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.

The French transported more than 1.1 million Africans to the New World, about an eighth of the total traffic. The three French Caribbean colonies (Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint-Domingue) took in as many slaves as all of Spanish America, and Martinique alone imported more slaves than all the US states combined, excluding Louisiana. Saint-Domingue became the richest colony in the world, and French involvement grew quickly until, between 1781 and 1790, an average of 27,000 slaves were being transported across the Atlantic each year. After the Revolution, France became the first European power to abolish slavery, in February 1794, but the practice was reinstated by Napoleon in 1802 and lingered – despite the 1804 Haitian Revolution, which is often described as the only successful mass slave revolt – until 1848, a decade after Britain declared emancipation in its colonies.

Despite the scope and duration of the French slave trade, there was never a popular abolitionist movement in the country, unlike in Britain and the US. There are no ‘real slave narratives in French’, Miller notes, ‘not as we know them in the Anglophone Atlantic, not that have yet been discovered. That absence, for now at least, haunts any inquiry into the history of slavery.’ (A related point, which Miller doesn’t make but seems just as important, is that there was no tradition of black abolitionism in France, nothing like the public-speaking circuits and abolitionist press that produced such figures as Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano.) There is no equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Miller writes, ‘no singularly influential literary work from which abolitionism gathered strength in its own times and which can serve as a compelling aide-mémoire now’; the ‘Middle Passage’ (a phrase probably coined by British abolitionists in the late 18th century) has no equivalent in French.

In response to those, like de Villepin, who imagine that revolutionary France was in the vanguard of the anti-slavery cause, Miller gives a devastating portrait of the ‘anaemic nature’ of French abolitionist literature. Starting with the almost certainly apocryphal descriptions of the ‘origin’ of the French slave trade in a 1642 decree of Louis XIII, Miller finds that French writing about slavery is characterised above all by ‘moral ambivalence’: veering between a patronising conviction that enslavement would ‘save’ the heathens, on the one hand, and a recognition that the trade was morally unjustifiable, on the other.

The Enlightenment is usually credited with providing the philosophical foundation for abolitionism; according to David Brion Davis, by the mid-1700s ‘the classical justifications for slavery, already discredited by Montesquieu and Hutcheson, were being demolished by the arguments of Rousseau, Diderot and other philosophes.’ Miller acknowledges the existence of powerful abolitionist writings by the Abbé Raynal, Diderot and Condorcet, but makes a strong case that a number of French Enlightenment philosophers use a tone of ironic ‘levity’ in discussing slavery, and display a disturbing ‘indifference’ to the facts of the trade. This partly reflected a lack of information: ‘Knowledge about Africa,’ Miller admits, ‘was in fact held hostage by the slave trade: until the late 18th century almost everyone who went to Africa and wrote about Africans was involved in it.’ But what troubles Miller most about Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu isn’t so much their grasp of the facts as their rhetoric: their habit of describing slaves as ‘vile’ and ‘debased’; their persistent strategies of ‘diversion’ (as when Montesquieu criticises slavery in Spanish America, but fails to mention French involvement); their use of slavery as a metaphor for the condition of European society (as in Rousseau’s claim that ‘man is born free but everywhere lives in chains’) without mentioning the ‘literal chains being used against black Africans’.

Miller finds damning evidence in the 1804 memoirs of Joseph Mosneron, a slave trader from Nantes. Mosneron attributes his education in ‘moral ideas’ to Rousseau, but doesn’t express any qualms about profiting from the trade. In one passage, Mosneron recounts that while waiting for a cargo of slaves to be delivered off the coast of West Africa in the summer of 1766, his crew put on a play to pass the time. They performed Voltaire’s Alzire, about a slave revolt by Peruvian Indians. Thanks to the play’s ‘displacement’ of slavery to an exotic New World locale and its explicit support for ‘the natural right of Christians to colonise others’, Mosneron didn’t notice the irony of performing such a work on a slave ship. As Miller notes, Voltaire himself invested indirectly in the slave trade, and in 1768 was ‘delighted’ when a slave ship was named after him.

Miller’s comprehensive survey of French abolitionist literature in the late 18th and early 19th centuries forms the core of his study. Here, too, he highlights the moral ambivalence of a number of works that other scholars have been quick to praise as anti-slavery classics – such as Claire de Duras’s Ourika, of 1823, an ‘immensely powerful narrative on racial prejudice’ which nonetheless has ‘at best a tenuous’ relation to abolitionism. Many American and British historians have emphasised the moral wavering, inconsistency and disagreement among abolitionists. For Miller, though, the problem is not vacillation, but the connection between the ambivalence, diversions and ‘blithe ignorance’ of French writing about slavery, and the abolitionists’ failure to form a movement in even the loosest sense of the term.

Miller’s project is unusual not only in its broad historical scope but also in its attempt to trace links between 18th and 19th-century French literature and 20th-century works by writers from France’s former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. He is at his best in the discussion of Prosper Mérimée’s 1829 short story ‘Tamango’, which is described (perhaps with some irony) as a ‘master text’. Miller finds echoes of Mérimée’s tale of an African warrior who leads a doomed shipboard revolt in works as various as the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, with its description of former slaves ‘unexpectedly standing’ at the helm of a ship after an uprising; John Berry’s strange and lurid film Tamango, starring Dorothy Dandridge; and the Senegalese novelist Boris Boubacar Diop’s playful metafiction Le Temps de Tamango. Mérimée ‘does not simply ignore abolitionism; he actively negates it’, Miller asserts, but for all that his story could be used to inspire work by Caribbean, American and African artists.

These ‘ripple effects’ are the subject of the book’s final section, which looks at Césaire, Glissant, Condé and Ousmane Sembène. Miller argues convincingly that Sembène’s novel Le Docker noir (about an African stevedore who accuses a white French writer of stealing his novel and publishing it under her own name) is a provocative meditation on who possesses the authority to write history. He also argues that Césaire’s ‘touchstone’ poem should be read as a response to the legacy of the French Atlantic slave trade: the Cahier is partly ‘an attempt to renegotiate a triangle that appeared to be so powerful that it could never be imagined out of existence’.

The implications of Miller’s arguments are not always fully elaborated, starting with the title itself, which suggests that there is something identifiably ‘French’ – aside from the language of composition – about the literature and culture of this part of the slave trade. There is some tension between this suggestion and Miller’s insistence that the Atlantic was above all a space of translation: ‘In France, efforts toward abolition of the slave trade and slavery (in that order) were largely translated from England and from English. Translation played an essential role in abolitionism.’ Although Miller discusses a few texts written in English (notably Equiano’s), his main examples are French, and he mostly avoids writing about the Atlantic as a site of cultural contact and confrontation between the European powers.

Nevertheless, many of Miller’s examples involve encounters between empires, and patterns of influence that cross the language barrier. As The French Atlantic Triangle makes clear, the translations of a number of English texts – for instance, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (published in 1688 and translated in 1745) and Thomas Clarkson’s Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (translated in 1789) – influenced the development of French abolitionist literature. The preface of Eugène Sue’s Atar-Gull is addressed to James Fenimore Cooper, who served as the US consul in France in the late 1820s, and whose novels of the sea were widely read in French translation. Also striking are the many plots that turn on French encounters or near encounters with the British, who attempted to interdict the French slave trade between 1815 and 1831. Captain Ledoux in Mérimée’s ‘Tamango’ is celebrated for his ability to evade British cruisers. The slave ship in Edouard Corbière’s Le Négrier has a close call with a British warship, as does the trader Brulart who transports his stolen cargo of slaves to Jamaica in Atar-Gull.

These plots are partly inspired by historical events such as the affair of La Jeune Estelle. In March 1820, a French slave ship operating out of Martinique was chased and boarded by a British ship. The French crew claimed that they were not carrying any slaves, but the British heard noises coming from a sealed wooden barrel on the deck, and opened it to find two African girls bound inside. The British sailors then remembered that they had seen ‘many barrels’ being thrown off the back of La Jeune Estelle during the pursuit. As Miller says, ‘the French crew had attempted to conceal the evidence of one crime, slave trading, by committing another, mass murder.’ This is as chilling as the worst episodes in British slave trading, such as the Zong case, in which the captain of a foundering ship deliberately drowned 132 captives and then submitted an insurance claim for ‘lost’ goods. These examples suggest that, if there is a French Atlantic, it is defined only by its contacts and confrontations with the British Atlantic.

In contrast, although both Glissant and Condé are involved with French state policy, both have resisted describing their work solely in terms of the history of the French Atlantic. The Comité pour la mémoire de l’esclavage claimed it wanted ‘to give to the history of the societies that emerged out of slavery the national recognition that is their due’, but also wanted its proposals to have a ‘reach that is national, European and international’. (It recommended that 10 May, the date the Loi Taubira was passed in 2001, should be made the national day of commemoration: not the date slavery was abolished by France in 1794 or 1848 but the date it was recognised as a ‘crime against humanity’.) In the same spirit, Glissant identifies the ‘so-called national character of the enterprise’ as one of the first difficulties to be confronted in founding a research centre: ‘If today a centre must be national in inspiration . . . it nevertheless can only function in a manner that is international.’ Hence Glissant’s use of the awkward plural ‘esclavages’ in his book’s title.

As a reader, Miller is a stubborn literalist. Time and again he objects when metaphors take the place of, and draw attention away from, the brutality of historical facts. He seems not to notice the ways that literary metaphor can expand the reader’s capacity for empathy or suggest unexpected connections. Although he has no patience with Voltaire’s figurative evocation of a ‘Great Chain of Being’, Miller’s own language can slip between registers, above all in his use of the term ‘translation’. The ‘problem of slavery’, he writes at one point, ‘requires translation and interpretation: the slave must be made to speak through mediating devices like literature. The slave trade, however, is itself translation, literally, according to the dictionary, in both French and English.’ At the same time, ‘the Atlantic slave was a person who had been translated and who had to, as a consequence, translate.’ The definitions may be accurate, but these very different senses of translation – as explication, as enslavement, as pragmatic acculturation – shouldn’t be conflated or confused.

Miller argues that art is indispensable to our understanding of slavery because of the gap in the historical record: ‘Into that void,’ he writes, ‘imaginative literature and cinema have poured their speculations and reflections.’ The imagination, in other words, compensates for what we cannot know with certainty. Others have made a more forceful argument for literature. For example, Ian Baucom’s 2005 study of the Zong affair, Spectres of the Atlantic, presents abolition as an epistemological struggle over what counts as a fact. As Glissant puts it, ‘The phenomena of slavery will never be seen, nor be visible or perceptible or comprehensible, solely using the methods of objective thought.’

Given the centrality of Césaire’s Cahier to Miller’s study, one might wonder whether narrative (in fiction or film) is necessarily the best mode for confronting the legacy of slavery. When Césaire’s epic moves ‘away from narration to a highly abstract level of representation’, as Miller puts it, it moves to lyric – as though the Caribbean perspective on the Atlantic triangle might best be expressed not as a story but as a kind of music. In 2007 the Martinican avant-garde jazz trumpeter Jacques Coursil released an album called Clameurs, a sequence of ‘four oratorios for trumpet and voice’, which draws on texts from different sources, in different languages, concerning the slave trades that most deeply affected the African continent: the Martinican poet Monchoachi’s 1982 book-length Nostrom (in Creole); the closing pages of Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs; the ‘Song’ of Antar, a sixth-century African warrior-poet enslaved in the Middle East (in Arabic); and excerpts from Glissant’s poem ‘Les Grands Chaos’. The music revolves around the relation between the voices reciting these texts and Coursil’s trumpet, a light and breathy accompaniment which has the quality of a ghostly speaking voice. If in the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal Césaire seeks to hear the ‘true cry’ of his people reverberating above and beyond the experience of slavery, Coursil makes a subtle but suggestive revision, the movement from a single cry to a clamour.