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.
A scene of frantic battle is captured by an exaggerated, rather brusque kind of realism, especially suited to the representation of a violent episode in the history of slavery in the West Indies. But this is a particularly deceptive type of presentation, editing history to suit the needs of a society still fully committed to the institution of slavery.
Not so well known today, the artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers commemorated some of the most celebrated public figures of his time in stone and bronze. The relief seen here is a full-scale model for one of four large marble narrative scenes placed around the base of the tomb of the distinguished French Gen. Jacques-Nicolas Gobert. It occupies a place of honor in the famous municipal cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris. Crowning the monument is a life-size equestrian group representing the mortal wounding of the general during the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808.
In an early description of the event represented on the relief, the ferocious struggle is said to have taken place in Haiti, then still the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Gobert and a handful of men arrive at the enemy camp just in time to rescue 80 white women and children taken captive by the rebels. Rather than saving noncombatants, however, in the relief Gobert rescues a small group of fellow French officers.
The building had been set with explosives in anticipation of a French attack, with a rebel assigned the task of lighting the fuse at the opportune moment. The plan was thwarted by Gobert, who, according to the story, flew to the scene, braving a hail of bullets to dispatch the guard just in the nick of time. Standing just outside, Gobert fires a pistol into the neck of the black man, who drops his flaming torch just inches from the powder barrel. Disaster is averted, the rebels are dispatched and Gobert emerges covered in glory.
As it turns out, however, the event shown here transpired quite differently. It did not take place on the island of Saint-Domingue but on Guadeloupe, another French colony of the West Indies. That Gobert’s attack took place on Guadeloupe hundreds of miles to the west should not be so surprising, given the similar state of unrest gripping these important French colonies at the time.
Both possessions were lucrative producers of sugarcane, a vital part of the French maritime economy. The execution of France's King Louis XVI in 1793 engendered the idea of liberty for all, even the slaves, as well as the hostile reaction of the new republic’s European neighbors. In Haiti, the great Gen. Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged during the same period as the rallying figure of liberation from slavery.
A similar convulsion had occurred on Guadeloupe, where, after initial resistance from white planters, abolition had been established by decree of the French revolutionary government in 1794. The economy after slavery worked fairly well, but tranquillity on the island was again ruptured with Napoleon’s decision to reinstate slavery in 1802. Charged with the execution of this edict was Antoine Richepanse, one of the most formidable generals of the French army. With him came Gobert, who also happened to be a native of Guadeloupe.
With the knowledge of the actual state of events that transpired around the little building at the left, the true nature of Gobert’s involvement in the insurrection becomes clear. Seeing the approach of the flotilla dispatched by Napoleon, resistance was organized by Louis Delgrès, a mulatto army officer loyal to the republican ideals of the French revolution and an ardent defender of abolition.
Unlike the course of events in Haiti, the end of the revolt in Guadeloupe came quickly and ferociously, confined to just a few weeks in May 1802. Despite some notable successes, the rebels’ situation became increasingly desperate. Delgrès was one of the last leaders to hold out, and on the 28th of the month, he determined to make a final stand on a mountainside near the village of Matouba. There he barricaded himself and his followers in a building and readied barrels of black powder to be exploded on a given signal.
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.
Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.