Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Slavery Abolition Commemoration Day

Throughout most of Western Europe, Monday was Victory Day (an official holiday in France) then yesterday was Europe Day - although not much celebrated - and today is France's first official commemoration of the end of slavery. You may think slavery is just another history topic but in France it has been a hot issue, mostly because France has only recently confronted first its past as a colonial power (see here, here and here) and now as a slave-trade power, and because more than in most other countries, history in France is very political.
Even this date of commemoration, which French president Chirac decided last year, was controversial. Some of the “departements et territories d’outre-mer” (known as DOM-TOM - the French overseas departments) already have their Slavery Abolition Day. In Martinique, for instance May 22 is a public holiday commemorating of the abolition of slavery and July 21 is Schoelcher Day (Schoelcher is the MP who introduced the bill against slavery in 1848).
I suppose that while being symbolic, the idea of a
Slavery Abolition Day is still a good thing. With this commemoration France has become the first former slave trader in the world to set aside a day to honor victims of its dark legacy. More importantly, it may help make the French “visible minorities” part of the official national history.
On the other hand, I'm always suspicious of the French habit of turning everything into law, including the
law recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity adopted in 2001. The problem with such laws is that they make history official and even though Chirac said said laws are not meant to write history, they often do just that in France.

PS: Just as a reminder, France was Europe's fourth largest slave trader after Portugal, England and Spain and transported about 1.25 million slaves.
France
first abolished slavery in 1794 but reinstated it in 1802 under Napoleon Bonaparte. (which made the celebration of Napoleon's victories very controversial). Slavery was officially abolished on May 10 , 1848.

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