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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La fin de l’esclavage ou la promesse non tenue

by By Jean Chatain

The End of Slavery: A Broken Promise

Translated by Julie Garderet

Translated Tuesday 21 February 2006, by JulieG

Modern slavery or the modernization of slavery?

The title chosen for the special issue of the Cahiers d’Études Africaines, published by the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and a leading Africanist academic review, is intended to be provocative. On the one hand, it is used to draw attention to the wide diversity of modern slavery - the ultimate form of exploitation; on the other hand, it attacks the image presented by at least some of the official discourse that gives slavery a date of birth (the 16th century for the French “triangular slave trade”), and a date of burial (1848 and the Schoelcher law (1)) that naturally leads us to conclude that this page in history has been turned, that we need to talk about it only in the past tense, or even stop talking about it at all, in the name of “forgetting”. Supposedly this would create the best conditions for reconciliation.

During the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the 1848 abolition, President Jacques Chirac presented this as an example of “intégration à la française”, of the French model of social integration, while the Education Minister of the time had circulars handed out in schools calling on teachers to focus on Schoelcher’s outstanding personality rather than spending too much time on slavery itself.

“If slavery in its original form has been abolished worldwide as a form of work legitimised by legal statutes (...), these practices have not yet disappeared” writes the historian Roger Botte in his introduction to this issue of “Cahiers”. From debt servitude (that remains today an common reality in India) to the hiring of contracted immigrants (a technique tried in the French West Indies and the island of Réunion (east of Madagascar) the day following the abolition of slavery), examples of servitude are abundant throughout the world. These show “the new face of slavery in the 20th century” according to the title of Suzanne Miers’ article in the “Cahiers”. We could also mention the title of Mathias Deshusses’ article on a little-recognised problem: “From fostering to slavery: the ‘little maids’ from the Côte d’Ivoire” (Du confiage à l’esclavage. Petites bonnes ivoiriennes en France) ...

Françoise Vergès wonders: “Why have we, in France, celebrated the memory of abolition instead of that of slavery?” And what’s worse, done so blatantly late in terms of history, which the author sees as “a blind spot in the French way of thinking”. She goes on to say that we need to “raise the issue of the whole imperial-colonial project and how it is related to the Republic, thus raising issues of racism within France.” Emphasising exclusively Schoelcher’s fight allows us to “erase” what occurred earlier and what happened after slavery was officially abolished. “For those who were emancipated”, this student from Reunion adds, “such ambiguities make abolition an important date and a broken promise. Although they became citizens, they remained colonised.”

(1) On 27 April 1848, the French Government decreed that slavery was abolished in all its colonies. Victor Schoelcher was the President of the commission and an abolitionist writer.

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