Historians' Watch

Proper Channels

The toppling of slave-trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol just over a week ago produced a lot of discussion online about Atlantic slavery and how it ended. The discussion is about events that happened in the past and cannot change, yet is intensely political in its implications. Some commentators claim, wrongly, that Britain was the first country in the world to abolish slavery. Sometimes, wrongly, they mix up the abolition of slavery with the abolition of the slave trade. Many appear ignorant of the difference between the two, and the fact that the British government didn’t fully abolish slavery until 1838, more than a generation after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

Combat et prise de la Crête-à-Pierrot (4-24 March 1802). Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert. in M. de Norvins, Histoire de Napoleon (1839). Wikimedia Commons.

The first place to abolish slavery was not Britain but the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), in 1793. The 1793 abolition decrees recognised the de facto abolition of slavery achieved by the huge insurrection of enslaved people in the colony that began in August 1791, and which French forces could not suppress. In 1794 the revolutionary Jacobin government in Paris confirmed emancipation, decreeing the abolition of slavery across all French colonies. The 1794 decree also de facto abolished the French Atlantic slave trade. The first legislative abolition of the slave trade was by Denmark; passed in 1792, but not coming into force until 1803.

Under Napoleon, France reopened the slave trade and restored slavery in its colonies of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and Mauritius. (In Martinique, slavery had never been abolished because British forces occupied the colony in 1794 and prevented the French decree coming into force.) But Haitians had managed to permanently free themselves of slavery and the slave trade. The historical record on this is unequivocal; it is extraordinary that some journalists imply this is a matter for debate and that Haitian abolition took place only a ‘couple of years earlier’ than British.

Why do some commentators insist on making claims that are so clearly false? Presumably, partly through genuine ignorance. That ignorance is part of a long tradition of what Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot called ‘formulas of erasure’: the denial that the Haitian Revolution happened. This is ignorance with consequences. Erasing the Haitian Revolution enables the fiction that Britain is and was a progressive outlier in relation to race and racism to be preserved. It helps the Prime Minister to claim that Britain is not racist, contrary to evidence. Erasing the revolution also maintains a fiction that historical change has come primarily through a process of gradual reform and the use of the ‘proper channels’. These are the same ‘proper channels’ that Bristolians used for years to try to get the Colston statue removed, before taking matters into their own hands.

The reality is less comforting. Across the Atlantic world, slaveholders fought hard to preserve their power to own human beings; more specifically, to own Black human beings. As a result, slavery was more often abolished through violence than through reform. In Haiti, it took a revolution. In the United States, it took a prolonged Civil War which enslaved people turned into a fight for full emancipation by deserting the plantations en masse, in what W. E. B. DuBois described as a general strike. In the French colonies where slavery had been reimposed by Napoleon, the second abolition was a result of the revolutions of 1848 – including popular uprisings in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Even the poster child of parliamentary emancipation, the legislative, gradualist British abolition act of 1833, was strongly influenced by the massive uprising in Jamaica, led by Sam Sharpe, of December 1831-January 1832. Without these events, without people acting beyond the law, who knows how long slavery would have lasted.


  1. Very interesting. When I was in school in the early 1950s, we were taught that the armies of Napoleon spread progressive ideas across Europe. In the light of your very interesting post, clearly not, in the case of slavery. Do you think there was any merit to what we were taught?

    1. Progressive compared to what? I guess is the question. The Code Napoleon was significantly more conservative than what it replaced in France, though it may have been more progressive than what it replaced elsewhere I suppose. For example, it removed the vote from women for the first time in French history – previously very few had had the vote because it was tied to property ownership, but some did – but in the Code, women were classified with children, criminals and the insane in being excluded from suffrage.

  2. Thank you for this Diana. Very interesting. Just this morning I came across something about the uprising in guadeloupe, and the statue there of a woman rebel who fought the French when Napoleon re-instated slavery. La Mulâtresse Solitude was part of the rebellion whilst she was pregnant and was hung by the French after she gave birth. Your article is helping me piece together the wider picture. I learnt very little about Empire, slavery etc whilst at school and though I have been learning more as I have gone through life, the present time is doing a very good job of lifting the veil!

  3. Thank you for this clarity in the timeline. Saint-Domingue’s revolt resulted in an independence which eradicated slavery and expunged the white dominance ideology. The abolition narrative elsewhere is not so clear cut.
    I am very interested in your thoughts on USA African American struggles – considering the 13th Amendment which allows slavery as ‘punishment’ – i.e. incarceration. This amendment can of course be revisited but it would take a two house majority & majority States ratification – a huge task for a minority demographic.
    But this (revisiting the 13th, or the 14th ) is not, and never has been, the focus of any Black push back in US. Haitians are (hopefully) First Class citizens in their own country whereas US Black people seem to be content to contest Second Class citizenship issues. Would you agree that, within the present US Constitution, US Black activism will always be conducted within ‘proper – i.e. controlled – channels’?

  4. Very interesting. Haiti’s role in bringing slavery to an end in 1803 is so vastly ignored or diminished in the discourse. This is truth telling that needs to be taught in school especially when we consider how Haitian children are marginalized in US school systems. This glorious part of their history needs to be highlighted.

  5. I am from Liverpool & my Roman Catholic education was ‘missionary’ biased. My Irish ancestry allowed an anti-British bias. My Communist father ranted against Poverty & Fascism. My take from this Haitian history is that Freedom from oppression is only possible through violent revolution. Details about what came first is interesting nonetheless.

  6. This is an incredible article that credits the Jacobian emancipation and sheds light to the intricacies of Napoleon revitalizing slavery in France . Thank you
    : )

  7. Thank you for this extremely interesting article. A couple of years ago I learned that Napoleon (having taken over Poland) sent a ship full of Polish men to subdue the uprising in Haiti. They promptly changed sides, and their descendants are still to be found in Haiti, where they have blue eyes and continue to dance the mazurka! There was a very interesting exhibition in Brighton’s Regency Town House during the Brighton Festival a few years ago, and an excellent discussion at the University of Brighton.

  8. Thanks for the great article. Re Valerie Mainstone’s recounting of Napoleon’s sending of Polish men to Haiti, I can go one better. In Oliver Cromwell’s brutal rampage through Ireland in the mid-17thCentury, he slaughtered hundreds (maybe thousands) of Irish catholics, displaced many more internally to the barren and rocky sea-coasts of the west, and sent up to 10,000 into slavery overseas in the Caribbean, see The Black Irish of Montserrat. There are many Irish surnames there today and the people speak with Irish accents and play Irish music.

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