In June 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the world following the murder of George Floyd, activists in Paris sprayed a statue of Voltaire with red paint. Their act immediately drew public attention to the philosopher’s involvement in the slave trade, as well as his racist views about Black people and Jews. Emmanuel Macron and various French far-right politicians lined up to loudly decry the action as an effort to “hatefully rewrite” history. Little over a month after it was defaced, Voltaire’s statue was taken down from its plinth by Paris city council, leading the author Matthew Fraser to suggest that “the battering storms of radical-Left politics” may be behind its disappearance. Fraser went so far as to draw parallels with the Nazis’ demolition of a prominent Voltaire statue in the 1940s. With the statue still missing, the Académie Française recently accused Paris city council of giving in to “cancel culture.”
Voltaire, and the Enlightenment mythology surrounding him, continue to be invoked by both centrist and right-wing ideologues to defend (often-poorly defined) conceptions of freedom of speech, tolerance, and liberal democracy. For example, in his closing remarks of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump after the attempted insurrection on 6th January 2021, the Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin quoted the philosopher, warning that “anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” But was Voltaire, whose famous catchphrase was “écrasez l’infâme!” (“crush the despicable!”), truly a champion of liberty and tolerance as we have been led to believe? What did the philosopher think or do about the atrocities of slavery, colonialism, and racism in his day? And, to return to the BLM protests, did the activists really do a disservice to history, or did they instead draw attention to a widely neglected aspect of the Enlightenment, at least in the public sphere?
As my article in issue 94 of History Workshop Journal argues, Voltaire was utterly obsessed with racial differences, which he believed were unchangeable and fixed by inheritance. As he put it, “the black race is a species of man different from ours.” The philosopher argued that people of different races were naturally ordered into a hierarchy, with white people at the top and Black people at the bottom. In his own appallingly racist words, Voltaire held that white people “are superior to Negroes, just like Negroes are superior to monkeys, and monkeys are superior to oysters.” Even as he aged and began to express more empathic attitudes towards enslaved Africans, Voltaire maintained that Black people’s “round eyes, squat noses, and invariable thick lips, the woolly heads, and the measure of their intellects, make a prodigious difference between them and other species of men.” His views were not simply a product of their time. Even when compared to other elite eighteenth-century philosophers, such as Diderot, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, Voltaire’s arguments sat at the extreme end of the spectrum of Enlightenment attitudes towards race.
What’s more, Voltaire’s racism extended far beyond the views expressed in his writings. He was one of the few Enlightenment philosophers with substantial shares in the French East India Company, as well as a shipping business based in Cádiz that transported enslaved Africans to the Americas and an organisation that armed French privateers sailing to India. Voltaire directly invested in companies that ran the transatlantic slave trade and violently plundered commodities from Asia, profiting from their returns. As several Marxist and postcolonial historians have suggested since the 1970s, Voltaire’s financial stakes in the colonial system likely played a role in shaping his racist views. For example, in early 1759, as France lost several of its sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean to an ascendant Britain, Voltaire complained that “we no longer have any Negroes to work at our sugar factories.” He wrote to his banker, asking “and [where is] my sugar? Did the English take it from Guadeloupe?” Voltaire lamented that as long as the British controlled the Caribbean island, in whose plantations he had indirectly invested, “Sugar will be expensive.” Thus, as radical historians have argued over the years, the philosopher’s ideas about race—which justified the exploitation of Black labour and Asian commodities—were quite possibly influenced by material factors, such as his returns on colonial investments.
In recent years, some historians have defended Voltaire against charges of racism, pointing to the words spoken by a mutilated slave in the philosopher’s novel, Candide: “this is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.” They also remind us that in his Essay on the Manners and the Spirit of Nations, Voltaire decried the violence of slavery, chastising Europeans for forcing the enslaved “to work like beasts of burden, but feed them less; if they try to flee, we cut off a limb; we force them to turn by the strength of their arms the shafts of the sugar mills, after we have fitted them out with a wooden leg.” How could a racist, ask Voltaire’s defenders, be willing to point out the brutalities of slavery at a time when it was accepted (by white people) as a means of producing goods like sugar?
As I suggest in my article, Voltaire was not necessarily criticising the fact that Black people were being exploited for their labour, but rather that the conditions of their exploitation were wrong and unproductive. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Voltaire never called for the abolition of slavery, and continued to profit from it throughout his life. In a perverse way, the philosopher’s criticisms of the conditions of slave labour are consistent with the interests of an investor in slave-made goods. To quote Karl Marx, “If [the slave-owner] loses his slave, he loses capital that can only be restored by new outlay in the slave-mart.”
So, before parading Voltaire as a symbol of liberty, tolerance, and progress, we should remember how many Black lives suffered from his investments, morally defended by his racist writings. In 1752, the San Jorge ship, to which Voltaire contributed 10,000 livres – the equivalent of around £150,000 today – abducted two hundred and eighty-four Africans from the coast of Guinea and forcibly transported them to Buenos Aires, where the surviving two hundred and fifty-one were sold into slavery. Voltaire, in pursuit of colonial riches, caused untold and—at least in the public sphere—largely forgotten suffering. Thus, contrary to the laments of both liberal and conservative commentators today, BLM protestors did not ignore or erase history by splashing an inanimate statue with red paint. Rather, they brought important and long-overlooked history squarely back into the public spotlight.