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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’esclavage en héritage

by Rosa Moussaoui

The Enduring Legacy of Slavery

Translated Wednesday 25 March 2009, by Isabelle Métral

In the French Caribbean "départements", the "békés" (white natives) try to vindicate themselves by passing themselves off as “scapegoats”.

In a controversial debate in Paris, representatives of the Carribean white natives rather unsuccessfully tried to persuade the audience they were not the heirs of the rich slave owners of the colonial era.

To show that "Békés" are unjustly demonized: such is the mission that Patrick Karam has set himself, and it is a hard task indeed. Last Thursday at the state secretariat for the overseas départements and territories in Paris, the Félix-Boué conference room was exceptionally packed full for a debate organized by the inter-ministerial delegation for equal opportunities for France’s overseas populations. The theme was: “The ’Békés’ place in French Caribbean society: myth and reality.”

The document distributed at the entrance door immediately set the tone: the European settlers’ descendants, it read, are not inheritors. “Very few béké families succeeded in handing down to their present descendants any legacy they might have received.” Indeed (so the introduction ran) “békés now constitute a heterogeneous group, since its members will be found in all social and economic walks, whether among doctors, lawyers (…) or minimum wage earners, even people on welfare.”

The panel of debaters itself was a heterogeneous lot: Willy Angèle, president of the Guadeloupe employers’ association, béké entrepreneur Roger de Jaham, agriculturalist Jean-Louis de Lucy, the Guadeloupe white native and famous rhum baron Hervé Damoiseau, Philippe Lavil, a popular singer, and José-Marraud-Desgrottes, an accountant. Besides these, Serge Romana, president of the committee for the 98 march, Daniel Dalin, president of the overseas départements and territories collective, and Pierre Pluton, mayor of Evry-Grégy-sur-Yerres were invited to question the “ békés’ representatives”.

Willy Angèle, president of the Guadeloupe employers’ association, shrugged off Alain Huyghes-Despointes’s notorious racist statement, which has met with indignant protest. “You’ll always get people who’ll speak of race purity. I just am not interested, I just zap them,” he declared. “What I’m interested in is Guadeloupe’s economic development.” And he went on to praise “an open creole identity”, quoting Edouard Glissant, and exhorting the audience to “turn to the future”. “There is nothing we can change about our past, but we can do something about our future.”

Next, entrepreneur Roger de Janham, who founded the “Tous créoles!” (we are all of us creole) association, made a highly risky start: ”Suppose that in all that has been said here, we replace the word ‘béké’ with the word ‘Jew’…” but before he could finish the sentence, the obscenity of the parallel had drawn shouts of indignant protest from the audience, forcing him to make a fresh start, though never deserting his role as supposed victim. Speaking of “ethnic cleansing” in 1794, he evoked the execution, in Guadeloupe, on the Convention commissioner‘s order [1], of the settlers who balked at the abolition of slavery. “In Martinique,” he says, “it was thanks to the English protectorate that békés escaped being slaughtered.”

Then, but only then, Roger de Jaham reminded the audience how, as early as 1998, he recognized that slavery was a crime against humanity, adding that on every 22nd of May his association takes part in the celebrations of abolition. But he nevertheless insisted he “could not change his past.”

José Marraud-Desgrottes inveighed against the “myth” that békés are rich, and that they supposedly dominate the islands’ economy. He estimates their weight in the economy at only 14%. Unemployment among Martinique’s qualified young people is “much below the French average”, he claimed, without mentioning the number of those compelled to leave the island in order to seek jobs elsewhere. As to the high cost of living, “that has been largely a subjective feeling.” The fact that the price for a kilo of bananas is higher in Fort-de-France [2] than in Paris does not shock him. His creed is that work is the key to individual success. “I did not inherit my land. I bought it from my uncle, on credit,” he argued. “The money that the state gave békés to compensate for the abolition of slavery is not what permitted this social group to thrive,” another speaker insisted [3]. “Békés are not inheritors,” argued Roger de Jaham, “the land has changed hands several times.” “But the houses were handed down from one béké to another!” an infuriated RFO reporter exploded.

The picture of a social group whose modest, unassuming members worked their ways to prosperity by their own merit carried little weight with the audience. “Nobody is going to believe that békés are not a privileged group, that all of them have repudiated the racism handed down from the days of slavery,” broke in Serge Romana, and invited the speakers to listen to and understand the sufferings, and to open their eyes to the distortions and painful wounds left by that period in history.”

A hot dispute ensued, with distinct overtones of bitterness and resentment throughout the exchanges, showing the crisis to be a social, rather than a “racial” crisis. A man summed up the wall of misunderstanding that divides the people from the rich owners’ class in the Antilles in the following terms: ”whether real or imaginary, békés stand for economic power. Who owns Martinique? Certainly not my father…”

Translator’s notes:

I’ve finished the corrections i wanted to make, but I’m still a bit dubious about the two uses of the term "heterogeneous".
The panel sounds pretty homogeneous to me, but then I don’t know all the individuals and organizations involved

[1The National Convention (1792-1795) voted the abolition of slavery on the initiative of an abbot, l’abbé Grégoire, a great historical figure. Slavery was made legal again under Napoleon, despite Grégoire’s opposition and eventually abolished in 1848 under the Second Republic.

[2Fort de France is Martinique’s capital.

[3Concerning this compensation money: The French text says the very opposite, that the békés gave the state money for the abolition of slavery ("Les indemnités offertes à l’État par les békés ") ; but clearly, this a mistake in the text. It is a well-known fact that the slave owners were compensated by the State for the emancipation of their slaves.

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