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.
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.