French West Indies
I’m still reading Laurent DuBois’s A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 about the French Revolution in Guadeloupe. This book is gradually turning me into a raging royalist.
Here’s a taste of what you are missing:
“One of the central figures in French abolitionism was the marquis de Condorcet, who, in 1781, published Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres under the pseudonym M. Schwatz. In 1788, the newly founded Société des amis des noirs issued a revised edition of the work. Condorcet’s writing influenced the abolitionist thinking of the Revolution and the Republicans’ vision of slave emancipation. His opening Epître dédicatoire aux nègres esclaves” lamented that the slaves, whom he had always considered his brothers and his equals, would never read the work. Just as Sonthonax would do over a decade later, Condorcet asserted the superiority of the slaves to the violent and decadent colons: “If you were to search for a man in the American islands, you would not find him among the whites.” Like Montesquieu before him, Condorcet systematically and satirically undermined pro-slavery arguments. “The reasoning of the politicians who believe that the slavery of the nègres is necessary reduces itself to this: Whites are miserly, drunken, and sordid, so the blacks must be enslaved.”
Condorcet’s work emerged from a broader of and an attack on slavery made by the Physiocrats, who developed their thoughts in dialogue with parallel currents in North America and had a broad impact on French intellectual life in the 1760s and 1770s. In a 1756 work entitled L’Ami des hommes; ou, Traité de la population, the marquis de Mirabeau (father of the comte de Mirabeau) anticipated many of the critiques of slavery that would become standard among Physiocrats, arguing that slavery undermined the creation of a productive population of laborers. In his Ephémerides du citoyen which in 1767 became the Physiocrats’ official organ, this argument was developed more fully by authors such as Pierre-Samuel Dupont de Nemours and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. Slavery, the Physiocrats argued (drawing in part on the ideas of Benjamin Franklin), was fundamentally inefficient because slaves had no incentive to work for their masters, and coercion and violence became the only means to assure continued labor. Some Physiocrats suggested that, rather than enslave Africans and bring them to the Caribbean to grow certain crops, with all the violence and waste this entailed, the French should find ways to cultivate these crops in Africa itself. The Abbé Nicholas Bauleau, founder of the Ephémerides du citoyen, wrote in the journal in 1766 that the best way to settle the colony of Louisiana would be to purchase slaves in Africa (as well as Asia), “not in order to keep them in their chains and crush them with forced labor,” but rather “to transform them into free men, industrious cultivators, true citizens of Louisiana.” He envisioned multicultural villages, created by placing European families alongside Africans and Native Americans, spreading across a thriving colony.”
Condorcet’s arguments about slavery were part of his broader theorization on creating citizens fit for a new republic. Other thinkers had previously suggested that slave vices were the result of slavery rather than innate nature, but for Condorcet that theory pointed to his more general vision of the way oppressive institutions created vices that only political equality could undo. His arguments about the human equality of the enslaved were very similar to those arguments he presented regarding the rights of women in a July 1790 speech, wherein he suggested that the very reasons for excluding women from the enjoyment of rights in fact resulted from their exclusion: any perceived inferiority on the part of women would quickly disappear once they were given equality.”