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Slavery: Breaking the Silence at Last

By Jean-Paul Piérot Translated by Carol Gullidge

Translated Monday 22 May 2006, by Carol Gullidge

Five years after the French Parliament passed the Taubira law, declaring slavery - from the fifteenth century onwards - to be a crime against humanity, France held its first official commemoration of the slave trade on May 10.

Five years after the French Parliament passed the Taubira law, declaring slavery - from the fifteenth century onwards - to be a crime against humanity, France held its first official commemoration of the slave trade on May 10.

Slavery: Breaking the Silence at Last

At the edge of a forest in Guadeloupe, not far from the sea - patches of wall, a corridor, a series of interconnecting rooms... would all have collapsed but for a gigantic tree that had gripped the remains of a stone building between its aerial roots. Nothing, however, indicates that this is a former prison where they used to cram in the slaves dragged from the depths of the holds of slave ships.

It’s the old familiar story of servitude, long buried in the memory, hidden deep in official history, but leaving cruel traces in the collective consciousness, like so many slashes of the whip, fleurs-de-lys imprinted on the backs of men who were denied any humanity by the emerging capitalism. Slaves are “chattels” proclaimed Colbert’s Black Code[1], a legal text with which generations of scholars have never been acquainted.

They would have to had to wait until a hundred and fifty-three years after the definitive abolition of slavery before the French Republic recognised that it was a crime against humanity. Such a long silence of complacency for a system that still went on illegally for years after being re-abolished in 1848, and which merely gave way to other forms of colonial domination. In 1948, l’Humanité quoted Aimé Césaire: “When you cover the West Indian campaigns, you feel the same pangs of anguish as Schœlcher[2] did.

Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children transported to die on sugar plantations, and the plundering of humans that was carried out in Africa were calling out for their plight to be recognised throughout society. Lilian Thuram, who was born in Guadeloupe and is now a football player in the French national side, says “One is not guilty of what happened in the past, but one becomes so if one fails to reflect intelligently on that past.” May this first day of remembrance go some way towards this. But it won’t be enough.

After having upheld the legislation requiring teachers to stress the “positive role” of colonisation, forty MPs from the right-wing ruling party (UMP) are now demanding the repeal of part of the Taubira law, stipulating that school and research programmes should accord the slave trade and slavery “their proper context”. A minister of the Interior is advocating the selective sorting of immigrants according to how useful they are... The debate on the past certainly does shed light on the present.


1. “The Code noir initially took shape in Louis XIV’s edict of 1685 [...] For the most part, the code concentrated on defining the condition of slavery (passing the condition through the mother not the father) and establishing harsh controls over the conduct of those enslaved. Slaves had virtually no rights, though the code did enjoin masters to take care of the sick and old.” (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Exploring the French Revolution”, http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/335/)

2. Victor Schœlcher, French humanitarian, abolitionist, and far-left statesman,
played a key role in the definitive abolition of French
slavery. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Schoelcher for further information on Schœlcher and the abolition of the slave trade

Article appeared in "l’Humanité" on 10 May 2006


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