/BePress/ABACA/picture alliance

Tin, who is from Martinique, a former colony and now an overseas French department, said these aspects of Napoleon's policies need to be taught more in France. "As somebody whose ancestors were enslaved, I can't understand why we continue to celebrate Napoleon's memory as if nothing happened," he said.

The activist pointed out that the bicentenary of Napoleon's death on May 5 comes just days before France marks the 20th anniversary of the so-called Taubira law, which made the former colonial power the first country to recognize slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity.

"France cannot be the country of human rights and celebrate someone who committed crimes against humanity. It makes no sense," Tin added.

Not everyone agrees. Historian and Napoleon specialist Peter Hicks, from the Paris-based Fondation Napoleon, said Bonaparte was a complex figure who presided over periods of "hyper-violence" in Europe and couldn't be reduced to his colonial positions.

"The slavery part of the Napoleonic story, as ghastly as it was, is minimal and peripheral compared to the big stories in Europe like the Civil Code and Treaty of Amiens [an agreement that achieved peace in Europe for 14 months during the Napoleonic Wars - ed.], which is much more important to Germans, the French, Britons and Italians," Hicks said.

Colonies and slaves to feed grand ambitions

But, seen from the perspective of the Caribbean, the story of Napoleon's reestablishment of slavery is anything but marginal.

In the late 1780s, France was a major colonial power, its territories powered by an estimated 800,000 slaves. Its most lucrative colony was Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the Caribbean. About 450,000 slaves worked on plantations exporting sugar and coffee to France.

Historical accounts say the system was violent and the death rate so high among the enslaved that workers had to be constantly replenished by the African slave trade.

One of Paris' few significant slavery memorials, a bronze sculpture of broken chains
One of Paris' few significant slavery memorials, a bronze sculpture of broken chainsImage: Sonia Phalnikar/DW

"Napoleon wanted to extend the French colonial empire to control the Caribbean. To colonize the huge land of Louisiana in North America, he needed workers so he restarted the slave trade. It was a colonial strategy," explained Dominique Taffin from the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery.

"And for that, he needed to have total control over Saint-Domingue because it was central to that geographical area."

The lasting impact of Napoleon's actions

In events known as the Haitian Revolution, Saint-Domingue slaves started in 1791 a rebellion against French colonial rule, with governor Toussaint Louverture emerging as a revolutionary leader. The insurrection had successfully driven France to first abolish slavery across its empire in 1794.

Napoleon sent troops to overthrow Louverture and restore colonial order. Louverture was deported to France. Meanwhile, his fellow revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue were determined to resist Napoleon's reinstatement of slavery in 1802 and fought a brutal year-long war against the French. There are accounts of extreme violence.

Toussaint Louverture
Toussaint Louverture was the most prominent leader of the Haitian RevolutionImage: gemeinfrei

In 1803, they defeated Napoleon's army. The following year, the revolutionaries set up an independent and free nation — Haiti. It was the world's first republic founded by former slaves and it banned slavery and the slave trade.

"Napoleon's defeat in Saint-Domingue is a little-known story. He lost the prized colony, sold Louisiana to the US and turned the page on the colonial project," Dominique Taffin said.

The consequences of Napoleon's actions, however, lasted long after the French exit from Saint-Domingue — in Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion Island, slavery remained in place until the French definitively abolished it in 1848.

Haiti too paid a heavy price. In 1825, France imposed an indemnity of 150 million francs (the modern equivalent of $21 billion / €17.5 billion) on Haiti, under threat of war, in order to compensate former slaveholders. Haiti didn't finish paying it off till 1947.

A much ignored history

Few people in France are aware of this history. Frederic Regent, a historian at Paris' Sorbonne University, said there are several reasons behind this.

Since the end of the 19th century, school textbooks, he said, tended to praise colonialism or neglect it — since it was something that had happened far away from France's borders, it was seen as peripheral to the national narrative; whereas the topic of slavery was "covered" through its abolishment.

Especially after the Second World War, when Europe was focusing on reconstruction, Napoleon was portrayed as a unifying figure among various political factions.

Les Invalides in Paris
Napoleon’s tomb lies beneath the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris. The monument draws over a million visitors each yearImage: Sonia Phalnikar/DW

"From the 1950s right up to the 1990s, the focus was mainly on Napoleon and his conquests in Europe. He was portrayed as a builder of Europe and seen as a Republican figure," Regent said. "The colonial aspect was largely ignored."

Growing awareness of colonialism

But things have changed. Starting in the late 1990s, France has seen demonstrations, laws and changes in the school curriculum to push for a better inclusion of its sprawling history.

In recent years, a vocal and diverse French population, many of whose ancestors came from former colonies, have mobilized around issues of racial discrimination and identity.

Last year, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across France in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the US. There have also been calls to have the statue outside France's National Assembly in Paris removed. The monument depicts Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the man behind the "Code Noir" decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonies.

Two people holding placards during a demonstration following the killing of George Floyd in the US, one says I can't breathe in French and the other reads Black Lives Matter
France saw large protests last year following the killing of George Floyd in the USImage: Sonia Phalnikar/DW

'A question of fairness'

Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former Prime Minister of France who now serves as the president of the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery, said the Napoleon bicentenary is an opportunity to face up to France's long colonial past as well as to acknowledge recent demands for racial justice.

"The reinstatement of slavery is a forgotten and dark part of our history and as a foundation we need to explain this whole complex history, not just a part of it," Ayrault said. "I think young people today are really interested in these issues." 

"It's also our duty towards the descendants of those who had to live for several more years in slavery after it was brought back," he said. "It's a question of fairness. A country can only become stronger if it knows and understands its past."

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