N & E
Napoléon & Empire

Napoleon Bonaparte and Slavery

For some years now, the re-establishment of black slavery in the French colonies of America in 1802 has occupied one of the first places, if not the first, among the faults imputed to Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul. To our contemporaries, this decision seems unjustifiable; however, this judgment is made according to our present-day criteria, which of course differ greatly from those of two centuries ago. Moreover, this measure is part of a historical context that explains it, if not legitimizes it.

First and foremost, we need to look at Napoleon Bonaparte as a man, since he was the focus of most criticisms, from the most measured to the most radical: was he intolerant or even hostile towards foreigners or people with a different skin color, particularly those of African origin? Was he xenophobic or racist, in today's terminology (which largely dates from after his death)? As the man about whom most has been written since Jesus Christ, if there's the slightest hint that he was, it's bound to have appeared in the literature.

It is also useful to briefly describe the colonial context in these post-revolutionary years, and the use that was then made of slavery by the great Western powers, even as the slave trade from Africa dwindled. We will confine our discussion to the transatlantic slave trade, excluding slavery in the Arab-Muslim world and China, which officially continued until the early 20th century.

Finally, as is only right and proper, the chronology of events leading to the re-establishment of slavery deserves to be coupled with a historical analysis of the political, economic and military conditions during this period of upheaval and uncertainty.

Was Napoleon Bonaparte xenophobic or racist?

When tackling this subject in the 21st century, it's worth considering Napoleon Bonaparte's "frame of reference" in relation to the mores of the time, and the very nature of the individual. Hundreds of thousands of testimonies and publications about Napoleon Bonaparte must inevitably reveal his shortcomings (and the man had them, as we all do), particularly when it came to xenophobia and racism.

As far as xenophobia is concerned (the term "xenophobe" is a neologism coined by Anatole France in 1901, eighty years after the Emperor's death), it's easy to prove that Napoleon had no aversion to foreigners, either in the exercise of his power or in his private life.

As a general, and then as Head of State, we have no example of foreigners being treated badly by Napoleon as such. Diplomats were received with every consideration (including those from distant lands, such as the Persian ambassador), defeated soldiers were treated humanely, and whenever peace could be signed, including with England in 1802, it was.

On a personal level, which is ultimately what tells us most about his nature, the fact that Napoleon had a son with a Polish woman (Maria Walewska, the woman he loved most along with Josephine) and another with an Austrian (Empress Marie-Louise) suggests that he was in no way xenophobic. The fact that he entrusted his own life to the care of a Georgian-born, Egyptian-raised Armenian (the Mamluk Roustam Raza) for many years removes any remaining doubts on the subject.

As far as racism is concerned (the word "racist" appeared, depending on the source, in 1892 or 1894), fact-checking − as we say in French − is less easy insofar as, throughout his life, Napoleon Bonaparte probably didn't come across many non-Caucasian individuals. We can, however, look at the conflicting relationships he had with Generals Dumas (Thomas Alexandre Davy de La Pailleterie, a.k.a.) and Toussaint Louverture, and whether the skin color of these two general officers was a factor.

Le général Dumas
Le général Dumas
 Agrandir

General Dumas was highly regarded by Napoleon Bonaparte at the start of the Egyptian campaign, who chose him to command the cavalry of the Armée d'Orient, the most prestigious post of the expedition, and put under his command no less than generals Joachim Murat, Louis-Nicolas Davout and Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc. Napoleon Bonaparte could not therefore be accused of any discrimination on the grounds of skin color − quite the contrary, in fact.

A quarrel between the two men over military issues in the aftermath of the Battle of the Pyramids led to General Dumas' departure from Egypt. Despite these tensions, no racist insults were uttered, if we are to believe Alexandre Dumas, the general's son, who recounted the conversation (Mes Mémoires, Tome 1).

However, the quarrel continued under the Consulate, and General Dumas was retired in 1802, never to be reinstated in the army.

François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a brilliant Major General of the French Republic, was also initially treated particularly well by First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte, who appointed him Captain-General of Saint-Domingue on Ventôse 13, Year IX (March 4, 1801). Clearly, Toussaint Louverture's ethnic origin was no handicap in this choice.

However, his promulgation of an autonomous constitution prompted France to send an expedition at the end of 1801 under the command of General Leclerc, in which several "colored" generals took part (André Rigaud, Alexandre Pétion, Jean-Louis Villatte).

Tousssaint's deportation and imprisonment at the Fort de Joux Fortress of Joux took place under harsh conditions, but there is no evidence that his ethnic origin was an aggravating factor.

Finally, in terms of religious tolerance, Napoleon, a baptized Catholic, showed himself to be particularly tolerant of Muslims throughout his life (going so far as to consider converting to Islam during the Egyptian campaign), Protestants, by creating the Protestant theology faculty in Montauban, and Jews, whose worship he helped to organize on a centralized and hierarchical model, the consistory.

All in all, there is no evidence to suggest that Napoleon Bonaparte was xenophobic or racist (according to today's definition of these terms), or that he ever behaved in a way that would give rise to suspicions of discrimination on the grounds of nationality, religion or skin color.

Didier Grau

The colonies on the eve of the Consulate

During the last decades of the Ancien Régime, France's colonial empire underwent major amputations: Canada, India, Louisiana (Treaty of Paris, 1763). The West Indies were the jewel in the crown of what remained. The "sugar islands" (Martinique, Guadeloupe and the French part of Saint-Domingue) accounted for over three-quarters of the world's production of this indispensable raw material, and provided a living for around one in every 8 or 10 French people.

Saint-Domingue, in particular, was of prime importance to the kingdom's economic development. Reputed to be the richest island in the world, it alone generated more profit than the rest of the archipelago (including Cuba and Jamaica). It generated 137 million pounds in revenue, almost 15% of France's total foreign trade, and ensured a level of activity and wealth for all the country's ports that would not soon return.

The French colonies had no other purpose than mercantile. Since the reign of Louis XIV, they had been subject to the "Exclusif" regime. Under this regime, they were forbidden any commercial relations with foreign countries. This system was essential to the economy of metropolitan France, because of the profits it generated.

The fate of overseas settlements, and Saint-Domingue in particular, was therefore a major issue for the country. Products such as sugar, coffee and cotton were as essential as oil today.

In the absence of voluntary immigrants, the lack of local labor led to massive recourse to slavery, which posed no particular moral problem throughout the 18th century. The transatlantic slave trade brought over a million Africans to the West Indies between 1676 and 1800.

On the eve of 1789, Saint-Domingue was home to some 600,000 enslaved blacks, 30,000 free men of color and mulattoes (from unions between whites and blacks) and 55,000 whites. Elsewhere in the West Indies, the proportions were comparable. Such a distribution presupposed, to be maintained, an authoritarian regime. The State and the colonies did not always have the means. Fugitive slaves (known as "Maroons") were numerous, despite the rigorous penalties incurred. The harshness of the Code Noir (inherited from Jean-Baptiste Colbert) that governed their lives and the lack of prospects for emancipation justified the risks they took.

The situation was particularly tense at the dawn of the French Revolution. The colonists wanted to free themselves from the tutelage of Versailles and trade restrictions; the mulattoes were thirsty for social advancement; the slaves dreamed of liberation.

In Saint-Domingue, unrest began as early as the end of 1789. At first, the struggles mainly involved mulattos and whites, whose various factions clashed over the colony's autonomy and the civil rights of mixed-bloods. Then, in August 1791, the first major servile revolt broke out, claiming more than a thousand colonist lives. By 1792, the situation was anarchic. On September 21, 1793, the civil commissioners Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel abolished slavery on the island on their own authority, less to restore calm than to secure the support of the blacks in the conflict with England that had begun in February.

In the rest of the West Indies, the same causes produced much the same effects. In general, however, the authorities succeeded in bringing about a more or less brutal return to order.

On February 3, 1794, the Convention voted to abolish slavery in all the French colonies, convinced by the new deputy for Saint-Domingue, Louis-Pierre Dufaÿ, that this would be a major advantage in the war.

Although the decision was historic, as France became the first country in the world to take it, its practical impact proved limited. Abolition was achieved in Saint-Domingue, impossible in British-occupied Martinique, Saint Lucia and Tobago, and refused by the colonists east of the Cape of Good Hope. In the end, only Guadeloupe benefited, once the island had been retaken after a few months of British domination. But this was accompanied by severe economic difficulties. Having to pay for their labor considerably reduced the profitability of the farms.

The next five years saw the rise of Toussaint-Louverture. After taking part in the 1791 revolt, he first served the Spanish, then joined the French after Sonthonax abolished slavery. Brigadier general in 1795, division general in 1796, he took command of the army of Saint-Domingue the following year.

His policy was to give the island effective independence, while keeping it within the French orbit for geopolitical reasons. His realism led him to attempt to create a new elite by endowing his lieutenants, and to revive the economy by replacing slavery with forced labor. Nor was he afraid to trade with ships engaged in the slave trade.

After a period of rapprochement with the English, he broke with them and removed France's representatives, by force if necessary. By the time the Directoire gave way to the Consulate, Toussaint was firmly in control of the French part of Saint-Domingue, having brutally crushed General André Rigaud's Métis army, and had his sights set on the Spanish possessions. Despite his increasingly personal power, Toussaint still claimed to be a member of the French Republic.

However, the fragility of this declaration of allegiance and the importance of the colony concerned were to make Saint-Domingue the main theater of an inexpiable struggle between the humanism of revolutionary principles and the interests of the Nation.

The First Consul and the re-establishment of slavery

The abolition of slavery, passed without preparation or accompanying measures by the Convention on 16 pluviôse an II (February 4, 1794), provoked serious unrest in colonies already troubled by the Revolution. In some cases, the colonists revolted; in others, the authorities refused to apply the measure; in Guadeloupe, a black republic was proclaimed; in Saint-Domingue, Toussaint-Louverture began his rise and pursued a policy aimed at independence.

Such was the chaos that Abbé Grégoire himself, one of the most ardent abolitionists, later regretted the terms of this sudden emancipation. What's more, the liberation of the slaves, where it took effect, led to serious economic difficulties and a collapse in production. At the time, trade in colonial goods was an essential component of France's balance of trade. In 1789, sugar alone accounted for almost 4% of the national budget. To remain a world power, France had to keep its colonies and put them back to work.

Under these conditions, if slavery proved a necessary condition for their prosperity, it was difficult to oppose it solely on moral or philosophical grounds. All the more so as Toussaint Louverture himself, in an attempt to revitalize agricultural activity, did not hesitate to resort to forced labor and ruthless management of the workforce, reviving the ancient encomienda system that the Spaniards had experimented with centuries earlier on the natives.

By 1799, advocates of abolition were few and far between, especially in the corridors of power. Only Joseph Fouché, who expressed his position in sessions of the Conseil d'État, and Admiral Laurent Truguet, Napoleon's maritime advisor, who was in favor of the 1794 law and Toussaint, opposed to the maintenance of slavery in the Indian Ocean or Leclerc's expedition, were to be found. Their few supporters, Abbé Grégoire and the philosopher Volney, who were close to the "Ideologues", had accompanied them in their disgrace − which, incidentally, had nothing to do with the issue of slavery.

On the other hand, what we might call the "colonial lobby" (although the term "lobby" was not coined until a few years later) enjoyed a great deal of support at the highest level. Jean-Jacques de Cambacérés, the Second Consul, Pierre-Alexandre Forfait, the Minister of the Navy, his successor Admiral Denis Decrés, François Barbé-Marbois, the last Intendant of Saint-Domingue under the Ancien Régime, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Michel Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angély, all lobbied the First Consul to reverse the false philanthropy that had led to abolition. What's more, the crimes committed by the rebels in Saint-Domingue had alienated many sympathizers, starting with François-René de Chateaubriand.

At international level, abolition was not on the agenda. The most advanced nations, such as England and the United States, were only just discussing the prohibition of the slave trade (which would only come into effect in 1807-1808, and would not apply to the internal slave trade in the USA). The most eminent American figures, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were not averse to owning slaves or, in the case of the latter, to professing ideas of the utmost violence towards them.

Napoleon, for his part, came to power with no fixed position on the issue. In Malta, he had issued an abolition decree; in Egypt, he had bought supplies on the slave market to supplement his army.

In December 1799, the consuls issued a proclamation to the citizens of Saint-Domingue, confirming the freedom of the Blacks. But it also contained a warning to Toussaint Louverture, whose shifty politics had sometimes led him to side with the Republic's enemies. In August 1800, before the Conseil d'État, Napoleon once again asserted that abolition had been an asset for France in its fight against England in the West Indies. He was counting on Toussaint to restore the government's authority on the island, and confirmed him as General-in-Chief.

Toussaint-Louverture
Toussaint Louverture
 Agrandir

But the strongman of Saint-Domingue, in a bid to strengthen his already brilliant position by taking advantage of the circumstances, made mistakes that the First Consul was to interpret as provocations. The most serious of these was the invasion of the Spanish part of Saint-Domingue, even though France and Spain had once again become allies. Not only did the measure run counter to Consular policy, but it had also been imposed on the local French representative under threat of massacre of all the island's whites, and was soon followed by his expulsion. When news of this reached France, Napoleon decided not to appoint Toussaint Captain General of the French part of the island, and had him removed from the army (April 1801).

The adoption by the colony of a new constitution made by and for Toussaint, who became governor for life, consummated the First Consul's tilt towards the "colonial lobby", especially as the prospects of peace with England held out the hope of reconstituting the French colonial empire as it had been before the Revolution. Shortly after the signing of the London peace preliminaries, the principle of a 20,000-strong expedition to regain control of Saint-Domingue was established. However, the re-establishment of slavery was still not, officially at least, on the agenda. Expedition leader Leclerc's instructions specified that abolition was to remain in force in the French part of the island, as was slavery in the Spanish part.

From then on, the First Consul claimed to apply a new doctrine, expressed in a message to the legislature on November 22, 1801: In Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe, there are no longer any slaves, everything is free and everything will remain free [...] Martinique has retained slavery and slavery will be retained there.

This compromise solution was finally adopted in the law of 30 Floréal Year X (May 20, 1802). It established that in the colonies returned to France in execution of the Treaty of Amiens [...], slavery would be maintained in accordance with the laws and regulations in force prior to 1789 (article 1). The same shall apply in the other French colonies beyond the Cape of Good Hope (article 2).

Strictly speaking, therefore, it was not a question of re-establishing slavery, but of maintaining it where the law of 1794, which remained in force, had not been implemented. Nevertheless, the reasons attached to the bill, drafted by Minister Decrés, made it quite clear that this was only a stage in the process, and that the aim was indeed to return to the previous regime. It was simply a matter of waiting for the most favorable moment. As proof of this, Napoleon wrote to Decrès on August 7, 1802: [il faut] tout préparer au rétablissement de l'esclavage.

Britain's passivity in the face of the concentration of Leclerc's expeditionary corps in the midst of peace negotiations suggests that the British understood this. From their point of view, abolition risked destabilizing their own colonies in the long term, and the re-establishment of slavery in French possessions was eminently desirable. The colonists of Louisiana, like the neighboring states, also needed to be reassured of France's intentions to implement abolition in this newly recovered territory. Both would probably have seen this as a cause for conflict.

After a promising start, Leclerc's mission gradually turned into a disaster. Toussaint's arrest and deportation to mainland France, where he died a few months later amid general indifference, was only the prelude to a general revolt among his lieutenants when rumors of the re-establishment of slavery spread. At the end of 1803, after clashes of rare ferocity, the last remnants of the French expedition left the colony, which proclaimed its independence on the following January 1, 1804.

In Guadeloupe, the local authorities, General Antoine Richepanse and Rear Admiral Jean-Baptiste Raymond de Lacrosse, re-established slavery − avoiding the use of the word − without a government mandate. The resulting unrest was suppressed with savage brutality, including massacres. Napoleon bears no responsibility for the massacres, of which he was only informed after the fact. He did not, however, disown his subordinates. A new governor, sent in 1803, pacified the situation.

In French Guiana, Governor Victor Hugues also decided alone to re-establish slavery. But he was given carte blanche by the government, even though he had never concealed his views on slavery.

All in all, this policy proved disastrous, leading directly or indirectly to the loss of Saint-Domingue, the sale of Louisiana to the United States and the end of French colonial ambitions in the New World.

To those of us familiar with the outcome of this denial of the principles of the Revolution − which the new regime was intended to continue − it seems singularly unproductive. Yet it was the consequence of a cold, objective assessment of the situation. In fact, this is perhaps the main criticism that can be levelled at Napoleon: power interests were the sole compass for his actions. The human aspects, which were basically indifferent to him, were subordinated to economic and political interests.

The condition of the Blacks was of no concern to him. Slavery was a universally established, centuries-old fact, to be judged solely on its benefits for a nation which, as First Consul, he was in charge of. The immorality that shocks us two centuries later was not perceptible to him. What mattered to him was the possession of prosperous colonies, strategically essential in the struggle against the United Kingdom, seen as a vital challenge for France. Yet this prosperity seemed to almost everyone to be conditional on slavery. Toussaint himself had essentially maintained it. For Napoleon, its re-establishment was a necessity for French ambitions.

There was no need to resort to racism to explain his decision: inexorable pragmatism was the only cause!

Lionel A. Bouchon