The abolition of slavery in the French Colonies in 1848.

This was an era when the Caribbean was known, with very good reason, as a slaves’ graveyard. Before they even arrived there, the slaves had to endure appalling conditions on the voyage from Africa. In 1789, anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce estimated that 12 per cent of them died on the long journey; another 5 per cent died when they were seized from their homes, force-marched to the coast and incarcerated before being put on to grossly overcrowded ships.What awaited them in the Caribbean was chattel slavery. They remained the property of their owners until they died. Children born to enslaved women became the masters’ property, too, either to be sold on, or worked on the plantations where they had been born. Any slave who dared rebel, or tried to escape, was punished with an astonishing brutality.It was not until 1794, in the midst of a tumultuous slave revolution in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti), that the French National Convention decreed – even if it was short lived – the abolition of slavery in its Caribbean colonies. Facing continued resistance to the French colonial order, a policy of “terror” was exercised in Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe and French Guiana. In the end, it was only Saint-Domingue that triumphed over France and so declared its independence on January 1, 1804. Slavery would be reinstated in Guadeloupe and French Guiana in 1802 and 1803 respectively, and it was not until 1848 that slavery was legally abolished in colonies throughout the French Empire. The efficacy of the abolition decree varied immensely. In French colonies Africa, such as Senegal and Algeria, there was no immediacy to the 1848 abolition, and slavery would instead have a “slow death” as it did elsewhere on the continen.

French national discourse on slavery and abolition has been shaped by “silences” and “myths.” In response to these critiques, there have been visible state efforts to acknowledge France’s complicated relationship with slavery, race, and abolition. In May 2016, the French President François Hollande announced the formation of a foundation that would take the lead in establishing a national museum in Paris which would be dedicated to the memory of slavery and the slave trade. This announcement comes one year after, the opening of the Caribbean-based Mémorial ACTe which was opened in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, for the express purpose of creating a site dedicated to the collective memory of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. Despite these state efforts, there is still much debate about how the history of slavery and abolition should be told.

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