Reading time: Around 6 minutes.
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Last year, I had the pleasure of receiving in my mailbox Bordeaux Métisse, Esclaves et Affranchis du XVIIIe à L’Empire by Julie Duprat; it seems that a new tradition is about to be established, since this year I received Parcours contrastés des abolitionnistes Cyrille Bissette et Victor Schoelcher [The contrasting paths of abolitionists Cyrille Bissette and Victor Schoelcher] by Léo Ursulet. Today, I’m talking about a new book that relates the parallel paths of two important personalities in the anti-slavery movement in France in the first half of the 19th century.
The purpose of the book is not so much to tell the story of the abolition of slavery and all its actors, as to confront the paths of two illustrious men in the anti-slavery struggle on the political scene of the time. It is particularly interested in their profile, their acts and their confrontation; because, if Victor Schoelcher and Cyrille Bissette both participated in the fight for the abolition of slavery from Paris, we cannot say that they did it side by side, hand in hand. The author thus writes that he sought « to know their own theses in order to be able to untangle the skein of their differences of view » [à connaître leurs thèses propres afin de pouvoir démêler l’écheveau de leurs divergences de vue] in their commitments against slavery.
The two men have a very different social profile. One is « white », from a bourgeois background, and grew up in France. The other is « free people of color », born in Martinique, and belongs to the elite of his class, but in a colonial society where this class is discriminated against by color prejudice because of its origin and skin color. Bissette also paid the price of color prejudice, since in 1824, he was prosecuted and condemned fiercely in the eponymous case, for having had in his possession a pamphlet that defended the legal suppression of color prejudice (a pamphlet of which he was not even the author!). He spent 2 years in the penal colony of Brest.
If I knew that Bissette had participated in the repression of enslaved people in the Carbet revolt in 1822 and that he was at the heart of the affair that bears his name, I did not know the details of his life and his political commitments, once exiled in Paris, any more than I had been interested in the details of Schoelcher’s life and political commitments and even less in their confrontation.
Throughout the chapters, thanks to the numerous and lengthy quotations from their main publications, I was able to better understand the sources of influence, the political strategies of the two men in their fight until the abolition of slavery, but also afterwards, the evolution of their discourse and the key dates on the political level. The book does not only highlight the « beautiful speeches » and « beautiful acts » of each of them, but it also tells the story of their ambiguity, of their « ugly sentences », offering a rather nuanced vision and a perspective of their respective careers and roles. There are also a few incursions on questions of the present time (reparation, statue, memory, politics of forgetting the past…).
Some elements that I retained in bulk…
- Louis Fabien and Cyrille Bissette were initiated as Freemasons in the « Lodge Les Trinosophes » of the Grand Orient de France in 1828; this contributed to the questioning of color prejudice within the lodges and to the rise of lodges of free men of color in Guadeloupe. Victor Schoelcher was also a Freemason, received into the Lodge of the Friends of Truth of the Grand Orient of France in 1822.
- Bissette was the first in 1835 to advocate the frank and immediate abolition of slaves, rather than gradual abolition. Schoelcher promoted this position from 1842.
- Bissette asked to be included in the commission set up at the beginning of March 1848 to prepare the drafting of the decrees for the abolition of slavery. Schoelcher, who was the head of this commission, refused to integrate him. When we see the writings of Bissette on Schoelcher throughout the preceding period, it is not so surprising! The latter will answer him publicly from 1848 onwards in the context of their electoral confrontations.
- It seems that Schoelcher thought long and hard about choosing people for the commission who would not be too likely to slow down the drafting of the decrees; in other words, people (even pro-abolitionists) who had strong opinions on the subject and who would have given rise to endless debates were not chosen to be part of the commission by Schoelcher. Between the February revolution and the April legislative elections, the window of opportunity was short. Political strategy.
- Schoelcher thus proposed compensation for the enslaved people to the commission, and then quickly renounced it to ensure that abolition was carried out as quickly as possible while he was influential and before the political context changed and risked postponing general emancipation much further in the future.
- The slave revolt of May 22, 1848 in St. Pierre led to the immediate abolition of slavery in Martinique, and a few days later in Guadeloupe; but the consequences extended even further, including the Danish Virgin Islands!
- After Schoelcher’s refusal, Bissette turned to the colonists he had previously fought against because of color prejudice to make common cause against Schoelcher. The result is not glorious.
While the book specifically profiles Victor Schoelcher and Cyrille Bissette, it is also an opportunity to highlight other people who gravitated towards the former; I appreciated discovering André Isambert, Bissette’s defender at his trial in 1824, and having some information about Louis Fabien and Jean-Baptiste Volny, the main people charged alongside Bissette in 1824. The book also looks at Pastor Guillaume Félice, Auguste Perrinon, Frédéric Procope Jeune, Pory-Papy… for their respective political or institutional roles in France or in Martinique.
Of our historical figs
Léo Ursulet writes about Bissette and Schoelcher that : « the real motives went beyond the limits of possible disputes over a place of leadership in the fight for the abolition of slavery. The confrontation was much more profound and brought to light serious incompatibilities of persons ». [les mobiles véritables dépassaient les limites de disputes éventuelles sur une place de leadership dans le combat en faveur de la cause de l’abolition de l’esclavage. L’affrontement était beaucoup plus profond et mettait en évidence de graves incompatibilités de personnes] I agree with this point of view but coming out of the reading, I was left feeling disappointed in Bissette’s actions when I was so excited to learn more about his struggle.
Bissette struck me as a man with a temper, antagonizing his fellow soldiers (he had a violent altercation with Louis Fabien in 1835), scorning any idea or initiative of which he was not the center, the initiator, the author, or the repository… Reflecting on this, Bissette’s intransigence for potential allies in the anti-slavery struggle reminded me, in some ways, of questions raised by current discussions of « militant purity. » How can one reject the necessary discussions about the terms of a struggle made up of plural visions, want to impose a single vision and demand irreproachable paths when one claims to be fighting for the recognition of others as equals, for human rights? How does one determine the strategies, the arrangements, the renunciations that one is ready to take or not to take in order to reach one’s objective? Both Bissette and Schoelcher had a perspective that evolved over the years and had to make choices in order to reach their goals. If I understand the differences of opinion or way of being that prevent collaboration in spite of shared struggles, I find it more difficult to conceive the merits of a systematic, denigrating opposition when it implies, in the end, literally you were turning on… To the point that I wonder how far Bissette’s opportunism and ego were pushed rather than his conviction for the abolitionist cause. Perhaps, as Léo Ursulet notes, « Bissette seemed to consider the situation the day after the abolition decree as an outcome, while Schoelcher was concerned about the future » [« Bissette semblait considérer la situation au lendemain du décret d’abolition comme un aboutissement, Schoelcher, lui, se souciait de l’avenir »]. All this does not take away from Bissette’s merit for having been the first to defend the free and immediate liberation of slaves in 1835, but it does not make him the admirable or inspiring figure I would have liked either, and it leaves me pondering how we can and want to value our « historical heroes ».
At the beginning of this year, here is a French reading suggestion to make your own opinion and better understand the political career of the two men.
- Léo Ursulet, Parcours contrastés des abolitionnistes Cyrille Bissette et Victor Schoelcher, France, Orphie, 2022.