Inside the Barrel

Brent Hayes Edwards

  • Memoires des esclavages: la fondation d’un centre national pour la memoire des esclavages et de leurs abolitions by Edouard Glissant
    Gallimard, 192 pp, €14.90, May 2007, ISBN 978 2 07 078554 4
  • The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade by Christopher Miller
    Duke, 571 pp, £20.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 8223 4151 2

In May 2001, the French National Assembly passed a law, the Loi Taubira (named after Christiane Taubira, the Socialist deputy who sponsored the bill), recognising the Atlantic slave trade as a ‘crime against humanity’. France is, as a result, the only country in the world that has condemned slavery in the name of human rights. The law was controversial not only for its seeming admission of national ‘guilt’, as some critics put it, but also because it appeared to prescribe a state policy on the presentation of the past: Article Two required that the slave trade and slavery be taken into account in education policy and research funding. The law was vague as to what exactly would be required, but in 2004 the government formed a Comité pour la mémoire de l’esclavage to devise a programme for use in schools. At the same time, planning began for a Centre national pour la mémoire des esclavages et de leurs abolitions, conceived as a research centre, an archive and a memorial.

The rhetoric of the debates around the Loi Taubira has at times been absurdly parochial, a combination of French obstinacy, pomposity and self-flagellation. In 2006, after the repeal of a law that had alluded to the ‘positive effects’ of colonisation, a group of deputies from Jacques Chirac’s ruling party unsuccessfully demanded the repeal of the Loi Taubira’s second article in the name of ‘parallelism’ (with the dubious logic that both laws attempted to mandate an ‘official history’). In his foreword to Edouard Glissant’s Mémoires des esclavages, the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin writes that ‘today France wants to look into the face of this tragedy that has left so many open wounds across the world and in her own flesh,’ but is unable to resist a hint of self-congratulation when he talks of the ‘great struggles’ in France against slavery, ‘nourished by the ideal of the Enlightenment and carried by the momentum of 1789’.

One of the most remarkable developments in France since the Loi Taubira was passed is that Caribbean artists have been given key roles in policy-making. The Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé was made the head of the Comité pour la mémoire de l’esclavage, and Glissant, a Martinican novelist, poet and theorist, was asked to take charge of setting up the research centre. In Mémoires des esclavages, Glissant contends that the prevalence of slavery throughout human history ‘has established a new sort of link among countries and cultures’. In creating an institution devoted to the study and remembrance of slavery, he writes, we are confronted with an ambiguous legacy: ‘monstrous’ practices, the source of ‘incalculable’ suffering, also led to fruitful contact and exchange, a process of ‘creolisation’ that has proved a vital force in cultures all over the world. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent to the Loi Taubira or the debates it has brought about in Britain or the United States; it’s hard, too, to imagine Toni Morrison or Caryl Phillips being asked to take charge of such matters.

As Christopher Miller points out in The French Atlantic Triangle, in France ‘literature was one of the most important battlegrounds for the debate on slavery.’ But in spite of the wealth of scholarship on the Atlantic slave trade, surprisingly little work has been done on the French literature. A scan of the bibliographies and endnotes in the most celebrated studies demonstrates that their sources are almost entirely drawn from British archives. As Condé puts it in her preface to the official report of the Comité for 2005, ‘the history of the slave trade, of slavery, and of their abolition continues to be widely ignored, neglected, marginalised’ in France in spite of the Loi Taubira.

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