200 years since his death, should the French be commemorating a man who was a warmonger and re-introduced slavery to French areas? Should they commemorate a man who brutally tried to re-establish slavery in Haiti in his attempts to put down a slave revolt?
This argument has opened up a deep debate and historical divisions in France. As you can guess the left see him as a dictator and despot and the right admire his French Empire ambitions, giving the country national pride and greatness.
There is a vast amount of information on the web about Napoléon and his countless wars ranging over 50 years so I have no intention of covering that in this blog. We are here to talk yet again about someone who committed atrocities against Black people and who he saw as less than human.
So just a brief over view of the man who created the model for modern military despotism. Napoléon was originally a republican and professed to stand for the people, and yet he murdered his enemies, made himself Emperor and created heirs, a bit like our royal family. At the end of all the warring it was stated in the palace of Fontainebleau, 11th April 1814:
“The Allied Powers having declared that Emperor Napoléon was the sole obstacle to the restoration of peace in Europe, Emperor Napoléon, faithful to his oath, declares that he renounces, for himself and his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no personal sacrifice, even that of his life, which he is not ready to make in the interests of France”.
As they say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We are however here to talk about Black History and his brutal repression of Black slaves. The celebrations in France are driven by President Emmanuel Macron and the right (I think Macron sees himself by association as a great leader). Even the Guardian Newspaper (also 200 years old) leads with the headline ‘Cruel despot or wise reformer?’ At least they put a question mark.
The Slaves Who Defeated Napoléon: The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804)
When information of the French Revolution (which coincidently also began on 5th May in 1789), filtered through to Haiti, it was the beginning of many uprisings against the French. On the night of August 21st 1791, slave representatives from all over Haiti’s northern plain, the rich area surrounding Cap Français, gathered in Bois Caiman (Gator Wood) near Morne Rouge. It was said that the air was dark, hot, and Fiery; a tropical storm rumbled on the horizon. One slave after another emerged from the shadows, scared and thrilled.
They were not allowed to sneak out of their quarters at night, and they knew that slave gatherings were strictly prohibited. With the onset of the French Revolution, rumors swirled among the planters that the Paris-based Société des Amis des Noirs had sent secret agents to Saint-Domingue to incite the slaves to revolt. Anyone accused of furmenting an uprising would likely meet an untimely, and gruesome, end.
The French Revolution climaxed in 1799 and new hopes of freedom started, and so also began Napoléon’s reign.
For a few months, the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. While Napoléon Bonaparte condemned the slave trade, he had no strong opposition to slavery, he did not see Black people as having the same human rights as White Europeans.
Like most of his European contemporaries, Napoléon was a racist. He referred to Bedouins, native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Africans as “savages” – a term he also applied to Cossacks.
He treated the Saint-Domingue-born mixed-race general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (father and grandfather of the writers of the same name) with contempt. At the same time, he welcomed mixed-race men into his army in Egypt, and for the expedition to Saint-Domingue (Haiti).
Napoléon based his policies towards slavery on pragmatism and genetic superiority. He favoured whatever would most benefit him and France.
When it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery (because they had nearly done so on Gaudeloupe), black cultivators revolted in the summer of 1802.
When insurrection broke out in Saint-Domingue, Napoléon argued that France should renew its commitment to emancipation, because:
“this island would go for England if the blacks were not attached to us by their interest in liberty…. They will produce less sugar, maybe, than they did as slaves; but they will produce it for us, and will serve us, if we need them, as soldiers. We will have one less sugar mill; but we will have one more citadel filled with friendly soldiers”.
Yellow fever had decimated the French; by the middle of July 1802, the French lost about 10,000 dead to yellow fever. By September, Leclerc wrote in his diary that he had only 8,000 fit men left as yellow fever had killed the others. In 1802, Napoléon added a Polish legion of around 5,200 to the forces sent to Saint-Domingue to fight off the slave rebellion.
However, the Poles were told that there was a revolt of prisoners in Saint-Domingue. Upon arrival and the first fights, the Polish platoon soon discovered that what was actually taking place in the colony was a rebellion of slaves fighting off their French masters for their freedom.
During this time, there was a familiar situation going on back in their homeland as these Polish soldiers were fighting for their liberty from the occupying forces of Russia, Prussia and Austria that began in 1772.
Many Poles believed that if they fought for France, Bonaparte would reward them by restoring Polish independence, which had been ended with the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.
As hopeful as the Haitians, many Poles were seeking union amongst themselves to win back their freedom and independence by organising an uprising.
However many Polish admired their great hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had fought in the American civil war and was a strong Abolitionist. As a result, these Polish soldiers who also admired their opponents, eventually turned on the French army and join the Haitian slaves.
Polish soldiers participated in the Haitian revolution of 1804, contributing to the establishment of the world’s first free Black republic and the first independent Caribbean state.
Haiti’s first head of state Jean-Jacques Dessalines called Polish people “the White Negroes of Europe”, which was then regarded a great honour, as it meant brotherhood between Poles and Haitians. Dessalines eventually became a cruel despot himself and was killed by his own people in 1806.
Many years later François Duvalier, the president of Haiti who was known for his Black Nationalist and Pan-African views, used the same concept of ‘European White Negroes‘ while referring to Polish people and glorifying their patriotism.
After Haiti gained its independence, the Poles acquired Haitian citizenship for their loyalty and support in overthrowing the French colonialists, and were called ‘Black’ by the Haitian constitution.
In historical terms this was the ‘only successful slave revolt in the world’.