Currently on screens in France, Ridley Scott’s latest film, Napoleon , centers on the passionate relationship between Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). But, in a scenario which crosses the character’s life to the rhythm of a charge of hussars, one of its darkest aspects is obscured: the reestablishment, in 1802, of overseas slavery. At the same time, the debate on the role that his wife and heroine of the film may have played in this decision is avoided: Joséphine was born in Martinique, in Trois-Ilets, on a family plantation which had nearly two hundred enslaved people.
On February 4, 1794, the French Revolution abolished slavery for the first time. This measure was applied to Santo Domingo and Guadeloupe, where it was not without causing unrest, wars and massacres which led in particular to the independence of Haiti. On the other hand, it remained a dead letter in Martinique, which had temporarily come under English occupation with the consent of the white owners (the békés), who saw this as a means of maintaining the oppressive system simply under the British flag.
The island became French again in 1802, when Bonaparte reestablished the “legality” of slavery. In the Indian Ocean, the owners had never applied revolutionary abolition either. They gave thanks to the new leader of France for reestablishing servitude: Reunion became Bonaparte Island in 1806.
Coming to Paris accompanied by slaves
In the absence of written evidence, historians argue today about the role in this recovery of Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, who became “Beauharnais” by a first marriage, then “Josephine” by an affectionate diminutive that he attributed Bonaparte. “No source to my knowledge documents any intervention by Joséphine,” Frédéric Régent, historian of Guadeloupean origin, professor at the Sorbonne and one of the great specialists in slavery, can only note. “There is no formal proof that it had a role,” notes Jean-François Niort, professor of legal history at the University of the Antilles. “Which does not mean that she did not bring all her influence and charm into this decision,” he immediately corrects.
Like many békés settling in mainland France, Bonaparte’s wife since 1796 and empress from 1804 came to Paris accompanied by slaves, like her servant Euphémie (who appears in Ridley Scott’s film). In Paris, Joséphine joined the very active circles of large Creole landowners. These supporters of servitude joined forces within the very influential Clichy club. This powerful political and economic lobby continues to intrigue, arguing about the disorders caused overseas by abolition.
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