French Sculptor Lies About a Slavery Rebellion, Turns White Guy Into a Hero

Image of the Week: Stone relief rewrites the history of the attempt to reinstate slavery in the West Indies. 

David d’Angers, Gen. Gobert attacking rebels in Guadeloupe, 1847. 95 cm high, plaster. 
David d’Angers, Gen. Gobert attacking rebels in Guadeloupe, 1847. 95 cm high, plaster.  Galerie David d’Angers, Angers, France

According to contemporary accounts, Delgrès and about 300 of his followers died in the blast, along with many of the advancing troops of the invading French army. Since Gobert clearly survived the incident, he almost certainly did not occupy the prominent position given to him in the relief.

The ultimate act of defiance of the freedom fighters was followed by massive reprisals in which an estimated 10,000 blacks perished, about one-tenth of the colony’s total population. The impact of the terrible massacre of the rebels and the reinstitution of slavery on Guadeloupe had repercussions far beyond the limits of the colony.

The harsh treatment of the rebels on Guadeloupe, with Napoleon’s clear intention to re-enslave the black population there, incited the resolve of the Haitian rebels to overcome the invading French troops. Shortly after the arrest of L’Ouverture in June 1802, slaves from Guadeloupe being held on a French ship off the Haitian coast escaped and swam ashore. They related the troubling fate that had befallen their own land, giving new impetus to the decadelong uprising.

The scene of heroic rescue told in the relief represents an act of supremely ironic revisionism on the part of the planners of the monument. The relief presents a profoundly biased, triumphalist assertion of good against evil in which virtuous Europeans with their advanced civilization and military tactics inevitably triumph over the barbarous forces of disorder and cruelty lurking in the savage wilderness.

Adding to the irony is the timing of the monument’s public unveiling in 1847, just one year before the official—and this time final—abolition of slavery in French possessions. In a real sense, the incident at Matouba represents the powder keg that brought the Haitian revolution to its conclusion.

Delgrès in this sense is a true counterpart of Toussaint. Neither lived to see the achievement of freedom for the enslaved people of his land, but each paved the way for liberation through his enduring example of unwavering devotion to an indestructible ideal. For Haiti, freedom came almost immediately; for Guadeloupe, only after a delay of nearly half a century.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center 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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