MT 60 Yrs – Friday 13 July 1956
Les hommes de couleur libres, propriétaires comme les blancs, contribuables comme les blancs, sujets envers la patrie aux mêmes devoirs, doivent avoir les mêmes droits, avec d’autant plus de raison qu’ils sont fils des Francais.
— L’abbé Grégoire: Assemblée Nationale, Séance du 7 mai 1791
The 14th of July is a memorable date in world history. On that date the revolutionary forces which were brewing up for a long time in France found expression in the attack of the Parisian mob on the Bastille, the symbol of feudal tyranny. The fall of the Bastille was the first of a series of events which ended by wiping out the old order of things and establishing a republic in France. But these events concern us only in so far as they throw light on what happened in our island during that period.
On the occasion of the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille we are reminded of the fact that the French National Assembly interested itself in the fate of the coloured men of the French colonies, of which Ile de France was one.
As soon as news of the Revolution reached our island, a colonial assembly was set up on the model of the National Assembly. On the 1st of July, the assembly elected Charles Colin and Antoine Codere as colonial delegates to the National Assembly. Unfortunately the ship on which they sailed was wrecked with the loss of all lives on board. There were two other representatives, on whom then fell the task of speaking for the colony. These were Pierre Monneron, a merchant of Paris and De Missy, a merchant of La Rochelle.
Meanwhile petitions in favour of and protests against coloured men were coming to the National Assembly from the different parts of the Empire. On the 7th of May 1791 the National Assembly appointed a Committee to study matters concerning these. Grégoire, abbey of Loir-et-Cher, signalled himself as a warm advocate of the rights of coloured men. He was supported by Tracy, another deputy who exclaimed: “On vous a dit que tout était perdu si les gens de couleur avaient d’autre protecteur que les colons. Je dis que tout est perdu s’ils ont d’autre protecteur que la loi.”
Another man who rose up in favour of the Coloured was Duval who argued that the colonies owed their prosperity to the coloured men as the French very often left the colony after having made their fortune. As for the coloured men, they were the owners of small estates, they were the soul of commerce, they served as a check against the insurrection of Blacks, they were the natural allies of the Whites and the colonies owed their prosperity to them more than to anybody else.
On the 12th of May 1791 another meeting was held. This time it was Lanjunais who championed the cause of the Coloured. He reminded the Assembly that, by a decree of 1685, coloured men born of free parents, enjoyed the same rights as the Whites. How could they, he asked, be denied rights which they once enjoyed. He made an appeal to the feelings of humanity and justice of those who declared themselves their opponents. He asked: “Mais les colons blancs et les gens de couleur ne sont-ils donc pas enfants de la même mère? Ne sont-ils donc pas vos frères, vos cousins? Et vous ne voudriez pas leur laisser partager vos droits parce qu’ils n’ont pas le teint aussi blanc que vous? … regardez-vous dans le miroir et prononcez. Mais quels sont ceux qui surtout voudraient priver les citoyens de couleur de leur droits? Ce sont les petits blancs, gens qui ne sont pas même propriétaires…”
He warned them that if they insisted on not recognising the rights of coloured men, there would come a day when they would say to the Whites: “Retirez-vous dans votre patrie si vous persistez à nous contester les droits de l’homme; vous êtes des passagers sur notre sol, de véritables pèlerins dont les générations présentent depuis nombre d’années le même résultat, tandis que nous multiplions dans ce climat suivant les commandements du Créateur, dans un climat que la providence a créé pour nous, et dans une telle progression qu’il vous amènera nécessairement dans notre dépendance si vous voulez soutenir un privilège qui contraste avec les règles les plus saines de la morale et de l’éternelle justice.”
This meeting was important for the fact that Robespierre who was to become the undisputed leader of the Revolution, spoke in favour of the Coloured with almost religious fervour. He reminded his audience that the Coloured men once enjoyed rights which now the National Assembly could not deny them. “Je dis,” he said, “qu’ils jouissaient des droits que les blancs réclament aujourd’hui pour eux exclusivement.” He put the committee on its guard against the colonists who made vain promises to them and legislated on matters concerning coloured people. He thundered against such an injustice: “Et de qui ce congrès sera-t-il composé? De colons blancs, c’est-à-dire que vous refuserez justice aux hommes de couleur, pour les renvoyer à leurs adversaires.”
The Abbé Sieyes on his part threw light on the free population of the colonies at that time which he qualified as “grand blancs petits blancs, et les hommes de couleur libres”.
On the 13th of May was held another meeting, which is of great interest to us as the last speaker then was Pierre Monneron, representative of Ile de France. He too spoke on the free population of the colony, saying: “L’île de France est peuple d’affranchis, de mulâtres, et surtout par un très grand nombre de gens de couleur dont les uns ne portèrent jamais de chaines, et les autres comptent des ancêtres libres au-delà d’un siècle.” He brought forward examples of what happened in English, Spanish and Portuguese colonies. He said that in Senegal in 1775 a mulatto was mayor and in Portuguese colonies Negroes and Whites officiated as priests in the same church. He hoped that France would follow in the footsteps of these enlightened peoples.
The last meeting of the committee was held on the 15th of May when it was decreed: “L’Assemblée nationale décrète qu’elle ne délibèrera jamais sur l’état des gens de couleur qui ne sont pas nés de pères et mères libres, sans le vœu préalable, libre et spontané des colonies que les assemblées coloniales actuellement existantes subsisteront; mais que le gens de couleur nés de pères et mères libres seront admis dans toutes les assemblées paroissiales et coloniales futures, s’ils ont d’ailleurs les qualités requises.”
For that moment no interest was shown in the state of the slaves. But some time later attempts were made to liberate them. Those attempts met with headstrong opposition from the colonists as the fate of Baco and Burnel showed. But the decree of liberation was passed and remained in vigour until Napoleon repealed the statutes in favour of free coloured men, who continued to be denied civil and political rights until England restored it to them in 1829.
* Published in print edition on 14 June 2018
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