French Abolitionist as Savior in West Indies

This paternalistic 19th-century monument captures the challenge of commemorating the liberation of an entire people.

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Louis-Ernest Barrias, Victor Schoelcher monument, 1896. Plaster, 223 cm (Musée Saint-Nazaire, Bourbon-Lancy, France)

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

The urge to memorialize great moments in history is one of the defining aspects of 19th-century art. In the case of the work seen here, the artist was presented with the especially intriguing challenge of commemorating the liberation of an entire people from bondage. The solution may seem clichéd and patronizing by today's standards, but it lies solidly within the prevailing expressive language of its time. The essence of a culminating historical event is distilled in terms lying between allegory and the more concrete lionization of the individual.

The work honors Victor Schoelcher, a prominent French abolitionist and politician instrumental in the termination of slavery in the French colonies of the West Indies. The monument was commissioned not long after the reformer's death in 1893. The bronze version, based on this original plaster model, was set up in a public square in Cayenne, the capital city of the colony of French Guiana. Its sculptor, Louis-Ernest Barrias, was well-known for a long series of prominent allegorical and commemorative projects.

Schoelcher is presented in the role of beneficent savior, in a manner akin to the ubiquitous depictions of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. Here, "Father Abraham" is replaced by the towering figure of the French emancipator who receives the heartfelt gratitude of an unsophisticated slave. The rhetorical gestures of the two men are a shorthand statement of their relationship, theoretically equal but in reality quite tentatively established. With one arm on the slave's shoulder, Schoelcher shows him the path to freedom with the other.

Schoelcher's face exudes a nearly masklike vision of formal benevolence. Though a heartfelt abolitionist, he is here seen in the role of a state official promulgating a governmental decree. The juxtaposition of the two figures produces a telling confrontation of opposites, both formally and politically: the protective cloak of civilization and the vulnerability of nakedness; the power of the French metropole and the subservient position of the colonial realm; maturity and youth; official power abetted by personal wealth; and newfound freedom with a still-uncertain future.

Schoelcher stands here as the culminating figure in the long, convulsive struggle for the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. He was born at a propitious time in the history of the movement. In 1804, the very year of his birth, Haiti had become the world's first independent black nation. Traveling on family business while still young, he directly experienced the horrors of slavery in the Southern United States and Cuba. Greatly moved, he resolved to ameliorate the sufferings of the enslaved people of the French "outre-mer," or overseas possessions.

The revolution of 1848 ushered in an agenda of progressive reform, and the ardent campaigner, long active in the world of letters, was suddenly thrust into a position of real political power. Named undersecretary of the navy and the colonies, he headed a commission charged with drafting a decree abolishing slavery. On April 27, 1848, nearly a quarter-million slaves in the West Indian colonies and North Africa became free. Schoelcher continued to play a key role in the implementation of reforms in the colonies, representing Martinique and Guadeloupe in the French National Assembly.

The Schoelcher monument was produced during a period in the artist's career dominated by an engagement with black subjects. As a group, these commissions reveal a broader understanding of the French colonial mindset, particularly toward its black inhabitants. In 1894 Barrias produced a large relief, The Nubian Alligator Hunters, for the façade of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. The dramatic set piece of an African man spearing one of the ferocious beasts was intended as a representation of the black race. But far from being ethnographically accurate, the scene projects an exotic colonial fantasy of life in the tropics.

Several years later, Barrias was commissioned to make another monument of a very different sort. In 1895 French forces had deposed the native rulers of the African state of Madagascar. Atop the high pedestal, the female personification of France shelters a Malagasy woman from danger. All three works commemorate the French colonial experience, each in its own way. The two with African themes reflect the European scramble to carve up the continent during the last years of the 19th century.

Although Schoelcher advocated the betterment of the colonists through schooling and even favored the vote, his views today seem paternalistic, dedicated to maintaining the one-sided exercise of power over the foreign possessions of France. He is still genuinely admired in the former French colonies of the West Indies, but the view of emancipation there has shifted toward a stress on self-agency. The acknowledgment of the active role played by slaves and Maroons in achieving their own freedom offers a telling alternative to the trope of the white man's largesse.

In Cayenne, the same city where the Schoelcher monument has stood for more than a century, another, more recently erected pair of bronze figures professes this newer outlook. A black man and woman raise their arms to the sky in an appeal to the future and their own ability to prosper.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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