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3. The Emancipation to the Reunion Island and the decree of the abolition of slavery in the French colonial empire

The Emancipation to the Reunion Island Click image to enlarge
Source: The Emancipation to the Reunion Island, oil on canvas by Alphonse Garreau, 4.17ft x 3.5ft, 1849, Quay Branly museum.

Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood
In the name of the French People

The provisional Government,

Considering that slavery is an attempt against the human dignity; That by destroying the free will of the man, it abolishes the natural principle of the right and the duty; That it is a blatant violation of the republican dogma: Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood.

Considering that if actual measures did not follow of very near the proclamation already made by the principle of the abolition, it could result in colonies the most pitiful disorders,

The decree:

Art. 1.
Slavery will be completely abolished in all the colonies and the French possessions, two months after the promulgation of the present decree in each of them. From the promulgation of the present decree in colonies, any corporal punishment, any sale of not free persons, will be absolutely forbidden.

Art. 2.
The system of commitment in time established in Senegal is abolished.

Art. 3.
The governors or the general police superintendents of the Republic are charged to apply the set of measures appropriate to assure freedom in Martinique, in Guadeloupe and dependences, in Isle of Reunion, in Guyana, in Senegal and the other French establishments of the Occidental coast of Africa, in Isle Mayotte and dependences and in Algeria.

Art. 4.
Are pardoned the ancient slaves condemned to afflictive or penal punishments for facts which, imputed to free people, would not have entailed this punishment. The individuals deported by administrative measure are called back.

Art. 5.
The National Assembly will settle the quota of the reparation that should be granted to the colonists.

Art. 6.
Colonies cleansed of the servitude and possessions of India will be represented to the National Assembly.

Art. 7.
The principle that the ground of France frees the slave, who gets it, is applied to colonies and possessions of the Republic.

Art. 8.
In future, even in foreign country, it is forbidden every Frenchman to possess, to buy or to sell slaves, and to participate, either directly, or indirectly, in any traffic or exploitation of this kind. Any malpractice against these capacities will entail the loss of the quality of French citizen. Nevertheless the Frenchmen who will be reached by these prohibitions, at the time of the promulgation of the present decree, will have a delay of three years to conform to it. Those that will become owners of slaves in foreign countries, by inheritance, donation or marriage, should have to, under the same punishment, free them or alienate them for the same delay, from the day when their ownership will have begun.

Art. 9.
The Minister controlling the navy and the colonies, and the Minister of war are charged, each one in his line of duty of the execution of the present decree.

Made in Paris, in council of the Government, on April 27, 1848

1 2
Source: Decree of the abolition of the slavery of April 27, 1848


  1. Identify and discuss this text answering the following questions:
    • What event does the painter depict?
    • Who is the character at the center of the painting?
    • To whom is he talking?
    • What is he pointing at with his left hand?
  2. With the help of the Internet, find engravings and oils on canvas which are in favor of the abolition of black treaties and colonial slavery. Compare them to the painting of Alphonse Garreau.
  3. Write a brief bibliography on some abolitionist militants of the 19th century (Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Victor Schoelcher, Frédrick Douglas...).

Display teacher's view to find the answers.

Presentation and analysis of the historical context

Painted in 1849, this work of Alphonse Garreau (1792-1865) depicts the proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery on the Reunion Island by the republic commissioner, Napoleon Sarda Garriga (1808-1877). This canvas stresses the peaceful nature of the abolition on this island contrary to what happened in Martinique.

Sarda Garriga, arrived at the Reunion Island on 14 October 1848 and stored the decree of the abolition of the provisional government till the 19th of October. He set its date of introduction on the 20 December 1848 respecting the periodof two months specified in the 1st article of the decree. Then, he went round commons to reassure the settlers and to tell slaves paternalistic remarks that he resumed at his speech on 20 December 1848:

“My friends,

Decrees of French Republic are executed; you only have brothers around you. Freedom, as you know it, lays down obligations. Be worthy of her [Freedom], showing to France and to the world that she is inseparable from order and work (...). You call me father: and I love you as my children; listen to my advice and recognize the French Republic which gives you freedom! And your motto will always be: God, France and Labor. Long live the Republic!”

As far back as in 1848, besides Alphonse Garreau, painters responded to public orders for paintings representing the abolition of slavery in the colonies:

  • Auguste-François Biard: The Abolition of Slavery in French Colonies on 27April 1848;
  • Nicolas-François Bosse, Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood or the Free Slave, departmental museum of Oise, Beauvais (Question 2).

Taking inspiration from images produced by the British and French abolitionists in the previous decades, the canvas of Alphonse Garreau contributes to the development of republican iconography which symbolically depicts not only ideas but also events that took place in the advent of the Republic.

The painter, who was born in 1792, studied arts together with David and then Gros. In 1832, after marrying a rich Creole, he settled downin Bourbon (the Reunion Island) where he became a portrait painter of notables. He depicts an allegorical representation of the public declaration of the abolition of slavery. Sarda Garriga, who occupies the center of the composition, is shown standing at the foot of a monument where the Republic’s bust stands next to the symbols of Liberty, Equality, represented by a balance, and Unity, symbolized by a bundle. He wears the tricolor sash and a red cockade, the symbols of the Republic. He dominates the peaceful crowd of black men, women and children. In a gesture of recognition, a woman puts a newborn at his feet, a newborn who will never experience slavery. Garriga holds in his right hand a piece of paper with the words “Liberty” and “Work” written on it. He points with his left hand at the tools for plantation work. Behind those tools, beehives and a chimney of a sugar factory emerge. This allegory is linked to the speech directed at “new citizens” who combine freedom with work. Bees produce sugar for the community respecting the social hierarchy (Question 1).


http://www.histoire-image.org/site/oeuvre/analyse.php?i=414&d=1&a=351 Marie-Hélène Thiault is the author of the text about the painting of Alphonse Garreau published on the “1789-1939: the History through Images” website.

http://www.histoire-image.org/site/oeuvre/analyse.php?i=3&d=1&a=10 Mathilde Larrère authors the text about the painting of François Biard, The Abolition of Slavery in French Colonies (27 April 1848)

http://www.eureucl.eu/pe0984/web/ The “EUREUSCL” website offers teaching resources concerning the history of slave trade, slavery and abolitions. We can find there comprehensive documents useful for teachers.

http://www.cpmhe.fr/spip/php?article431 The website of the Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery (CPMHE) offers a chronology of the abolition of slave trade and colonial slavery. It also offers links to other teacher websites.