A Brief History
On May 28, 1802, 400 former slaves revolting against the reinstatement of slavery by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte in the Caribbean department of Guadalupe blew themselves up rather than surrender to the French.
Revolutionary France had abolished slavery, but after Napoleon Bonaparte took control of the country his wife, Josephine, herself a native of Martinique, talked the Emperor into reinstating slavery in the West Indies, as slaves were vital to the plantation way of life for the rich French overseers.
Resistance to the French authorities was led by Louis Delgres, a mulatto (half white, half black) born as a free man on Martinique in 1766. Delgres gained military combat experience fighting for the French against the English in the years leading up to the Napoleonic Era. Delgres strongly opposed the reinstatement of slavery in Colonial France by Napoleon, a man previously admired by Delgres who in the eyes of Delgres had betrayed the Revolution by his intention to reinstate slavery. (Note: Napoleon later named the decision to reinstate slavery as one of his biggest regrets.)
The battle against the French was not going well, and Delgres and his freedom fighters were forced to Fort Saint Charles, a slave stronghold. Unable to beat the French, Delgres escaped with 400 followers and some women and fought another battle at Matouba. Once again failing to best the better organized and equipped French, Delgres and his band refused to surrender, and instead committed suicide by blowing themselves up with their stock of gunpowder! Not merely a suicide, the intention of Delgres was to also kill as many French as possible that were in near proximity to his men and the gunpowder.
The heroism of Delgres was not at first appreciated by France, but later in 1998 Delgres, along with leader of the Haitian slave revolt, Toussaint Loverture, was admitted to the Pantheon in Paris, the burial place of many of the greatest heroes of France. The Pantheon includes Marie Curie (a Polish woman and the only female so interred until 2014) and Alexandre Dumas, a half-black writer of The Three Musketeers and other books. (Note: The Haitian Slave Revolt is to this day the only successful slave revolt whereby slaves defeated the enslaving country and gained independence for themselves.) Another of these French heroes that has African ethnicity is Aime Cesaire, a poet and politician from Martinique, founder of the “negritude movement.” (OK, I was not familiar with this movement, either. It is a French language literary movement that is Afro-centric and denounces colonialism and espouses African identity and culture over French identity and culture.)
Question for students (and subscribers): What other acts of defiance by enslaved people inspire you? Please share your opinions in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Adélaïde-Merlande, Jacques. Delgrès, ou, La Guadeloupe en 1802 (French Edition). Karthala, 1986.