Ending Bondage With a Display of Humanity

Image of the Week: An engraving captures the spirit of France’s anti-slavery movement on the eve of the French Revolution.

Pierre Rouvier, design by Charles Ange Boily, engraver, Soyez libres et citoyens. Engraving, 147 by 96 mm. (image).
Pierre Rouvier, design by Charles Ange Boily, engraver, Soyez libres et citoyens. Engraving, 147 by 96 mm. (image). Menil Collection, Houston

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 Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In a lush tropical setting, a large group of nearly naked slaves gathers before a sumptuously robed woman. An apparition from the billowing clouds of heaven, she wears a regal crown and a mantle bearing the fleur-de-lis device of the French Bourbon dynasty. This imposing personification of monarchy looks down compassionately at the foremost member of the group, who kneels unchained before her in a supplicating posture. Her left hand is held over him in a magnanimous gesture of liberation while she clasps his upraised hands in the other.

He returns her gaze with a look of gratitude mixed with expectancy. Behind him a woman with a child on her back remains on both knees, her limbs still bound in chains. Several other slaves look toward the image of benevolence standing over them with the same imploring gaze. Under the dramatic tableau appear the enjoining words: Soyez Libres et Citoyens (“Be Free and Citizens”).

This elaborate, though deceptive vision of freedom from the misery of bondage appeared as the frontispiece to a lengthy, two-volume discourse on the evils of slavery, in particular the slave trade. It was published in 1789 by the French Protestant theologian and abolitionist Benjamin-Sigismond Frossard. Appearing on the eve of the French Revolution, La cause des esclaves nègres et des habitans de la Guinée (The Cause of the Black Slaves and the Inhabitants of Guinea) heralded the emergence of the organized anti-slavery movement in France.

Frossard’s rationally argued analysis of the evils of slavery did not appear in a vacuum. He belonged to the Société des Amis des Noirs, or Society of the Friends of the Blacks, the first organization in France to formally oppose the slave trade. It had been founded by an elite group of aristocrats and scholars in 1788 at the dawn of the French Revolution.

During its brief but intense existence, the société devoted itself to the eradication of the trade by international agreement. It took its inspiration, if not its organization and strategy, from the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Founded in London by staunch anti-slavery opponents such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, the society soon emerged as a popular movement, with a membership numbering in the thousands.

To promote their cause, these British abolitionists adopted the iconic motif of a kneeling black slave in right profile, freed of his shackles. Below the image ran the motto: “Am I not a man and a brother?” The emblem soon became an extremely effective weapon against the slave trade both in Britain and the United States. The inclusive tone of the motto reflected, as well, the ultimate commitment of the organization to the liberation of those already in bondage. The société soon took up the same device, employing it as visual rhetoric on the cover of its numerous pamphlets.

While not published directly under the aegis of the société, Frossard’s book encapsulated some of its major anti-slavery positions. He tempers his argument for emancipation with a pragmatic concern for the stability of the nation’s lucrative overseas colonies. As he argues in his text, the rejection of slavery should harm “neither [the interests] of the colonies nor of the colonists.” A crucial part of this conditional commitment to the abolition of slavery required the implementation of gradual emancipation, by which slaves would be freed only in stages over two or even three generations.

In contrast with the limited scope of reform adumbrated by the treatise, the frontispiece for La cause des esclaves nègres presents a radically different vision of the role of the French state on behalf of enslaved Africans. The adoption of the kneeling male figure, now appearing in left profile and set in a more explicit context, represents the transformation of this iconic image beyond the original intentions of the société.

Its title makes abundantly clear the expectation of both emancipation and citizenship for the slaves, thus acknowledging their essential status as human beings. The image establishes the source of its agency as the old regime of the French royal state, guided by the animating principle of Christian charity.