1848: Impact of Revolution on French Colonies

Daguerreotype view of a baptismal ceremony for slaves shortly after their emanci

An article on French Colonialization and the impact of the Revolution of 1848.

In 1848, before the age of the 'new imperialism', France already claimed an overseas empire extending from the Americas to Africa and the Indian Ocean. The sole North American possession France retained were the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miguelon off the coast of Newfoundland. Far more important were the West Indian islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe (including several smaller islands, administrative dependencies of Guadeloupe) colonized in the early 1600s, and the vast territory of Guyane on the South American continent. In the Indian Ocean, France possessed Réunion, also taken over in the 1600s; the island of Mayotte in the Comoros chain, which came under French rule in 1840; and bases in the island of Sainte-Marie and at Nossy-Bé in Madagascar. France also controlled the cities of Pondichéry, Chandernagor, Yanaon, Karikal and Mahé (the Comptoirs français) in India, as well as trading posts in Senegal and on the Guinea cost. In 1830, France had established authority over coastal regions of Algeria and was expanding into the North African hinterland. Finally, in the South Pacific, France in 1842 had established a protectorate over Tahiti and others of the Society Islands and acquired the Marquesas chain. Few French settlers lived in the colonies, except for the Békés, white landowners of the Antilles and Réunion, who dominated the far more numerous African slaves who worked the sugar plantations. The colonies provided France with raw materials (especially sugar and other tropical products), markets, strategic bases and `points d'appui' for the French military and mercantile fleets around the world. The policy of the `exclusif', which reserved to the `mother country' almost all trade and profits from the colonies, molded relations between the metropole and its possessions. Administrators, soldiers, traders and Catholic missionaries completed the French colonial presence.

The revolution of 1848 made the colonies into territories of the republic and gave them representation in the national assembly. Algeria was divided into civil and military regions, and the civil regions subdivided into départments of Algiers, Oran and Constantine. The new administrative system, including prefects, resembled that of metropolitan départments and lasted more than a century. The government also tried to turn Algeria into a settler colony. From October to December 1848, some thirteen thousand Frenchmen, most of whom had mounted barricades during the June Days, were transported across the Mediterranean. Paris spent fifty-five million francs to give them land, livestock and tools in the hopes that they would become pioneer farmers and that the metropole would be rid of rebels. Lack of better preparation for the transportees' arrival and strong-armed military control hampered the operations; many colonists died or returned to France.

The greatest achievement of the 1848 revolution for the colonies was the abolition of slavery. Slavery, the foundation of economic and social life in the vieilles colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane and Réunion, had been abolished by the Convention in 1794 but was reinstituted by Napoleon. The anti-slavery campaign grew stronger in dissident and republican circles in the early 1800s and triumphed in the February revolution of 1848. On March 4, the assembly agreed to the principle of emancipation. A definitive decree followed on April 27, 1848. Declaring that `slavery is an attack on human dignity', it `destroys the principal of natural law and duty . . . it is a flagrant violation of republican dogma," and that great unrest could erupt in the colonies if slavery were not ended, the law abolished slavery in all French colonies and possessions. A total of 262,564 slaves were thereby freed, most of them in the plantation colonies of the West Indies and Réunion. The legislators also granted the right to vote to the freed slaves. They promised compensation to the former slave-owners, who had vigorously protested against emancipation, arguing that the loss of labor would ruin the colo nies. Emancipation owed much to the work of Victor Schoelcher, a businessman in the Antilles who had published denunciations of slavery and lobbied Arago and members of the government in Paris. Schoelcher was hailed as the liberator of the slaves and elected député for both Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Before the emancipation decree reached the Antilles, however, slave revolts had broken out in Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the governors of these colonies abolished slavery on their own authority on May 23 and 27, respectively. The slave riots, particularly in the Martiniquais capital of Saint-Pierre, reached such magnitude that some historians argue that the slaves were on the verge of conquering their freedom even without the change of government or the emancipist ideas of Schoelcher in Paris. Still others suggest that, in any case, slavery was becoming economically less profitable; sugar planters has suffered competition from producers of beet sugar in the metropole since the Napoleonic period (the `guerre des deux sucres'), increasing numbers of slaves (particularly the métis) gained freedom before 1848 and the French prohibition on slave trading in 1815 made it impossible to replenish supplies of African laborers.

Plantation owners subsequently brought in large numbers of contract workers from the Indian subcontinent, but the sugar industry suffered continuing problems in the late 1800s. Emancipation and voting rights contributed to cultural and political consciousness among the former slaves, as well as to the emergence of a political elite of métis in the plantation colonies. The Békés nevertheless retained much economic power, and full-blooded blacks had less chance of social mobility than métis. Elsewhere in the empire, the indigenous populations benefited from the abolition of slavery but gained little else from the revolution of 1848.

The revolutionaries were not anti-colonialists, despite their anti-slavery decrees. The policy of assimilation, which dominated French colonial administration in the 1800s, maintained French commercial monopolies and centralized political control of the overseas possessions. But colonial suffrage and access to education and political institutions for black Frenchmen owed much to the ideas of 1848. Reaction to the revolution also affected the colonies, although slavery was never re-established. Representation to the national assembly disappeared during the Second Empire. In 1851, the prince-president began using Guyane as a penal colony, and two years later Napoleon III took over New Caledonia partly to establish a new penitentiary in the Pacific.

Robert Aldrich

Bennoune, Mahfoud, The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Blérald, Alain-Philippe, La Question nationale en Guadeloupe et en Martinique (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1988).
de Lépine, Edouard, Question sur l'histoire antillaise (Fort-de-France: Desormeaux, 1978).
Leguen, Marcel, Histoire de l'Ile de la Réunion (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1979).
Martin, Jean, L'Empire renaissant, 1789/1871 (Paris: Denoel)