“Napoleon, the dark side” > Napoleon’s re-establishement of slavery (< 2 min. read)

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“Napoleon, the dark side” is a section that uses the most recent research and offers you a clear, precise, and synthetic analysis of some of the more contraversial moments of Napoleonic history.

“Napoleon, the dark side” > Napoleon’s re-establishement of slavery (< 2 min. read)

The abolition in 1794

The abolition of slavery was decreed in France by the Convention on 4 February 1794 (16 Pluviôse, Year II). It was applied in the West Indies, except in Martinique,  occupied at the time by the British. On the other hand, the law did not come into force in the Indian Ocean colonies because of resistance from the landowner/colonists.

The maintenance of abolition by Bonaparte

When he came to power, Napoleon Bonaparte had no intention of reversing the law of 1794. He declared this on several occasions, notably in a proclamation of 25 December 1799 to the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue: “The consuls of the Republic, in announcing the new social pact, declare that the sacred principles of liberty and the equality of the blacks will never be infringed or modified among you”.

Economics and geopolitics at the origin of the re-establishment of slavery

At the end of 1801, peace negotiations were held with England and with them the hope of resuming trade with the West Indian colonies. Bonaparte then imagined taking control of the French colonies, and an agreement with Spain (which governed Mexico and Florida and had promised to cede Louisiana) to turn the Gulf of Mexico into a “French lake” which would ensure that the Franco-Spanish partnership would control the sugar cane trade.

The declaration of independence of Santo Domingo: the trigger

The colonial lobby was very persistant in Bonaparte’s entourage (though that is not to say that Josephine, necessarily had any say in the matter). The revolts in the colonies – and in particular Toussaint-Louverture’s proclamation of independence in Saint-Domingue – forced the First Consul to take the step of taking back the colonies by force and, in the process, re-establishing slavery in order to revive the traditional economy.

The law re-establishing slavery

On 27 April 1802, in a note to the Second Consul, Cambacérès, Bonaparte set out the main lines of his overseas policy. The re-establishment of slavery was one of them. A short bill was drafted and adopted by the organs of state (the Tribunat, the Legislative body, and the Senate): 54 ayes against 27 noes in the Tribunate alone, a similar majority in the Legislative body, with a hundred negative votes out of a little more than 200 members of all three bodies.

The law of 30 Floréal Year X (20 May 1802) has four articles, which provide:

  • Article 1: In the colonies returned to France in execution of the treaty of Amiens of 6 Germinal, Year X, slavery shall be maintained in accordance with the laws and regulations prior to 1789.
  • Article 2: The same shall apply in the other French colonies beyond the Cape of Good Hope.
  • Article 3: The slave trade and its importation into the said colonies shall be carried on in accordance with the laws and regulations existing before the said time of 1789.
  • Article 4: Notwithstanding all previous laws, the regime of the colonies is subject for ten years to the regulations which will be made by the government.

Bonaparte’s additional instructions

Formally, the law only “maintained” slavery where it had not been abolished, i.e., in law, in the colonies occupied by the British from 1794 to 1802 (Martinique essentially) and, in fact, in those situated east of the Cape of Good Hope.

But in the instructions he gave to the captains general who were to administer the “reconquered” colonies, Bonaparte asked them to re-establish slavery everywhere, when they deemed it appropriate. This is what they would do in Saint-Domingue, Guyana and Guadeloupe.

The West Indian islands were set ablaze, and this civil war was accompanied by a relentless repression by the French mainland armies, with exactions on both sides.

Historians of Napoleon and the re-establishment of slavery

Even though contemporaries on the French mainland were largely unmoved by it, the re-establishment of slavery and the repression that followed remain a stain on the posterity of the consular regime. It has never been avoided by historians of Napoleon, and even less so when contemporary sensibilities have placed these facts at the forefront of the questions raised about the Napoleonic episode. Following Louis Madelin, Jean Tulard and others, Thierry Lentz and Pierre Branda have worked on these questions. The former devoted a long chapter of his Grand Consulat (Fayard, 1999) to this subject. The two historians have published an entire book on the question: Napoléon, l’esclavage et les colonies (Fayard, 2006).


10 December 2020 (Eng. trans  14 April 2021)

More episodes of “Napoleon, the dark side :

► The human cost of the Napoleonic wars (< 3 min. read)

Napoleon and the colonies (< 3 min. read)

► Napoleon’s re-establishement of slavery (< 2 min. read)

► Napoleon and Santo Domingo (Haïti and Santo Domingo) (< 4 min. read)

► Napoleon and Guadeloupe (< 2 min. read)

Did Napoleon enact “genocide” in the French colonies? (< 3 min. read)

► Napoleon and women (< 4 min. read)

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