Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Black Celebration of Napoleon.

Napoleon is often cited for his military genius - particularly for his victory at the battle of Austerlitz that too place two hundred years ago this Friday, and in which the 71,000 men of his Grande Armée routed their 91,000 adversaries in just six hours, killing 19,000. Historians usually agree that this was some accomplishment.
But it seems that the French government is actually planning to keep a low profile during the bicentennial of the French victory, and the celebrations will be kept to a minimum.

Interetingly enough, this is happening right during a controversy surrounding a new book by a French historian and black academic Claude Ribbe who accuses the emperor of the genocide of rebellious blacks. Mr Ribbe goes as far as suggesting that Napoleon provided the model for Hitler's Final Solution with the slaughter of more than 100,000 Caribbean slaves. While this may be going a bit far, the book has the merit of undermining a French historical myth, something unthinkable a few years back.

It is very unlikely that this book alone explains the attitude of the French government. I think they may simply want to avoid any controversy surrounding an anniversary that underlines the divide between the way the French black living in “departments et territories d’outre-mer”, also known as DOM-TOM (the French overseas departments) see their history and the way the rest of the French have been taught about it.

One thing quite well known in those “overseas” territories but completely ignored in Metropolitan France is that whereas France abolished slavery and freed all enslaved people in her colonies in 1794 (France actually never authorized slavery on its mainland), Napoleon re-established slavery in 1802 along with the reinstitution of the "Code noir", prohibiting Blacks, mulattoes and other people of color from entering French colonial territory or intermarrying with whites. Thousands of people of color were killed in Guadeloupe alone as they fought to retain their freedom.

According to Ribbe, Napoleon ordered the killing of as many blacks as possible in Haiti and Guadeloupe to be replaced by new, docile slaves from Africa.

It’s about time that France acknowledges that a reassessment of history is much needed in the current tense situation that led up to the social unrests of last month. Integrating “visible minorities” might begin with making them part of the national history. This is all the more important when there is pressure for re-writing history from a ‘pro-colonialist’ perspective, as we discussed before on this blog.

On a (lighter) note: a re-enactment of the battle of Austerlitz will be staged on the actual historical site and Napoleon will be played by….. by an American ! The irony is just too perfect.


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