What does this decision say about this country?
May 5th marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Napoléon Bonaparte. The man was hardly loved by all during his life. Two hundred years later, his legacy divides, beyond France.
“Haitians remember Napoléon Bonaparte as a racist” says Pierre Buteau.
The historian refers to the battles led by the slaves of Saint-Domingue, starting in 1791 which forced a proclamation abolishing slavery in all the French colonies two years later.
In 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte reconsidered this decision. France then becomes the only country in the world to have reintroduced slavery after its abolition.
This show of force was met with a relentless resistance in Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Led first by Toussaint Louverture – who died in France after his arrest on the orders of Napoleon – then by Jean Jacques Dessalines, the slaves and formerly freed blacks of Saint-Domingue will fight the powerful French army to proclaim in 1804 the world’s first black Republic and the first independent state in the Caribbean.
“For France and for Napoleon, continues Pierre Buteau, Haiti is not a good memory. It was there that he lost one of the richest colonies in the Western colonial system of the time. In addition, he lost it in a resounding way. The last battle lost at Vertières opened the world to new avenues.”
The implications of the Haitian revolution are cataclysmic for the time. The French revolution of 1789 proclaimed all men free and equal. The hundreds of thousands of human beings under the yoke of slavery in the multiple colonies were not among them. Neither were women.
In 1776, Americans also said that all men were born equal. As they wrote this sentence in the Constitution of the United States, Thomas Jefferson had several slaves in his house, some of whom were his own family members.
“Haiti is undoubtedly the cradle of the modern world, declared historian Crystal Eddins, Charlotte University, United States. We can no longer speak of problems linked to slavery and freedom, to the anti-colonial struggle, to revolutionary activity and to racial justice without evoking – or, more decisively, without centering the discussion around – the Haitian Revolution.”
A seasoned warrior, Napoléon Bonaparte took the reestablishment of slavery very seriously. He delegated for this mission the fierce General Charles Victoire Emmanuel Leclerc, husband of his sister, Pauline Bonaparte. Unable to chain up the former slaves again, the soldiers of this French expedition made cruelty their favorite weapon. Dogs trained to eat blacks were called back to the rescue. But also gas chambers to suffocate captive revolutionaries.
“I am for whites, because I am white. I have no other reason, and that is the right one”, had declared Napoléon Bonaparte before the State Council in 1802. He also instituted a great first in France at the time: the formal ban on marriages between blacks and whites.
Despite his affirmed racism, his dictatorial leanings, his multiple wars having claimed millions of victims in France and in Europe, his misogyny (his Civil Code which made of the woman an eternal minor), Napoléon Bonaparte remains today one of the most acclaimed figures in France.
We must not erase the history of Napoléon because we will no longer understand anything about the monuments, names and institutions that surround us, warned the French napoleologist, Jean Tulard, a few weeks ago.
On May 5, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, unrolled the red carpet “for the man who gave shape to our political and administrative organization, who gave shape to this tentative sovereignty which emerged from the revolution” of 1789.
Outside the borders of France, the commemorations of the Emperor’s death is met with determined resistance. “Napoléon is not a hero to celebrate”, wrote the historian of Haitian origin and AyiboPost collaborator, Marlene Daut, in the New York Times.
“Denouncing the inhuman consequences of France’s efforts to bring back slavery, lays bare the uncomfortable fact that the racism and colonialism that coexist with universal human rights proclamations is not an outlier. This apparent contradiction is in fact fundamental to French republicanism. France should probably spend at least a century thinking about it” concludes the expert.
Pierre Buteau extends this point of view. “History writes around facts” he says. What is happening in France is a historical construction around an emblematic figure at a time when this country is losing its bearings. Napoleon embraced everything we rejected [in Haiti].”
The ramifications of a reassessment of Napoléon Bonaparte would not end with the person, however. Vigorously rejecting the emperor’s despotic, racist and pro-slavery outbursts would require reassessing France’s role in stifling the young Haitian nation after independence. This would require the restitution of at least 28 billion American dollars, taken from Haiti under duress.
But beyond that, France would have to rewrite its national story. It would have to examine carefully how slavery and the slave trade constituted much of the foundation of its wealth today. They would have to assess how this story continues into the present, with the indigent treatment reserved for overseas territories, not to mention the uninhibited and institutionalized racism in France.
This work would hardly involve the historical revisionism so much decried by Emmanuel Macron. It is rather a question of re-examining the facts in the light of the values long proclaimed by the great universal France: freedom, equality, fraternity. It is a work of truth, morals and justice.
However, is France ready? May 10th marked the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the law “pertaining to the recognition of the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity”. The French president who, five days earlier sang the glory of Bonaparte, who himself took part in this dehumanizing enterprise, made no solemn speech for the occasion.