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Victor Schoelcher

Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893) was born in Paris in 1804 into a family of porcelain manufacturers, originally from Alsace. Sent to the Americas in 1829-30 by the family's commercial house, he visited Mexico, Cuba, and the southern United States. That voyage occasioned several studies of American slave society which appeared in the Revue de Paris ("Letters from Mexico", "The Blacks"). This began a long career as an abolitionist writer. A series of articles followed between 1833 and 1847: De esclavage des noirs et de la législation coloniale (1833), Abolition de l'ésclavage: examen critique du préjugé contre la couleur des Africains et des sang-mêlés (1840), Des colonies françaises: Abolition immédiate de l'esclavage (1842), Colonies étrangères et Haïti: résultats de l'émancipation anglaise (1842-43), Histoire de l'esclavage pendant des deux dernières années (1847). His writings between 1841 and 1848 were esspecially consecrated to descriptions of the advantages from the abolition of slavery, drawn from a long comparative analysis of the results of emancipation in the British colonies (1834-38), the often pointed and precise denunciation of the "anti-social enormities of colonists", and the elaboration of a project of social, economic, and political reorganization of the colonies after the juridical suppression of the slavery system. Advocating the rationalization of sugar production by the construction of large central factories, establishment of credit agencies in the colonies, a movement of concentration of land parallel with the constitution of a category of part-time agricultural workers, Schoelcher recommend finally a recourse to immigration of European farmers to the colonies. Engaged since his youth in the republican movement, a free mason, member of the society "Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera", Schoelcher was a regular contributor to La Réforme.

The first European abolitionist to visit Hati after independence, he alone recognized and markedly influenced all three phases of the abolitionist process in the French Caribbean colonies: the pre-abolitionist period, the juridical abolition, and long post-slavery period. His actions in 1848 as under Secretary of State for colonies in the Provisional Government--named by François Aragoto this function--, his presidency of the commission for the abolition of slavery and the preparation, under his direction of the French decree abolishing slavery of April 27, 1848--which made slaves "newly freed" and "new citizens"--gave birth to a republican political movement in Guadeloupe and Martinique, "Schoelcherism". The "Schoelcherist" tendency, especially strong in Guadeloupe, received a majority of votes in legislative elections between 1848 and 1850 and after 1871. Closely tied to local free masons, the Schloecherist current sustained the appearance of a republican press in the French colonies during 1849.

Schoelcher was the foremost French specialist on the Caribbean in general and on colonial questions in the 19th century. Exceptionally well informed by his political functions and by his membership on all the commissions which the Ministry of Marine and Colonies formed between 1848 and 1851 and after 1871, he fashioned a network of correspondents throughout the entire Caribbean, Great Britain, and the United States. In the National Assembly, Schoelcher sat on the extreme left. In 1849 he wrote his electors in La Vérité aux ouvriers et aux cultivateurs de la Martinique, "Above all one is never pardoned for being called a 'montagnard,' a socialist. . . . [That is not] because I am one but rather I was a socialist that they so label me." Schoelcher analyzed no less minutely the political effervescence experienced in the French Caribbean colonies. He published notably Le procès de Marie-Galante in 1850.

Opposed to the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte of December 2, 1851, Schoelcher went into exile in Belgium and London until 1870, refusing the amnesty of 1859. This period generated a friendship with Victor Hugo. He published a Histoire des crimes du 2 décembre in 1852, Le gouvernement du 2 décembre in 1853, Dangers to England of the alliance with the men of the Coup d'Etat in 1854, and a Vie de Händel in 1857. The manuscript of Massacres dans Paris which he wrote in London only appeared in 1872 in Paris.

Schoelcher and "schloelcherism" created in 1848 a myth, the myth of slavery, savior of the colonial population bound in servitude, defender of civil rights which recognized the decree of abolition of 1848. The myth of colonial assimilation, the principle of the inheritance of 1789, European colonists and colonial administrators have judged dangerously "revolutionary" since that period. The carrier of profound contradictions, the myth has been narrowly associated with the ambiguities of the French republican movement's attitude toward colonial questions.

Victor Schoelcher died in 1893 after having written on colonial developments during two-thirds of the 19th century and protesting against the clandestine slave trade and survivals of slavery. He published a collection of his articles entitled Polémique coloniale in 1882-86 and a Vie de Tousaint Louverture, his last work, in 1889.
Nelly Schmidt


Nelly Schmidt "Victor Schoelcher, mythe et réalité," 1848: Révolutions et mutations du XIXe siècle 1988.

Nelly Schmidt "Le centenaire de l'aboliton de l'esclavage dans les colonies françaises, 1848-1948," 1848: Révolutions et mutations du XIXe siècle 1989.

Nelly Schmidt Victor Schoelcher (Paris, 1991).

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