Napoleon Isn’t a Hero to CelebrateRoundup
tags: slavery, colonialism, racism, French history, Napoleon
Professor Daut teaches American and African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism.
After a year in which statues of enslavers and colonizers were toppled, defaced or taken down across Europe and the United States, France has decided to move in the opposite direction. The year 2021 is being hailed by many museums and institutions in the country as the “Year of Napoleon” to commemorate France’s biggest tyrant, an icon of white supremacy, Napoleon Bonaparte, who died 200 years ago on the island of Saint-Helena on May 5, 1821.
As a Black woman of Haitian descent and a scholar of French colonialism, I find it particularly galling to see that France plans to celebrate the man who restored slavery to the French Caribbean, an architect of modern genocide, whose troops created gas chambers to kill my ancestors.
First, some history: In 1794, in the wake of the revolution that transformed France from a monarchy into a republic — and after an enormous slave rebellion ended slavery on the French island of Saint-Domingue (today, Haiti) — France declared slavery’s abolition throughout its territory. But in 1802, Napoleon was in charge and reversed that decision, making France the only country to ever have brought back chattel slavery after abolishing it. The repercussions of Napoleon’s actions lasted long after he was finally removed from power in 1815: The French only definitively re-abolished slavery in 1848.
The French public ordinarily obfuscates, ignores or isn’t aware of this history. This is because the French education system, which I taught in from 2002 to 2003, encourages the belief that France is a colorblind country with an “emancipatory history.” When French schools do teach colonial history, they routinely tout that the country was the first of the European world powers to abolish slavery. They usually leave out or gloss over how and why slavery was re-established eight years later by Napoleon, who used the justification that if he did not reinstate it, sooner or later, the “scepter of the New World” would “fall into the hands of the Blacks.”
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