Slave Revolt, St. Domingue (Haiti),1793. "Incendie du Cap" [Burning of Cape Francais]; "Revolte générale des Negres. Massacre des Blancs" [General revolt of the Blacks. Massacre of the Whites]. Shows, from a decidedly pro-colonial perspective, French colonists fleeing Cap Francais in St. Domingue, as the slave rebellion of 1793 intensified; many fled to the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Source. Anon., Saint-Domingue, ou histoire de ses revolutions . . . (Paris, 1815).
By MARCEL MANVILLE*
Le Monde diplomatique April 1998
The enslavement of thirty million Africans and their transportation to the Americas over a period of three hundred years need to be recognised as the earliest crimes against humanity. Despite the abolition of slavery, in France's remaining dependencies the problems remain - as they do in the rest of the third world. It is time to speak out, claim the right to national sovereignty and emerge from a shadow world consigned to the margins of history.
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by France
ARTICLE 1 of the Royal Edict of May 1664 establishing the French West Indies Company proclaimed that "the purpose of founding colonies is to glorify God by bringing the true faith to the natives ...". The first slaves' revolt had already taken place in 1655. The runaways, or "marrons" (1), were led by Francisque Fabulet, who bore his master's name according to the custom of the day. Another leader called Sechou, one of Antoine de la Prairie's slaves, was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered and "to have his remains exhibited on the public highway", for encouraging his fellow-slaves to escape and join the West Indians - those who had managed to survive.
In the margins of history
The French court had been shocked to hear of the hardships endured by slaves and the Code reflected their concern. Nonetheless, it made no real difference to the lives of the slaves who continued to be regarded as chattels. Slavery was eventually abolished, for the first time, in 1794, when the French Revolution leader Robespierre carried the day with his bold appeal: "Let the colonies perish, our principles will live for ever". However, it was reinstated in 1804 and maintained until 1848, under pressure from colonists, financiers and the middle classes in successive regimes - first empire and then monarchy.
It took a 'second' French Revolution - and the imminence of the industrial revolution - for Deputy Victor Schoelcher to win the battle for abolition. The vital decree was passed on 27 April 1848 and the slaves were free at last. In those days, it took more than two months for news from Europe to reach America, and the Governor of Martinique had to face one last slaves' revolt at Saint-Pierre on 22 May 1848, commemorated by a public holiday on the island since the left came to power in France in 1981 (2).
To this day there are streets named after Victor Schoelcher in almost every village in Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana. One does not wish to diminish the achievement of the great abolitionist. But he himself said "it was not his fault that every step on the road to freedom was stained with blood" and, for the victims and their descendants, feelings of recognition and gratitude must always give way to remembrance."
We can never accept that we were made to suffer the fate that Montesquieu has described in these terms. "The peoples of Europe, having exterminated the peoples of America, have been obliged to enslave the peoples of Africa and use them to clear all those lands for cultivation. Sugar would cost too much if the plant that produces it were not tended by slaves" (3). Europe has chosen draw a veil over this first genocide, but public apologies are now the order of the day and the time has come to speak out loud and clear and restore this shameful episode to its rightful place in the history of mankind.
There is an old African proverb, often quoted by the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano (4). "The history of hunting will always glorify the hunter, so long as lions have no historians of their own". For Galeano, when Columbus "discovered" America, it really meant that "Europe buried America", wiping out the Indians and introducing slavery.
We must never forget the blood, sweat, toil and tears of our African forebears, torn from their native lands, deprived of their sun and their gods. Slavery was the first crime against humanity, before the crimes against Armenians, Jews, Cambodians and Rwandans. Africa was bled on a vast scale, century after century. As the French Academician, Andrè Frossard, said at the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie, "To kill people just because they were born: that is a crime against humanity (5)î.
Apology is currently in fashion. It should be extended to the black community and the American Indians, still objects of contempt and discrimination. But that is not all. Five centuries have passed since Columbus. We cannot simply brood on the past. We in the Antilles, for example, who are often still regarded as the bastard offspring of Europe and Africa, have a long way to go yet.
Slavery was abolished a hundred and fifty years ago. But, legal troubles apart, those who are still subject to colonial rule continue to face the same problems. We represent the third world, consigned to the margins of history, the world of the excluded, of those who have to fight for a place in the sun.
Frantz Fanon, Martinique-born author of Wretched of the Earth, is regarded by intellectuals all over the world as one of the century's leading thinkers, ranking alongside Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Paul Valèry. In his political and moral testament, he reminds us that: "We must grow a new skin, develop new ways of thinking, create a new breed of men, to end for ever man's inhumanity to man". Fanon is a constant source of inspiration for people all over the world who want no part in lost causes, moral turpitude, resignation, withdrawal; who want to face the future and gain political sovereignty.
We must carry the word to the people, fire their imaginations. We will continue to search night and day for the humanity in man, as instructed by Fanon, my old companion in hope and adversity. The Law of 16 March 1946 conferred the status of Overseas Department on the three colonial territories of the Antilles and French Guiana. But they have yet to come of age politically. And we cannot, as we too often do, hold the French state entirely to blame for this anachronism.
Colonial powers are not bent on self-destruction. They will never willingly concede that their subject states have a right to independence. Nor should we underestimate the trahison des clercs, the selfish treachery of the educated classes and of a whole section of the political class, who have failed to honour their obligations and have chosen since 1848 to fill their own bellies, rather than throw in their lot with those who hope - at some risk to themselves - for better things to come.
Victor Schoelcher's vision
To be in chains is a terrible fate. To forget you are in chains is worse. Our peoples have been relegated to a shadow world consigned to the margins of history. We must mobilise and claim our territories' right to national sovereignty. We cannot obliterate more than three centuries of colonisation. But experience has taught us that assimilation and decentralisation are mere palliatives.
Those who proclaim urbi et orbi, for all the world to hear, that industrialisation and economic development must come first, are wrong. The colonial power is not about to create conditions in the Antilles and French Guiana in which national products can enter into serious competition with goods imported from France. No Martinican firm, despite campaigns to encourage the public to buy home-grown products, will ever be able to compete, for example, with the cargoes of cheap tomatoes and early fruit and vegetables flown in almost nightly by 747 "Pelican" cargo...
Yet Victor Schoelcher himself had a vision, over a century ago. "Looking at the Lesser Antilles, all those islands so close to one another, one imagines that one day they will form a single nation. They will have one navy, flying one flag. Not today perhaps, but tomorrow."
The Deputy for Martinique, Aimé Césaire, once said that there had been ìoutbreaks of independence" from time to time in the Caribbean. Though he failed to draw the conclusions from his own statement. As Frantz Fanon wrote, "Decolonisation is really about creating a new breed of men. The chattels of colonial power become men by the very act breaking free (6).î
Translated by Barbara Wilson
(1) From the Spanish cimarron, a domestic pig returned to wild.
(2) One of François Mitterrand's first acts on becoming president in 1981 was to place a flower on Victor Schoelcher's tomb in the Pantheon in Paris.
(3) Montesquieu, "Le droit de rendre les nègres esclaves", De l'Esprit des lois, Book XV, Chapter V.
(4) Eduardo Galeano, Les Veines ouvertes de l'Amérique latine, Plon, Paris, 1981.
(5) André Frossard, Le Crime contre l'humanité, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1987.
(6) Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, Penguin, Twentieth Century Classics, 1990, (Les Damnés de la terre, Gallimard, Paris, 1991).
* Martinican lawyer, President of the Frantz Fanon Society.
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