There were millions of them;
They were put in chains;
They were deported from one continent to another;
They were beaten;
They were enslaved.
This lasted centuries.
They had everything taken from them: their freedom, dignity, life, dreams, hopes and joys.
They were no longer called human.
They were treated like cattle, their children too.
Meanwhile, a “Black Code” was enacted:
For thieves: death.
For those who struck their masters: death.
For fugitives: ears cut off and branding.
For second offenders: their hamstrings cut and a second branding.
On the third attempt: death.
This lasted centuries. (…)
And throughout all these centuries, a long, painful cry rang out across the Atlantic. (…)
And echoing the cry of the African mothers whose children were torn from them was that of the shackled slaves who’d had torn from them even the memory of maternal love.
This cry, which will forever haunt all descendants of slaves, this cry, which will continue to resound forever throughout Black Africa, is addressed to all humanity, because human trafficking and slavery were the first crimes against humanity.
This slavery was even worse than that of antiquity because it was seen as justified not only on the grounds of economic interest, the lure of profit. It was also – and above all, even – seen as justified on the grounds of racism. What makes human trafficking and slavery similar to a totalitarian killing machine is that these were seen as intellectually and morally justified through the idea of inferior race.
It’s no coincidence that slavery dramatically resurfaced well into the 20th century in the concentration camps.
It was necessary to regard slaves as not entirely human for them to be treated so inhumanely.
Slavery wasn’t deliberate extermination on a large scale, but it was exploitation on a massive scale, causing tremendous suffering and killing huge numbers of people. It was possible only because it was accepted that part of the human race hadn’t as many rights as the rest because it hadn’t got the same qualities as the rest.
Where did this prejudice lead? To putting a price, a market value on that which mustn’t have one. The universal conscience tells us that human life has no price. It has infinite value.
As soon as life became a commodity, as soon as it was reduced to its market value and had a price, the sense of human fraternity gave way to accountancy. The slave trader who anticipated that 25% of his cargo wouldn’t survive the journey saw this figure only as a factor in his cost price, which he used to calculate his profit margin.
Slaves who committed suicide knew they would cause their master no grief but would inflict a financial loss on him. And slaves were seen killing themselves in groups with the sole aim of ruining their owners.
The master didn’t share the slaves’ suffering any more than the trader. He felt within his rights. He housed and fed the slaves in exchange for their work, and he was convinced they could only work under the whip. He was convinced it was in their nature. He was convinced he was a civilized man taking charge of savages congenitally impervious to any form of civilization. And it was the conviction of the West, which believed in its superiority and believed its civilization was the sole, unique civilization.
It was the conviction of the West, which took a long time to understand and admit that there could be other forms of civilization – equally beautiful, great and prolific – and that by recognizing and respecting them it would be enriched more than by seeking to dominate or destroy them. Yes, it took a long time for the West to understand and admit that it had as much to learn from others as others had to learn from it, and that there was as much human wisdom to treasure in other civilizations as in its own.
This superiority complex, which was not only a cultural but also a racial prejudice, was the West’s great wrong. It was the cause of a deep, indelible wound. This wrong can’t be expiated or put right.
It lasted for centuries.
The French revolution came. It sowed the idea of freedom in slaves’ minds. There were revolts and crackdowns. But the slaves who freed themselves by force of arms lost their slave mentality for good.
It was at this decisive moment that Toussaint Louverture emerged in Saint-Domingue.
With slaves, he built an army.
With that army, he created a State.
Châteaubriand called him “the black Napoleon”.
Lamartine said: “This man was a nation”.
In the face of the Spaniards, the British and Leclerc, in both peace and war, government and conquest, without being prepared for it, without being educated or trained, he displayed the finest qualities of intelligence, character and courage – a powerful rebuttal to those who would believe in the inferiority of a race forever doomed to slavery.
He died in the depths of a dungeon.
But the people Toussaint had awoken – who had chosen to risk annihilation fighting to the last rather than become slaves again – had acquired an everlasting taste for freedom. On 1 July 1804, these free people proclaimed the Republic of Haiti. They wanted to make it “the homeland of the Africans of the New World and their descendants”.
Emancipation was born out of suffering, and history has not spared this land of sorrow where, for more than 200 years, amid the worst ordeals, free men who owe their liberty to themselves alone have taught the whole of humanity a great lesson in dignity.
Abolished by the Convention in 1794, slavery persisted for nearly half a century more.
In 1830, France banned the slave trade. But slave smuggling continued with complete impunity. And in the plantations – the habitations, as they were called in the West Indies – slaves continued to work under the whip.
It wasn’t until 1848 that the cradle of human rights put an end to this barbarity unworthy of its values.
In 1794, there was Abbé Grégoire.
In 1848, there was Schoelcher. (…)
Schoelcher said abolition must be decreed, without restriction or delay.
He said slavery was a political as well as a moral sin, an attack on both common sense and equality, and a crime.
He said liberty couldn’t be sold.
He declared that this colour prejudice had to be destroyed. (…)
Schoelcher got his way. The masters gave in. The chains fell away.
This great, decent man, as Césaire put it, did credit to France, to what she had hoped to embody in the eyes of the world since she proclaimed that all men are born free and with equal rights.
People will say that a lot of time was wasted, that Britain had decreed abolition 15 years earlier. But let’s remember that the United States didn’t do so until 17 years later, 17 long years of extra suffering. Let’s remember there would be slaves in Brazil until 1888. (…)
There was 1848.
There was 1946, the end of the colonial system, départementalisation (1).
It was the promise of equality of economic and social rights. A new step along the path of emancipation so fiercely denied for so long. It took time to keep that promise. It meant further suffering. (…)
The descendants of the slaves have never asked for apologies.
They’ve asked – they’re still asking – for their wounds to be acknowledged.
They haven’t asked for redress. They’ve asked for understanding and respect of their uniqueness, their bruised identity.
They haven’t asked for any special rights.
They haven’t demanded more rights than others on the grounds that they have suffered more.
They’ve only asked for full and complete liberty, equality and fraternity. They’ve asked us to give those words their full meaning.
The Republic gave them liberty in 1848.
The Republic promised them equality in 1946.
Fraternity is what France owes them after centuries of oppression, exploitation and abject poverty, and two wars in which we died side by side for the same ideal.
The law guarantees liberty.
Reason demands equality.
The heart calls for fraternity.
The law, reason and the heart: that’s how we can give sense to a common future. From the suffering of shared memory, from a history painfully acknowledged together, we must create a wellspring of fresh hope.
If today we’re commemorating the abolition of human trafficking and slavery, it’s not in order to repeat the past indefinitely until we become its prisoner; it’s not to organize a contest of memories and suffering; it’s not to divide; it’s to understand, unite and build.
Human memory mustn’t forget slavery any more than it must forget the Holocaust, because both carry a universal lesson. (…)
We’re still learning that lesson.
Emancipation – never accomplished, always under threat – remains humanity’s great problem and our Republic’s unrealized ideal.
Are there no longer any injustices, violations of human dignity, new forms of servitude and slavery in the world that appal us?
Have racism, anti-Semitism, segregation, discrimination and the commodification of mankind disappeared so completely that we can have a clear conscience?
Have we fought hard enough against the abject poverty that demeans human beings – driving them to submit to the highest bidder – to be able to sleep soundly?
Have we done enough for liberty, equality and fraternity to be able to consider ourselves cleared of all charges? (…)
In order to remain awake, vigilant, careful, our consciences on the alert, we mustn’t forgive and we mustn’t forget.
Because while we’re not responsible for the faults of our forebears, we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility for those we might commit by citing the terrible excuse of the coward: “We didn’t know!”
Because it’s for us to know, and it’s for us to act.
Toussaint and Schoelcher did what they had to do.
The Righteous did what they had to do.
Allow me to end with this question, which should haunt our minds incessantly:
“What about us?”
Long live the Republic!
Long live France!./.
(1) A 1946 Act conferred the status of overseas department on Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion and French Guiana.