Geopolitics

Cancel Napoleon? French West Indies Decry Emperor For Slavery Role

As France and its overseas departments mark 200 years since Napoleon's death, his role in spreading slavery to the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique is prompting more and more to reverse his heroic legacy.

A statue of Napoleon in Paris
A statue of Napoleon in Paris
Jean-Michel Hauteville

FORT-DE-FRANCE — TV reports, radio talk shows, columns in local dailies... On the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique as in mainland France, the upcoming bicentenary of Napoleon's death isn't going unnoticed. But that doesn't mean that people in the overseas départements are eager to celebrate as May 5, the anniversary of the famed emperor's passing, draws near.

On the contrary, more and more opinions on his legacy are hostile here in Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique, and the rest of what are collectively known as the French West Indies. "We are completely opposed to this commemoration," says Eric Caberia, a member of the Martiniquan Duty of Remembrance Committee, a memorial association founded in 1997. "(His supporters) say we want to erase Napoleon from history, but this is a bad-faith attitude. Spain doesn't formally commemorate Franco's death, yet he remains an important figure in Spanish history."

Like the members of this association, many people in the French Caribbean blame Napoleon Bonaparte for reversing what had been gained overseas during the French Revolution.

In February 1794, the National Convention (the parliament during the Revolution) passed a decree that freed all slaves and made them French citizens. The decree wasn't enforced in Martinique, then under English occupation, but was proclaimed in Guadeloupe in December 1794, after a military campaign of several months against the militias of French planters, who were opposed to the Revolution, and their British allies.

Everyone here in Guadeloupe knows who reestablished slavery in 1802: It was Napoleon.

It wasn't just slavery that was abolished. "It is often forgotten, but the new Constitution of 1795 also put an end to the colonial regime and made Guadeloupe, Guyana and Santo Domingo state départements, subjected to the same law as the French mainland," recalls Frédéric Regent, a historian of ancestry in Guadeloupe and a lecturer at the University Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne.

All of this changed, however, when the man who was still known simply as Bonaparte came to power. "One month after the Coup of 18 Brumaire, Article 91 of the Constitution of 1799 restored colonial status with specific laws," says Frédéric Regent.

For the French colonies, this setback would have lasting consequences: They'd have to wait all the way until 1946 to become French départements for good.

Still, what really sealed Napoleon's legacy in the West Indies was a series of events in 1802. In the Law of 20 May 1802, the First Consul proclaimed that "slavery will be maintained in accordance with the laws and regulations prior to 1789" in Martinique, which had just returned under French governance, but also in Réunion and Mauritius, where the abolition of 1794 hadn't been enforced either.

French colonies had to wait until 1946 to become départements for good. — Photo: Ait Adjedjou Karim/Abaca via ZUMA Press

At the same time, Bonaparte dispatched General Antoine Richepanse and a troop of 3,500 men to Guadeloupe to reestablish the old order by force — outside of any legal framework. Guadeloupe resistance fighters, led by Colonel Louis Delgrès, were quickly defeated. According to Frédéric Régent, the expedition killed around 6,000 people, including 1,000 soldiers. Then, with the Napoleonic decree of July 16, 1802, the former Guadeloupe slaves, who had been freed eight years earlier, returned to slavery.

"Everyone here in Guadeloupe knows who reestablished slavery in 1802: It was Napoleon," says Josette Borel-Lincertin, the leftist president of the departmental council. "The community is not going to take part in these commemorations, except to echo the only thing we can on this side of the ocean: the echo of our pain."

The council head also explained that every evening starting May 5, the bicentenary of the Emperor's death, until May 28, the anniversary of Delgrès' defeat, two historical buildings that symbolize this episode, in the cities Pointe-à-Pitre and Basse-Terre, "will shine with a blood-red light, a symbol of the scar in our history that these commemorations will revive."

Historian Frédéric Régent argues that it's understandable to organize ceremonies to commemorate Napoleon's death. "To commemorate does not necessarily mean to honor: After all, we commemorate the Vél" d'Hiv Roundup," he says. But he also refutes the argument that says that the Emperor should be pardoned because he was only a man of his time.

"Napoleon made a choice," Régent says. "Many of his contemporaries were against slavery, and in particular a whole assembly of deputies, who had abolished it in 1794."

It was not until the spring of 1848 that the Second Republic permanently put an end to slavery in the colonies — an epilogue that makes France the only country in the world to have had two abolitions.

"It is as if there were two Napoleons, one in the overseas territories, and another in metropolitan France," says Valérie-Ann Edmond-Mariette, a doctoral student in history at the University of the Antilles in Fort-de-France. "Even when you create a hero, you also have to learn to talk about his flaws and his story as a whole."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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