The Second Republic abolishes slavery

The Second Republic abolishes slavery

The abolition of slavery (April 27, 1848).

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: September 2020


The Second Republic abolishes slavery


Historical context

1848, the abolition of slavery

Affirming equality between men and their natural right to freedom, the philosophers of the XVIIIe century initiate a debate on the legitimacy of slavery. During the French Revolution, in 1794, a first abolition of Negro slavery in the colonies was attempted, but Bonaparte, under pressure from West Indian planters, re-established it in 1802.

Victor Schœlcher (1804-1893), Under Secretary of State for the Navy in 1848, shocked by the horrors of the slave system, devoted his life to the struggle for emancipation. The Republic offers him the opportunity to make effective and immediate the freedom of all the slaves of the French colonies and possessions (decree of abolition April 27, 1848).

Image Analysis

Immediate emancipation

Biard's painting depicts a scene of emancipation in the colonies, at the time of the proclamation of the abolition of slavery.

In the center, two black slaves express their joy, arms raised and chains untied. Others, kneeling, seem to bless the deputy responsible for the announcement, planted on his platform, representative of the Republic who has just adopted the decree of which he holds the text in hand. The line of flight indicated by his raised arm vanishes into the red white blue flag, confirmation of the symbolic presence of the French Republic. On his left, foams recall the presence of the Navy as an armed force in the islands. On the right of the painting, it is the colonial society that appears, dressed all in white, receiving the thanks of a kneeling former slave. Parasols, luxurious white fabrics and a boater stand against the semi-nudity of the slaves, whose tangled black bodies form a compact mass. In the background, a typical representation of exotic islands, with coconut palms, cultivated plains and arid mountains, is enough to evoke any sugar island.

Biard’s painting is part of official colonial imagery. The abolition of slavery is a celebration where only gaiety and joy dominate. The image of harmony between the two communities, always different but mingling in the effusion, corresponds to the echo that the Republic wanted to give to its act.


The Forty-Eight Utopia

France was not innovating in this area, since England, as early as 1808, had abolished the slave trade and encouraged many European countries to do the same.

But the picture does capture the Forty-Eight Utopia, strong in the universality of its principles and inclined to involve the colonies in the Republican High Mass. The abolition of slavery is certainly a huge step in the slow acquisition of freedoms, which art must celebrate, but Biard's painting also tells of the century of triumphant imperial powers, sure of their legitimacy and their benevolence. with regard to colonized peoples.

  • abolition of slavery
  • colonial history
  • Second Republic
  • tricolour flag
  • human rights
  • exoticism
  • Haiti
  • postage
  • Schœlcher (Victor)


Denise BOUCHE, History of colonization, t. 2, Flux and Reflux, 1815-1962, Paris, Fayard, 1991.

Susan EVERETT, The slaves, Nathan, Paris, 1979.

M. FAVRE, Slaves and Planters, Paris, Gallimard, 1970.

Anne GIROLET, Victor Schœlcher, abolitionist and republican ..., Paris, Karthala, 2000.

Jean MEYER, Slaves and Slaves, Paris, Gallimard, 1986.

Jean MEYER and alii, History of colonial France. I: The Conquest, Paris, Armand Colin, 1991.

Patricia MOTYLEWSKI, The French Society for the Abolition of Slavery (1834-1850), preface by L. Abénon, Éditions du CTHS, coll. "Format", 1998.

Nelly SCHMIDT, Victor Schoelcher, Paris, Fayard, 1994.

Victor SCHŒLCHER, French colonies. Immediate abolition of slavery, Paris, Publisher Pagnerre, 1842.

Marcel DORIGNY, The Abolition of Slavery. From Léon-Félicité Santonax to Victor Schœlcher. 1793 / 1794-1848, Paris, Unesco Publishing and Vincennes University Press, 1995 (reprint 1998).

To cite this article

Mathilde LARRÈRE, "The Second Republic abolishes slavery"


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