Society - Friend or Enemy of the Blacks? Race and Slavery in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France

Nicholas Stark, FINS


During the French Revolution, when crowds called for Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité there was one group that was frequently forgotten or neglected: blacks. In mainland France, the feudalism of the past kept the French people themselves serfs and made slavery based on Africans less important in the mainland, but that nevertheless did not prevent the development of racial tensions and hatred, especially in the Caribbean colonies where the French did rely on blacks as slave labor, none more-so than in Saint Domingue. Moreover, it was not only blacks, but also mulattoes that suffered under racialist policies.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the racial policies of France from the French Revolution through to Napoleon, and how they shaped the issue for generations to come. This issue is of great relevance and importance to this day, where racial tension has been brought to the forefront of French politics with increasing immigration from North Africa into France. Under examination will be a brief review of the status of blacks under the Ançien Régime, how the French Revolution approached the situation, and finally Napoleon's approach. It will detail their social position, as well as examine the issue of slavery and the slave trade, including the Law of 4 February 1794 whereby the National Convention abolished slavery and the Law of 20 May 1802 whereby Napoleon had agreed not to extend the abolition of slavery to certain islands, despite claims from detractors that he “reinstated” slavery.

In particular, to examine the issue of race relations in context, the paper will focus primarily, but nor exclusively, on Saint Domingue, which perfectly demonstrates the complexity of the situation, involving all three of the groups: blacks, whites, and mulattoes. Supplementary information can be drawn from Egypt and Malta where France and Napoleon also dealt with the issue of slavery. The issue is both the personal views held by the heads of France on race and whether or to what extent that affected public policy.