Remembering that Napoleon reinstated slavery in France | Tradition| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW


As part of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, the Parisian cultural center Grande Halle de la Villette is now hosting a major exhibition on Napoleon Bonaparte, which will open as soon as COVID restrictions are lifted and held until September 19, 2021.  

Amid 150 exhibits embodying the dazzling imperial grandeur of the former French emperor — “a figure who is at once fascinating and controversial,” as the show’s trailer says — one section of the exhibition however focuses on a darker side of his legacy.

It features the original copies of laws signed by Napoleon in 1802, which reversed the abolition of slavery that had been declared eight years previously, in the wake of the French Revolution. It made France the only country to have actually brought back slavery after outlawing it.

“When they hear of Napoleon, most people think of the great empire, France’s many victories during the wars of that era. There is this glory about Napoleon which has eclipsed everything else he did,” Dominique Taffin, director of the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery, told DW.

The foundation was responsible for that section of the exhibition: “We decided it was

Dominique Taffin says Napoleon shouldn’t just be put on a pedestal but studied and questioned

necessary to raise awareness about this dark part of his deeds to a wider audience,” added Taffin.

A major crime or a minor story?

“The decision to re-establish slavery isn’t just a stain on Napoleon’s legacy, it’s a crime,” Louis-Georges Tin, campaigner and honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), told DW.

Napoleon’s decision in 1802 to reinstate slavery not only betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution, it condemned an estimated 300,000 people into a life of bondage for several more years, before France definitively abolished slavery in 1848.

Napoleon signed two laws in 1802 that reversed France’s decision eight years previously to outlaw slavery in its territories

Tin, who is from Martinique, a former colony and now an overseas French territory, said these aspects of Napoleon’s policies need to be taught more in France. “As somebody whose ancestors were enslaved, I can’t understand why we continue to celebrate Napoleon’s memory as if nothing happened,” he said.

The activist pointed out that the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on May 5 comes just days before France marks the 20th anniversary of the so-called Taubira law, which made the former colonial power the first country to recognize slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity.

“France cannot be the country of human rights and celebrate someone who committed crimes against humanity. It makes no sense,” Tin added.

Not everyone agrees. Historian and Napoleon specialist Peter Hicks, from the Paris-based Fondation Napoleon, said Bonaparte was a complex figure who presided over periods of “hyper violence” in Europe and couldn’t be reduced to his colonial positions.

“The slavery part of the Napoleonic story, as ghastly as it was, is minimal and peripheral compared to the big stories in Europe like the Civil Code and Treaty of Amiens [an agreement that achieved peace in Europe for 14 months during the Napoleonic Wars], which is much more important to Germans, the French, Britons and Italians,” Hicks said.

Colonies and slaves to feed grand ambitions

But, seen from the perspective of the Caribbean, the story of Napoleon’s re-establishment of slavery is anything but marginal.

In the late 1780s, France was a major colonial power, its territories powered by an estimated 800,000 slaves. Its most lucrative colony was Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the Caribbean. About 450,000 slaves worked on plantations exporting sugar and coffee to France.

Historic accounts say the system was violent and the death rate so high among the enslaved that workers had to be constantly replenished by the African slave trade.

One of Paris' few significant slavery memorials, a bronze sculpture of broken chains

One of Paris’ few significant slavery memorials, a bronze sculpture of broken chains

“Napoleon wanted to extend the French colonial empire to control the Caribbean. To colonize the huge land of Louisiana in North America, he needed workers so he restarted the slave trade. It was a colonial strategy,” explained Dominique Taffin from the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery.

“And for that, he needed to have total control over Saint-Domingue because it was central to that geographical area.”

The lasting impact of Napoleon’s actions

In events known as the Haitian Revolution, Saint-Domingue slaves started in 1791 a rebellion against French colonial rule, with governor Toussaint Louverture emerging as a revolutionary leader. The insurrection had successfully driven France to first abolish slavery across its empire in 1794.

Napoleon sent troops to overthrow Louverture and restore colonial order. Louverture was deported to France. Meanwhile, his fellow revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue were determined to resist Napoleon’s reinstatement of slavery in 1802 and fought a brutal year-long war against the French. There are accounts of extreme violence.

Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture was the most prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution

In 1803, they defeated Napoleon’s army. The following year, the revolutionaries set up an independent and free nation — Haiti. It was the world’s first republic founded by former slaves and it banned slavery and the slave trade.

“Napoleon’s defeat in Saint-Domingue is a little-known story. He lost the prized colony, sold Louisiana to the US and turned the page on the colonial project,” Dominique Taffin said.

The consequences of Napoleon’s actions, however, lasted long after the French exit from Saint-Domingue — in Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion Island, slavery remained in place until the French definitively abolished it in 1848.

Haiti too paid a heavy price. In 1825, France imposed a indemnity of 150 million francs (the modern equivalent of $21 billion / €17.5 billion) on Haiti, under threat of war, in order to compensate former slaveholders. Haiti didn’t finish paying it off till 1947.

A much ignored history

Few people in France are aware of this history. Frederic Regent, a historian at Paris’ Sorbonne University, said there are several reasons behind this.

Since the end of the 19th century, school text books, he said, tended to praise colonialism or neglect it — since it was something that had happened far away from France’s borders, it was seen as peripheral to the national narrative; whereas the topic of slavery was “covered” through its abolishment in 1848.

Especially after the Second World War, when Europe was focusing on reconstruction, Napoleon was portrayed as a unifying figure among various political factions.

Les Invalides in Paris

Napoleon’s tomb lies beneath the golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris. The monument draws over a million visitors each year

“From the 1950s right up to the 1990s, the focus was mainly on Napoleon and his conquests in Europe. He was portrayed as a builder of Europe and seen as a Republican figure,” Regent said. “The colonial aspect was largely ignored.”

Growing awareness of colonialism

But things have changed. Starting in the late 1990s, France has seen demonstrations, laws and changes in the school curriculum to push for a better inclusion of its sprawling history.

In recent years, a vocal and diverse French population, many of whose ancestors came from former colonies, have mobilized around issues of racial discrimination and identity.

Last year, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across France in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the US. There have also been calls to have the statue outside France’s National Assembly in Paris removed. The monument depicts Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the man behind the “Code Noir” decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonies.

Two people holding placards during a demonstration following the killing of George Floyd in the US, one says I can't breathe in French and the other reads Black Lives Matter

France saw large protests last year following the killing of George Floyd in the US

‘A question of fairness’

Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former Prime Minister of France who now serves as the president of the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery, said the Napoleon bicentenary is an opportunity to face up to France’s long colonial past as well as to acknowledge recent demands for racial justice.

“The reinstatement of slavery is a forgotten and dark part of our history and as a foundation we need to explain this whole complex history, not just a part of it,” Ayrault said. “I think young people today are really interested in these issues,” he added.”It’s also our duty towards the descendants of those who had to live for several more years in slavery after it was brought back,” he said. “It’s a question of fairness. A country can only become stronger if it knows and understands its past.”

  • Napoleon as a young man in military uniform in a paiting from the late 1700s.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Early military career

    On August 15, 1769, Napoleon was born in Ajaccio on the island of Corsica. The scion of an impoverished noble family, he was able to attend the Brienne military school thanks to a royal scholarship. Due to his Corsican accent, he was initially teased by his classmates, but his military acumen did not go unnoticed and Napoleon quickly gained respect.

  • Portrait of Napoleon in military uniform wearing medals.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    The young general

    Napoleon owed his stellar career to the French Revolution of 1789. Having successfully led the artillery of the revolutionary forces against the royalists in 1793, he was promoted to general and lauded as a young military genius. He was said to be unafraid of death as he believed himself chosen by God and hence immortal. Napoleon thus always went into battle ahead of his soldiers.

  • Napoleon wearing his famous two-pointed hat.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Trademark two-pointed hat

    Napoleon cultured a unique style with his two-pointed hat, which, unlike his contemporaries, he wore crosswise on his head. Every year he orderws several of them from the hatter Poupard at a cost of 40 francs. When he was angry, Napoleon is said to have stomped on his hat. Some 19 of his headpieces have survived the centuries and fetch seven-figure sums at auction.

  • Napoleon in a painting showing him carrying a flag amid a battle on a bridge.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Forging a legend

    The cornerstone of the hero-worship cultured by Napoleon is the three-day Battle of Arcole in Italy against the Austrians in November 1796. The Corsican commander later commissioned this painting from the painter Horace Vernet. He is shown seizing a flag and, undaunted by the hail of bullets from the enemy, charges ahead of his soldiers. Napoleon would continue to self-promote his heroics.

  • Josephine de Beauharnais shown seated on a beige sofa and wearing a white dress.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Great love

    Josephine de Beauharnais was six years older than Napoleon and divorced. The military general fell madly in love with her. She nearly followed her former husband, General Alexander de Beauharnais, to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror, but was spared due to the fall of Robespierre, who had had countless nobles beheaded. Her aristocratic contacts proved to be a valuable asset for Napoleon.

  • A painting showing Napoleon handing a saber to a military leader in Alexandria, who is bowing in front of him.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Egyptian campaign

    In 1798, two years after their wedding, Napoleon set out on his infamous Egyptian expedition under the orders of the revolutionary government. The campaign on the Nile turned out to be a triumph: Napoleon managed to wrest the country from the Ottoman Empire. He was followed by scientists and artists who researched the history of the ancient pharaohs and triggered great interest in Egypt in Europe.

  • Military general Napoleon and his officers sit upon horses waving swords.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?


    Napoleon was considered the strong man to save France from misrule. In 1799, he took power in a coup d’état and declared the Revolution over. He had himself elected as the First Consul of the Republic and initiated reforms of the judiciary, the military and education. In 1804, he enacted France’s first coherent set of laws, the Napoleonic Code, which was adopted throughout Europe and beyond.

  • Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Emperor Napoleon

    Being first consul was not enough: In 1804, Napoleon anointed himself emperor. In Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, he even snatched the crown from the Pope and unceremoniously placed it on his own head. His role models: Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. He wanted to rule the world. He would later install his siblings as heads of state in the countries he conquered.

  • Cartoon titled The Corsican and his bloodhounds showing Napoleon on a balcony, next to him are generals, a skeleton and the devil.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    At war with Europe

    Napoleon’s war campaigns pumped money into the French treasury. Until 1815, he waged constant war — against the Austrians, Prussians, Russians, and the British and its allies. He turned the whole of Europe upside down. The 900-year-old Holy Roman Empire collapsed, cities like Rome and Cologne became French. “The Corsican and his Bloodhounds” is the title of this contemporary political cartoon.

  • Napoleon on a white horse leading troops out of a city in flames.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Crushing defeat

    Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812 marked the start of his downfall. When his troops reached Moscow, they found an abandoned city. The Grande Armée soon perished in the freezing winter. Very few soldiers made it back to France. Russia’s Tsar then allied himself with Prussia and Austria, who faced off the French at the “Battle of the Nations” in Leipzig in 1813. Napoleon admitted defeat.

  • Reenactment scene of the Battle of Waterloo, showing many soldiers fighting against one another.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Battle of Waterloo

    After Napoleon’s defeat, the victorious powers had convened the Congress of Vienna to reorganize Europe’s military alliances and create a balance of power. But suddenly, the Frenchman reappeared, and battles were waged again. He won the first battle, but at Waterloo in Belgium, he was crushed by the troops of the English general, the Duke of Wellington.

  • A house with a light blue veranda back-dropped by hills.

    Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

    Exile on Saint Helena

    The British then banished Napoleon to the island of St. Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic (this image, from 2012). The Frenchman was no longer able to surprise the Allies again. There, Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, presumably from stomach cancer. The enlightened despot who passed important judicial and civil reforms while wreaking death and destruction across Europe was just 51 years old.

    Author: Suzanne Cords