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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Rétrospective Humanité

Humanité’s back pages

Translated Wednesday 23 April 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Humanité.fr is reprinting an article published in l’Humanité on April 28, 1948, which relates the speech made by “Comrade Aimé Césaire” at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

“Slavery Was Abolished One Hundred Years Ago.

At the Sorbonne, our comrade Aimé Césaire paid homage to Victor Schoelcher, who freed the slaves.

The official commemoration of the April 27, 1848 abolition of slavery by the government of the Second Republic in all the territories under French control was held at the Sorbonne yesterday evening. The French president, Mr. Vincent Auriol, honored the ceremony with his presence. The presidents of the Assemblies, the ministers, Academicians and many personalities in politics, letters and the fine arts were also present. Speeches were made by the minister of National Education, Depreux, the president of the Council of the Republic, Mr. Monnerville, and by the Socialist deputy Senghor.

The freedom of the slaves, a victory of the French people.

Our comrade Aimé Césaire, deputy for Martinique, underlined the immense significance of the abolition of slavery and showed that it had been won by the struggle of the French people for freedom and social justice.

“Around 1848,” Aimé Césaire stated, “for slavery to be abolished at a precise moment in French history, more than a wave of goodwill on the part of a few people was required – it took the revolutionary combination of the will of a people and the inflexible clearsightedness of a policy.”

And our comrade paid homage to the people of Paris in these terms:

“They subsisted in the attics and the cellars described by Villermé, without a fire to heat or cook, without meat, often without bread, but in their deepest poverty, they found, even amid this suffering, enough grandeur, enough generosity to have a thought of affectionate solidarity for others even more oppressed than they – the thousands of Negro slaves on tiny islands, thousands of miles distant from France.

“Victor Schoelcher realized what the people had prepared. A sociologist, economist, ethnographer and polemicist, Victor Scholcher was also a defender of human dignity his whole life long.”

And our comrade quoted this declaration by Schoelcher, in which he denounced the exploitation of which the black slaves were victims.

“If, as the colonists say, agriculture can only be pursued in the Caribbean with slaves, then it is necessary to abandon the Caribbean. Using slavery to maintain colonies is the policy of brigands. A criminal act must not be a necessity. The death of the colonies is preferable to the death of a principle.”

Colonialist resistance.

Aimé Césaire then reviewed the obstacles that the colonialists of the period put in the way of Victor Schoelcher to prevent him from obtaining a decree emancipating the slaves.

“Victor Schoelcher wrested this decree from the politicians. The word ‘wrest’ is not too strong, so many were the wait-and-see opponents, like Arago, the slippery colonialists, like Marrast, the determined advocates of slavery, like the former delegates to the colonies: Picoul, Reixet, Froidefond-Desfarges, all of whom conspired to gain or to waste time.”

Schoelcher is still topical.

Of course, today slavery has been abolished, but Aimé Césaire underlined the “topicality” of Schoelcher in these words:

“When you travel through the Carribean countryside, your heart is pinched in the same places where, one hundred years ago, Victor Schoelcher’s heart was pinched: the same dark and ramshackle shanties, the same pallets for the same weariness, the same ugly, poverty-stricken chores amid the splendor of the surroundings, the same ill-clothed men, the same malnourished children, the same poverty for the ones, the same opulence for the others, who are still just as egotistical and insolent; and while, in political terms, Victor Schoelcher’s dream has been realized – the transformation of the old colonies into French départements – considering certain recent events, who would dare proclaim that the French administration itself has abandoned certain methods that Schoelcher condemned a century ago?”

Our comrade concluded by indicating what made Scholecher’s work the work of a titan:

“Thanks to Victor Schoelcher, the people of the Caribbean and French Guyana hurried to school, the way they hurried to the great battles which determine the fate of mankind and of the world. And when they cast a backward glance, they are not tempted to be ungrateful, but in the very light of their past, they learn to consider that true emancipation is not the result of a decree, it is the emancipation that people win for themselves, that it is not behind them, but in front of them, and that it is up to them to prepare it together with the people of France, in the radiant wake of 1848.”

A warm ovation saluted the magnificent presentation made by our comrade, who through his eloquence and the profundity of his thought clearly dominated this commemoration.”

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