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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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