Black Abolitionists in France

African Americans fought against the slave trade and slavery through sabotage, escape, conspiracies, and revolts while freed people were involved in abolitionist activities, from organizing campaigns to delivering speeches and writing pamphlets, as demonstrated in Abolition and Celebrations. And as explained in The Abolitionist Movement in Britain and the United States , African abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were quite active in Great Britain. Less well known is the role of blacks in the movement that brought about the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the French colonies long before any other territories in the Western Hemisphere.

During the French Revolution of 1789, people of color from Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique living in France organized themselves into the Société des citoyens de couleur (Society of Colored Citizens), headed by mulatto Julien Raimond, a wealthy planter and slaveholder from Saint-Domingue. It worked closely with the Société des amis des noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks), which asked for equal rights for free people of color, the immediate abolition of the slave trade, and a gradual abolition of slavery. In 1791 the Société des citoyens worked diligently to gather together activists who were dispersed in various clubs and kept the revolutionaries informed of the political and social situation in Saint-Domingue, where the uprising had started during the night of August 22-23.

Despite the abolitionists’ efforts, France wrote the maintenance of slavery into her 1791 constitution. On August 10, 1792, however, with a regime change, the constitution itself was abandoned. A month later, Raimond proposed to the Assembly the creation of a voluntary legion made up of black men residing in France whose mission would be to help defend the revolution.

The Légion franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi (Free Cavalry Legion of the Americans and the South) was led by Joseph Bologne de Saint-George. Born in Guadeloupe in 1739, he was the son of an enslaved Senegalese woman and a French nobleman. The family settled in France in 1748, and Saint-George received an excellent education. He became a fencer celebrated throughout Europe, a violinist, and a famous music composer and conductor. The Chevalier de Saint-George, as he was known, was Queen Marie-Antoinette’s music instructor.

Yet when the revolution started, Saint-George abandoned the aristocratic way of life that had been his and became a revolutionary. He believed the new social order would bring about freedom, equality, and the end of racism. As the head of the revolutionary Legion of the Americans, which soon became known as Saint-George Legion, he brought in Alexandre Thomas Davy de la Pailleterie, who had moved with his father from Saint-Domingue to France in 1780. Alexandre’s father was a marquis and his mother, an enslaved African. She was called Louise-Cessette “du mas” or “of the little house.” When Alexandre, following a fight with his father, enrolled in the army at a low rank, the marquis forbade him to debase his noble name. The young man then took the name Dumas in honor of his mother. The man who became the famous General Alexandre Dumas was the father of the legendary author Alexandre Dumas.

On May 17, 1793, the Legion sent an “Address to the National Convention and to all the patriotic clubs and societies on behalf of the Negroes held in slavery in the French colonies of America.” It was written in the name of “one million slaves” and asked for the immediate abolition of slavery. The soldiers and officers who had signed the document, along with the Société des citoyens de couleur, launched a joint campaign for the end of slavery and the slave trade.

A delegation of black men and women was received by the Convention in Paris on June 4. Among them was Jeanne Odo a woman born in Saint-Domingue, who claimed to be 114. The delegation carried a new flag: a black man on the blue stripe, a white man on the white stripe, and a mulatto on the red stripe, with the slogan “Our union will be our strength.” The flag symbolized the end of the colonial order, as well as general freedom and equality. Following the black citizens’ campaign, the new constitution enacted on June 24, 1793, specified that no one could be sold. Although it did not address the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, it was considered a step in the right direction.