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

Frossard’s well-intended faith in the role of divine grace in the liberation of the slaves rings hollow in the face of reality. However inspiring it may appear in this print, the enfeebled French monarchy was incapable of redressing the needs of the colonies. In 1794, five years after the publication of La cause des esclaves nègres, the tumultuous rejection of the old order by the republican faction of the French Revolution would instead officially decree an end to both the slave trade and slavery itself throughout France and its overseas colonies.

In 1799, just several years after slavery was abolished during the revolution, Napoleon cynically reinstated the institution in a bid to restore the fiscal well-being of the nation. After a tumultuous struggle against the whims of subsequent regimes and the constant resistance of the pro-slavery faction, bondage in the French colonies was abolished once and for all in 1848. As was the case with Frossard and the société, the power of images continued to play a key role in the efforts of their successors.

The supplicant posture of the kneeling slave and his companions in the print may seem paternalistic and demeaning today, since it denies any self-agency of the slave in the acquisition of his freedom. For the late 18th century, however, the primary objective was to stress the human face of these victims of bondage. At the dawn of the age of mass media and public consciousness-raising, slavery as a human issue had just entered the realm of European moral awareness. The visual presentation of a black slave as a flesh-and-blood human being would arouse a unique and powerful reaction among the increasing numbers of concerned people to whom these causes were addressed.

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.