Slavery Emancipation: 1848

Article exploring the relationship between the Revolution of 1848 and the final abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

During the last years of the July Monarchy the institution of French colonial slavery seemed to be weakening on several fronts. In 1845 the Soult-Guizot Cabinet passed legislation intended to prepare slaves slowly for liberation, and in so doing reaffirmed the principle that bondage must cease eventually in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Bourbon (Réunion as of 1848), Guiana, and Sénégal. At the same time, the French abolitionist movement was continuing the struggle it had begun in the 1830s against slavery. The leading emancipationist organization, the Société française pour l'abolition de l'esclavage, supported the 1845 legislation at first, for in the mid-1840s the Société; like the government, was committed to gradual slave emancipation. In the autumn of 1847, however, the Société; suddenly proclaimed itself favorable to immediate emancipation. It altered its position because it became convinced that the government's amelioration program was ineffective, and because it felt itself pressured by small radical groups that had been circulating immediatist petitions. By 1847, even a handful of colonists from Guadeloupe were prepared to accept emancipation if it entailed certain guarantees for order, work, and indemnity. In many ways, then, on the eve of the revolution of 1848 it seemed that the anti-slavery cause had progressed considerably in France and that emancipation would be achieved in the near future. Nevertheless, other factors militated against a rapid solution to the slavery question. For one thing, the notable-dominated French abolition society had scant public support and little inclination to mobilize mass opinion on the British model. For another, the Guizot administration was implacably opposed to reform of any kind, including colonial reform. Then too, the government was deeply in debt because of the fortification of Paris and the subsidization of railway construction in the early 1840s; in the midst of the economic crisis of the late 1840s it had no desire to exacerbate financial difficulties by paying substantial compensation to slave owners. Despite some defections, the vast majority of these planters, and all of their leading organs, still espoused the government's policy of procrastination and rallied to its stance that slaves were not yet prepared for freedom. With abolitionists enjoying only minimal public support, while the government and most colons were pledged to delaying emancipation, it appears that the structure of slavery was more firmly established in the last days of the July Monarchy than many observers believed. Indications are that French colonial slavery would have persisted for several more years if the February revolution had not overthrown the Orleanist regime.

There is little historiographical debate about the slave liberation process under the Second Republic. All sources and authorities agree that emancipation resulted directly from the revolution of 1848. The provisional government brought to power such long-standing abolitionists as Arago, Lamartine, Ledru-Rollin, Garnier-Pagès, and Crémieux, who were firmly committed to freeing the slaves. It appears, though, that at first Arago, the new Minister of the Navy and Colonies, was prepared to temporize and yield to colonial pressure by declaring the government's intention to abolish slavery while postponing its actual decision until a regularly elected constituent assembly could examine the issue. It was at this point that the republican and radical abolitionist Victor Schoelcher intervened. Returning just after the February Days from a trip to Sénégal, Schoelcher met with Arago on March 3 and convinced him that the provisional government should accept the responsibility of eliminating slavery immediately. The result was the government's decree of March 4 proclaiming the formation of a commission "to prepare, with the shortest possible delay, an immediate emancipation act." The emancipation commission, presided over by Schoelcher himself in his new role as Under Secretary of State (or assistant minister) of the Navy and Colonies, began meeting already on March 6. Besides its president, it was composed of four members and two secretaries, almost all of whom were abolitionist to some degree at least. Meeting for 43 sessions in the spring and early summer, the commission was completely dominated by Schoelcher and influenced by his determined emancipationism; it heard testimony, but based its decisions essentially upon the republican principles of liberty and equality. The main results of its labors were embodied in a promulgation of April 27 which called for the general emancipation of French colonial slaves two months after the decree reached each individual colony. It also specified that the national assembly should examine the indemnity question at a later date.

This latter clause resulted in the formation on June 17, 1848 of a new commission, made up this time of members of the assembly, to study the indemnification problem. Only in 1849 was legislation finally passed granting the former owners of France's 248,560 colonial slaves the sum of 120 million francs (5 francs equalled one dollar). Although the actual rate of compensation varied for each colony, if calculated in terms of an overall average, the $97 per slave accorded French planters would have been considerably less in real terms than the $101 paid their British counterparts in 1834 because the value of slave labor had increased markedly over 15 years and because the actual indemnity for British slaves had included a period of forced labor granted the owners through apprenticeship.

In the meantime, slaves in the French West Indies had acted on their own to obtain their liberty. When news reached the Antilles that the Provisional Government intended to terminate bondage, slaves anticipated freedom and became restive. Tensions increased to the point where violence broke out on Martinique in late May, 1848. Some 65-70 slaves were killed on May 22 when a large demonstration was fired upon by local authorities; and the demonstrators then retaliated by burning several white homes in Saint-Pierre, killing 34 settlers. The following day the slaves' demands for immediate liberty were met by the governor, who proclaimed emancipation forthwith, not awaiting the arrival of the April 27th decree. Four days later the governor of Guadeloupe, fearing similar uprisings on his island, also abolished slavery. As a result, slaves on Martinique and Guadeloupe obtained their freedom earlier than they would have had they been obliged to wait two months following the arrival and proclamation of the April decree. Guiana, unaffected by unrest, did not free her slaves until August 10. On Réunion emancipation occurred only on December 20. Still, by the end of 1848, the year of revolution had brought liberty to all French colonial slaves.
Lawrence C. Jennings

Adelaide-Merlande, Jacques. "La Commission d'abolition de l'esclavage." Bulletin de la Société d'histoire de la Guadeloupe, nos. 53-54 (1982): 3-34.
Cochin, Augustin. L'Abolition de l'esclavage. 1861; rpr. Fort-de-France: D‚sormeaux, 1979.

Drescher, Seymour. "British Way, French Way: Opinion Building and Revolution in the Second French Slave Emancipation." American Historical Review 96 (1991): 709-734.

Historial Antillais. 6 vols. Fort-de-France: Dajani, 1981. Vols. 3 & 4.

Jennings, Lawrence C. French Reaction to British Slave Emancipation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Martin, Gaston. L'Abolition de l'esclavage, 27 avril 1848. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948.