In May of that year, Napoleon resolved the conflict by issuing a decree allowing slavery to be maintained. The Republic’s legislative body subsequently ratified the law with a vote of 211 to 63, creating an opening for slavery to return elsewhere. Black people on the island of Guadeloupe fought the French troops Napoleon sent there to shackle them once more, but they eventually lost their struggle and saw slavery officially reinstated that July.
Things unfolded differently, but no less tragically, in Saint-Domingue. Under two generals who were sent to the island by Napoleon to, in his words, “annihilate the government of the Blacks,” the French Army was ordered to kill all the people of color in the colony who had ever “worn an epaulet.” French soldiers gassed, drowned and used dogs to maul the revolutionaries; the French colonists openly bragged that after the “extermination” the island could simply be repopulated with more Africans from the continent.
This monstrous solution only encouraged the Black soldiers to fight for “independence or death.” After defeating Napoleon’s army and declaring independence, Haiti became the first modern state to permanently abolish slavery.
My students and colleagues, in both France and the United States, usually respond with shock and horror when I describe how thousands of Black people in Saint-Domingue were so cruelly killed by the French as they fought for freedoms most people now take for granted. I insist on reciting this painful part of Haiti’s path to independence because the very fact that this attempted genocide remains mostly unspoken of proves that the French Republic is still unable to fully confront its history of slavery and colonialism.
The “Year of Napoleon” has arrived during a dangerous time. French academics who study race, gender, ethnicity and class are under attack. President Emmanuel Macron has derided the field of post-colonial studies by suggesting that it “has encouraged the ethnicization of the social question” to the point that the Republic is in danger of “splitting” apart. The minister of higher education, research and innovation outright called for an investigation, “so we can distinguish proper academic research from activism and opinion,” and said that scholars studying critical race theory and decolonization, along with sexual identity and social class, were promoting “Islamo-leftist” ideology.
This inquest is being framed as a simple inquiry into the merits of particular schools of thought; it is actually part of an attempt to silence anyone who dares to speak openly of France’s history of racism. But dedicating an entire year to the memory of Napoleon demonstrates that repressing history in the name of France’s favorite ideology, universalism, is already a crucial part of the Republic.
Instead of calling for an investigation into academics determined to bring greater awareness to the role that race and racism play in the lives of descendants of slavery and colonialism, perhaps French leaders should open an inquiry into why Napoleon, a racist and genocidal warmonger, continues to be glorified in the country whose national motto is “liberty, equality, fraternity.”