5, 1790 -Society of the Friends of Blacks
Society of the Friends of Blacks rested their case for the abolition
of the slave trade on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and
Citizen and the belief that political rights should be granted
to religious minorities. Their denunciation of the slave trade
resembles in its details the account of Abbé Raynal. They
took a defensive tone in this address written in response to intense
criticism from those who feared that abolition would bring a loss
of French colonial wealth and power. The Friends of Blacks denied
that they wanted to abolish slavery altogether, only the slave
trade that transported Africans from their homelands to the French
colonies. Their pamphlet insisted that the tide of opinion against
the slave trade was steadily rising in Great Britain (the British
officially abolished the trade in 1807). They also raised the
prospect of a slave revolt, which in fact broke out in Saint Domingue
in 1791. As a consequence, many planters and their allies accused
the society of fomenting the revolt.
humanity, justice, and magnanimity that have guided you in the
reform of the most profoundly rooted abuses gives hope to the
Society of the Friends of Blacks that you will receive with benevolence
its demand in favor of that numerous portion of humankind, so
cruelly oppressed for two centuries.
Society, slandered in such cowardly and unjust fashion, only derives
its mission from the humanity that induced it to defend the blacks
even under the past despotism. Oh! Can there be a more respectable
title in the eyes of this august Assembly which has so often avenged
the rights of man in its decrees?
have declared them, these rights; you have engraved on an immortal
monument that all men are born and remain free and equal in rights;
you have restored to the French people these rights that despotism
had for so long despoiled; . . . you have broken the chains of
feudalism that still degraded a good number of our fellow citizens;
you have announced the destruction of all the stigmatizing distinctions
that religious or political prejudices introduced into the great
family of humankind. . . .
are not asking you to restore to French blacks those political
rights which alone, nevertheless, attest to and maintain the dignity
of man; we are not even asking for their liberty. No; slander,
bought no doubt with the greed of the shipowners, ascribes that
scheme to us and spreads it everywhere; they want to stir up everyone
against us, provoke the planters and their numerous creditors,
who take alarm even at gradual emancipation. They want to alarm
all the French, to whom they depict the prosperity of the colonies
as inseparable from the slave trade and the perpetuity of slavery.
never has such an idea entered into our minds; we have said it,
printed it since the beginning of our Society, and we repeat it
in order to reduce to nothing this grounds of argument, blindly
adopted by all the coastal cities, the grounds on which rest almost
all their addresses [to the National Assembly]. The immediate
emancipation of the blacks would not only be a fatal operation
for the colonies; it would even be a deadly gift for the blacks,
in the state of abjection and incompetence to which cupidity has
reduced them. It would be to abandon to themselves and without
assistance children in the cradle or mutilated and impotent beings.
is therefore not yet time to demand that liberty; we ask only
that one cease butchering thousands of blacks regularly every
year in order to take hundreds of captives; we ask that henceforth
cease the prostitution, the profaning of the French name, used
to authorize these thefts, these atrocious murders; we demand
in a word the abolition of the slave trade. . . .
regard to the colonists, we will demonstrate to you that if they
need to recruit blacks in Africa to sustain the population of
the colonies at the same level, it is because they wear out the
blacks with work, whippings, and starvation; that, if they treated
them with kindness and as good fathers of families, these blacks
would multiply and that this population, always growing, would
increase cultivation and prosperity. . . .
no doubt, the time when this commerce will be abolished, even
in England, is not far off. It is condemned there in public opinion,
even in the opinion of the ministers. . . .
some motive might on the contrary push them [the blacks] to insurrection,
might it not be the indifference of the National Assembly about
their lot? Might it not be the insistence on weighing them down
with chains, when one consecrates everywhere this eternal axiom:
that all men are born free and equal in rights. So then therefore
there would only be fetters and gallows for the blacks while good
fortune glimmers only for the whites? Have no doubt, our happy
revolution must re-electrify the blacks whom vengeance and resentment
have electrified for so long, and it is not with punishments that
the effect of this upheaval will be repressed. From one insurrection
badly pacified will twenty others be born, of which one alone
can ruin the colonists forever.
is worthy of the first free Assembly of France to consecrate the
principle of philanthropy which makes of humankind only one single
family, to declare that it is horrified by this annual carnage
which takes place on the coasts of Africa, that it has the intention
of abolishing it one day, of mitigating the slavery that is the
result, of looking for and preparing, from this moment, the means.
The French Revolution
and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited,
and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St.
Martin's, 1996), 106–109.