April 27, 1848 marks the second, and final, abolition of slavery in France. Slaves worked sugar cane plantations in the French colonies in the Caribbean and French West Indies. After the Revolution in 1792, free French slaves were given full citizenship and in 1795, the abolition of slavery was enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Sadly, however, Napoleon did not include this Declaration in his Constitution of 1799 and the military was sent out to enforce the re-harnessing of freed men and women. Napoleon’s in-laws were plantation owners in Martinique and some say that they pressured him for their own financial interest. Be that as it may, the rebellion against the reinstitution of servitude was bloody. The island of Saint Domingue took up arms against France and won its freedom in 1804 as the island of Haiti, but at a tremendous cost in lives and crippling reparations owed to buy liberty.
Two generations later, France moved again to abolish slavery. The state bought the slaves from their owners and then freed them. All was not rosy, however. France had embarked on the colonization of large tracts of East and North Africa. Who better to work the mines and rubber plantations than freed slaves of African origin? The conditions were so horrible that it’s debatable which situation was worse. I was astounded in 2005 when the majority political party, the UMP, passed a law requiring French textbooks to teach that colonization had been a power for good, especially in North Africa. The resultant uproar led to the repeal of the law at the beginning of 2006.
Today’s expression, mettre quelqu’un en liberté (metruh kelkun ehn lee-ber-tay), means “to set someone free.” I’d like to be marking this as the anniversary that slavery ended everywhere, but there are places where people are still enslaved in the world.