Bicentennial commemorations of Bonaparte’s death fuel debate about his legacy, France’s colonial past, and the leader’s ties to Haiti. “In the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, where commemoration events are planned, some see the French government’s bicentennial recognition as an affront— another example of a nation that prides itself as operating on a colorblind, egalitarian creed but acts with blinders on when it comes to slavery’s legacy.” Read full article by Jacqueline Charles, with photos by Sergio Ramazzotti, at National Geographic.
The year was 1802. France’s wealthiest colony, Saint-Domingue, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola—today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic—was in turmoil. As former slaves battled their French overlords, an alliance of Black and mixed-raced generals fought to restore order under the French flag.
Then came news from Guadeloupe, another French colony in the Caribbean. Freed Blacks who had rebelled against French troops trying to re-enslave them had lost their battle.
French general and ruler Napoleon Bonaparte had reneged on a promise he made that year: the reestablishment of slavery in French colonies would exclude Guadeloupe and other territories where Black people had been freed during the French Revolution. But economics superseded, and Bonaparte restored laws in Guadeloupe that were struck down when France had abolished slavery in 1794.
After eight years of freedom, Black Guadeloupeans were now back in bondage.
Black fighters as well as those of mixed race—known across the Caribbean as mulatto—quickly realized that the mighty expedition of French troops deployed under the command of Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, Army General Charles Leclerc, weren’t in Saint-Domingue just to restore order. Their purpose was to reinstate slavery, and reassert French control over the entire island after slave revolt leader Toussaint Louverture published an 1801 constitution proclaiming himself governor-general for life and codifying the abolishment of slavery.
Suddenly the resistance movement that began in 1791 with a series of slave rebellions on the island—though roiled by internal conflicts, shifting alliances, and the arrest and deportation of Louverture—was ignited. The events of 1802 would give birth to the world’s first Black-led independent nation post colonialism: Haiti.
It also would forever seal a legacy for Bonaparte that remains a source of contention 200 years after his death. “Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802 and the French parliament, in 2001, declared by law that colonial slavery was a crime against humanity,” says Georges Michel, a Haitian historian in Port-au-Prince. For Bonaparte’s role in rolling back abolition, Michel sees the military leader as a man who was “a criminal against humanity.”
He also sees an irony in the way in which the most famous Frenchman died. “The same way that Napoleon kidnapped Toussaint Louverture, and put him in captivity, he also finishes his life in captivity. He will have the same fate as Toussaint Louverture.”
French studies professor Andrew Curran said that while Bonaparte has been widely written about, there is often an ellipsis in his narrative where the Haitian Revolution is missing.
“Part of it is the fact that the Haitian Revolution, and the loss of Saint-Domingue, really was such an enormously powerful and awful thing for the French. It’s kind of their Vietnam,” says Curran, who teaches at Wesleyan University and is the author of The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment. “The fact that this enormous country was beaten resoundingly by people they thought were not at the level of people who should not have beaten them—there was an enormous amount of shame, which turned into the most violent racism.”
Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821, in a damp and rat-infested house in St. Helena, a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic, where he was living in exile. He was 51. (See a painting that captures Bonaparte’s final moments.)
This year’s bicentennial commemorations of his death open old wounds. His dueling legacies of hero and tyrant serve as a reminder of France’s dark colonial past, where the forced labor of enslaved Africans made it one of Europe’s wealthiest nations. While tributes are planned in the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, not everyone will be toasting the ex-emperor’s complicated legacy.
For Haitians, there will be no wreath laying or Catholic Mass, planned in St. Helena, or reenactments of Bonaparte’s adventures, like those seen on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where the bicentenary of his April 11, 1814 arrival in exile was celebrated with fanfare.
In death, as in life, Bonaparte is dividing opinion and arousing powerful sentiments about his ascent and fall from power, his contributions to France, and the legacy he left scattered across the Caribbean—particularly in Haiti, where his mark remains ingrained in a bloody history. [. . .]
Some scholars argue that the Haitian Revolution, which remains the only successful slave revolt in history, should not be considered among Bonaparte’s defeats because he wasn’t there, and his expeditionary army was led by generals.
Others say it is overdue for predominantly white countries like France and Britain, which had a history of enslaving people, to tell a fuller narrative of their empires.
Bonaparte deployed more than 60,000 soldiers to the island—and still lost. The revolt also halted his expansion plans west into the United States, thereby leading to the Louisiana Purchase. And it cost France the main crown jewel in an empire that stretched into Africa and the Caribbean.
[Photo above: These objects tied to Bonaparte are displayed in the private home of Giovanni Spadolini, an ex-Prime Minister of Italy who has collected a large number of books, documents, and other artifacts.]