French Abolitionist as Savior in West Indies

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

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