1794 France: Slavery Is a Crime Against Humanity

On February 5th, 1794, four and a half years after the French Revolution, France’s “Convention,” our newly set-up parliament, voted to abolish slavery in France and all its territories and colonies.

Two days later, on February 7th, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre was due to give his speech on “Terror and Virtue.” For more than two centuries, this speech was the main focus of all historians because it defined the course the Revolution would take. It is, in essence, a savage rationalisation of political violence.

Each session of the parliament was duly recorded. If one looks closely at the minutes of that day, right before Robespierre gives his speech, Député (member of parliament) Ducos starts a debate with the following question: “now that we’ve established slavery is illegal and people of African descent are now full citizens of the French state, how must we qualify French citizens in non-French territories such as Cuba and the United States who break our law by holding people in slavery?”

The answer is simple: either they free the slaves or they will be stripped of their French citizenship.

Député Thuriot then takes the floor. The crime of enslavement is so grave, he says, it merits a new qualification. We must go for the highest condemnation.

At the time, there was nothing worse than the “crime de lèse-majesté,” or the “crime de lèse-nation,” as it became after 1789. Literally translated as “crime of injure-majesty” or “crime of injure-nation,” it is still commonly known as crime against the state (treason, more often than not).

Thuriot’s idea is that slavery shall now be known as a “crime de lèse-humanité,” which I can translate as “crime of injure-humanity,” i.e. a crime against humanity.

Remember crimes against humanity? It was, in practice, the Nuremberg trials’ most notable legal innovation. Most people think the term was first used in 1915 by World War I allies, in reference to the Armenian genocide. It would take another 30 years before the international community recognised that the Holocaust fell in that category, and for this designation to lead to prosecution. But 150 years before, France’s brand new democracy coined the term in relation to the enslavement of African people.

Of course, Napoleon re-legalised slavery in 1814, and France would have to wait until 1848 to abolish it for good. It then took until 2001 for the United Nations to declare that the slave trade is a crime against humanity.


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