Napoleon’s View of Slavery & Slavery in New Orleans

While Napoleon Bonaparte condemned the slave trade, he had no strong opposition to slavery. This makes it interesting to imagine how he might have reacted to the slavery he encounters in New Orleans and the other places he visits in my novel Napoleon in America.

A plantation on Saint-Domingue (Haiti), where Napoleon supported the abolition of slavery

A plantation on Saint-Domingue (Haiti), where Napoleon supported the abolition of slavery

Napoleon’s view of slavery

During his first posting as an artillery officer with the La Fère regiment at Valence, Napoleon read one of the most powerful anti-slavery works of the period: the multi-volume Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes by the Abbé Guillaume Raynal.

Like most of his European contemporaries, Napoleon was a racist. He referred to Bedouins, native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Africans as “savages” – a term he also applied to Cossacks. He treated the Saint-Domingue-born mixed-race general Alexandre Dumas (father and grandfather of the writers of the same name) with contempt. At the same time, he welcomed mixed-race men into his army in Egypt, and for the expedition to Saint-Domingue (Haiti).

Napoleon based his policies towards slavery on pragmatism. He favoured whatever would most benefit him and France. When he conquered Malta en route to Egypt in 1798, he freed 2,000 Muslim slaves found on the galleys of the Order of Malta. He called on the Turkish governors in Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to reciprocate the gesture by liberating any Christians who might be found on their galleys. (1) Yet in Egypt Napoleon condoned slavery, hoping to gain the goodwill of the Egyptians.

Although France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794, this policy had not been fully implemented by the time Napoleon became First Consul in 1799. When insurrection broke out in Saint-Domingue, Napoleon argued that France should renew its commitment to emancipation, because

this island would go for England if the blacks were not attached to us by their interest in liberty…. They will produce less sugar, maybe, than they did as slaves; but they will produce it for us, and will serve us, if we need them, as soldiers. We will have one less sugar mill; but we will have one more citadel filled with friendly soldiers. (2)

Napoleon continued to express his commitment to emancipation even as he sent an expedition to try to overthrow the black leader Toussaint Louverture.

Nonetheless, by a decree of May 20, 1802, Napoleon restored slavery and the slave trade in Martinique and other West Indian colonies (the law did not apply to Guadeloupe, Guyane or Saint-Domingue). Napoleon argued he was “maintaining” slavery, since its formal abolition had not actually been realized. He hoped to encourage the return of French settlers to the colonies, believing they were better able than the blacks to defend French interests against the British. Also, white planters in La Réunion had threatened to secede rather than free their slaves.

When Napoleon returned to France in 1815 after his exile on Elba, he knew that he had to appear to be a more liberal leader. As part of this, he issued on March 29 a decree abolishing the slave trade, which you can read on the Napoleon Series website.

Napoleon and the slave on St. Helena

When Napoleon was in exile on St. Helena, he conversed (via the interpretation of one of his companions, the Count de Las Cases) with an old slave called Toby, who served in the household of the Balcombes, the family in whose pavilion Napoleon resided when he first arrived on the island in 1815. When Napoleon heard how Toby had been captured and enslaved, he reportedly expressed a wish to purchase Toby and send him back to his home country. He said to Las Cases:

What, after all, is this poor human machine? There is not one whose exterior form is like another, or whose internal organization resembles the rest. And it is by disregarding this truth that we are led to the commission of so many errors. Had Toby been a Brutus, he would have put himself to death; if an Aesop he would now, perhaps, have been the Governor’s adviser, if an ardent and zealous Christian, he would have borne his chains in the sight of God and blessed them. As for poor Toby, he endures his misfortunes very quietly: he stoops to his work and spends his days in innocent tranquility…. Certainly there is a wide step from poor Toby to a King Richard. And yet, the crime is not the less atrocious, for this man, after all, had his family, his happiness, and his liberty; and it was a horrible act of cruelty to bring him here to languish in the fetters of slavery. (3)

Slavery in early 19th-century New Orleans

“Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the rotunda, New Orleans.” Engraved by J.M. Starling after work by William Henry Brooke, 1842.

“Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the rotunda, New Orleans.” Engraved by J.M. Starling after work by William Henry Brooke, 1842.

For Napoleon in America, I had to imagine how Napoleon might have reacted to the slavery he encounters in the places he visits in the novel, starting with New Orleans. New Orleans society at the time (1821) was stratified into three race-based tiers: whites, free people of colour (gens de couleur libres), and slaves.

The whites were a mix of:

  • Europeans – primarily French and Spaniards, but also Germans, Italians and others. Examples include Nicolas Girod, Charles Lallemand, Vincent Nolte and Félix Formento.
  • Creoles – American-born descendants of the Europeans, typically people of French or Spanish descent born in Louisiana, the West Indies, or Spanish America. Josephine Lauret is an example. Napoleon’s first wife Joséphine was also a Creole, born in Martinique. Note that in the early 19th century “Creole” referred to white people, in distinction to how it is used today.
  • Americans – English-speakers, many of whom came to Louisiana after Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in 1803. An example is Jean Laffite’s nemesis, Governor William Claiborne. They were often called Anglo-Americans, to further distinguish them from the primarily French Creoles.

The free people of colour, who were considered legally and socially inferior to whites, included:

  • people of mixed white and black ancestry, further divided into mulattos, quadroons and octaroons, depending on the proportion of white blood. Examples include Marie and Catherine Villard.
  • people of mixed white and Native American ancestry, also known as mestizos.
  • Native Americans and people of mixed black and Native American ancestry.
  • free blacks. When Spain ruled Louisiana, it had generous policies regarding the freeing of slaves. Slaves could be freed by their masters voluntarily, or could earn their liberty by serving in the militia. Alternatively, slaves could be bought and freed by a third party, or could buy their own freedom. Technically, an escaped slave (maroon) was also a free person of colour. In 1805, free blacks constituted 19% of New Orleans’ total population of 8,222, and just over 30% of the city’s free coloured population of 5,117. (4)

Slaves were typically black, primarily of African origin. Virtually all well-to-do New Orleanians – whether white or coloured – owned slaves. Some owners used them as servants. Some hired them out for wages. Effective in 1808, there was a ban on importing slaves from outside the United States. However, New Orleans slavery could still be fed by imports from within the country. There was also a thriving trade in smuggled slaves, brought into New Orleans by the Laffite brothers and others.

Slaves among the Saint-Domingue refugees

In 1809 the population of New Orleans doubled with the arrival of three dozen ships from Cuba, carrying over 9,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue. Another 1,000 refugees arrived in 1810. They had fled Saint-Domingue during the slave revolution that culminated in independence from France in January 1804. The troops Napoleon had sent under his brother-in-law, General Leclerc (husband of Pauline Bonaparte), to suppress the insurrection were crushed by disease and the revolutionaries. The refugees first settled in Cuba, which was under Spanish rule. Then Napoleon invaded Spain and, in 1808, placed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne. In retaliation, the Cuban authorities, who remained loyal to the ousted Spanish king, expelled all French nationals, including the Saint-Domingue refugees.

The refugees were a mix of whites (primarily French and French Creoles), free people of colour, and slaves. Lawrence Powell, in his excellent book The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, notes that:

Legally speaking the ‘slaves’ listed on the manifests were probably not slaves. The French National Convention had granted them freedom in law, which Toussaint’s [Haitian] armies then established in fact. Somehow these liberties had been forfeited during passage to Cuba. There are documented cases of so-called friends and guardians, to say nothing of former business associates and creditors, re-enslaving the legally helpless exiles upon arrival in Cuba. (5)

The same thing happened in New Orleans. The Africans who arrived were presumed to be slaves, while the people of colour were presumed to be free.

Congo Square

Slaves were granted Sundays and religious holidays off. On these “free days,” they could sell their crafts and produce – surplus crops, nuts and berries, fish and game, etc. A grass-covered field behind the Vieux Carré (the French Quarter), across Rampart Street at the end of Orleans Street, was the legally designated place for slaves to gather. Originally called the Place de Nègres, by the mid-19th century it was known as Congo Square. It is now part of Louis Armstrong Park. Here slaves congregated to socialize, to buy and sell, and to dance and sing, African-style.

British architect Benjamin Latrobe stumbled upon such a gathering in 1819. Approaching the square, he

heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill, the horses trampling on a wooden floor. I found, however on emerging from the houses onto the Common, that it proceeded from a crowd of 5 or 600 persons assembled in an open space or public square. I went to the spot & crowded near enough to see the performance. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be blacks. I did not observe a dozen yellow faces. (6)

The crowd was formed into circular groups. In one of these rings, two women were dancing.

They held each a coarse handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands & set to each other in a miserably dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies.

In another circle, a dozen women “walked, by way of dancing, round the music in the center.” Latrobe described the drums and other instruments, some of which he drew. Reflecting the general European attitude of the time, he recorded:

A man sung [sic] an uncouth song to the dancing which I suppose was in some African language, for it was not French, & the women screamed a detestable burthen on a single note. The allowed amusements of Sunday have, it seems, perpetuated here those of Africa among its inhabitants. I have never seen anything more brutally savage, and at the same time dull & stupid, than this whole exhibition. (7)

“Rose” in Napoleon in America

Nicolas Girod’s New Orleans slave is the only character in Napoleon in America for whom I had to invent a name. The 1820 US census lists Girod as having a female slave age 26-44, which means she was born before 1795. Girod also had a male slave age 14-25. I decided to make Girod’s female slave one of the Saint-Domingue arrivals, and I named her Rose.

You might also enjoy:

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

Nicolas Girod and the History of Napoleon House in New Orleans

Jean Laffite: Mexican Gulf Pirate and Privateer

Pirate Consorts: Marie and Catherine Villard

Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau

Napoleon & New Orleans in 1821

Was Napoleon good or bad?

  1. Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path to Power (New Haven and London, 2007), p. 359.
  2. Philippe R. Girard, The Slaves who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War (Tuscaloosa, 2011), pp. 39-40.
  3. Emmanuel Auguste Dieudonné Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte-Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (London, 1823), Vol. 1, p. 383.
  4. Kimberly S. Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803 (Durham & London, 1997), p. 18.
  5. Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Cambridge and London, 2012), p. 337.
  6. Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe, Impressions Respecting New Orleans: Diary & Sketches 1818-1820. Edited with an introduction and notes by Samuel Wilson, Jr. (New York, 1951), p. 49.
  7. Ibid., p. 51.

14 commments on “Napoleon’s View of Slavery & Slavery in New Orleans”

  • crystal bonaparte-dupree says:

    Hello, I’m introducing myself. Crystal Bonaparte-Dupree. I’m just interested in learning more about the black Bonaparte that originally settled in America.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Hi Crystal, it’s lovely to hear from you. I don’t know anything about the black Bonapartes. Maybe somebody reading this post will have more information and can leave a comment.

  • Laura Browning says:

    I believe, while well-researched and written, the involvement of Native Americans is completely overlooked. The term “Griffe” is as important as any of the others cited. Furthermore, some of the free persons of color were actually Native Americans.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Laura. For readers who are interested, there’s information about the indigenous tribes of New Orleans and Louisiana on the American Library Association website: The Native Heritage Project has an interesting article about the Houmas Indians of Terrebonne Parish, southwest of New Orleans: I have written about the Caddos, who lived in western Louisiana, here:

  • LaToya Bonapart-Hampton says:

    Hello Crystal Bonaparte-Dupree.
    I am interested as well in how people of color came to have the last name of Bonaparte. My granddad dropped the ‘e’ prior to having children.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for joining the discussion, LaToya. I hope someone can provide you and Crystal with more information.

  • Geoffrey says:

    I think Stephen Girard owned 300 slaves in New Orleans , or perhaps elsewhere in Louisiana, whom he kept purely for benevolent and protective reasons.

  • Maria E Gonzalez says:

    Great idea!

    I will be reading this!
    Very timely!

  • Mark says:

    Napoleon reintroduced French colonial slavery in 1802 for the sole intent of profit and power. His subsequent intent to crush the Haitian anti-slavery opposition to their brutal fate is often downplayed and ‘conveniently’ overlooked in many published Napoleonic studies. The Revolutionary ideals of freedom and liberty was nullified for Haitian Blacks. The reality is that Napoleon had the opportunity to form an alliance with the Haitian leadership as equals, but he chose not to – he wanted to remain de-facto leader over a Haitian puppet-state. Why should people struggling for liberty feel obliged to live as puppets?

    Slavery in the Caribbean and the surrounding lands was extremely vicious; the sole motive for this epic inhumanity of the times was pure systemic evil greed at its worst – when slaves were regarded as mere disposable machinery parts. Sugar production of the time had the power of modern-day oil riches.

    Though Napoleonic France could claim to have Black Generals and soldiers in its European and colonial armies, and even some very liberal white French soldiers who became Muslims in Egypt or joined the Haitian rebellion on the freedom-fighters’ side, slavery still existed in the French Empires in the Napoleonic era and immediately after. Britain waxed-poetic against slavery but it still was not abolished by them until 1833. The United States prohibited the importation of slaves in 1807, but it would require a civil war half a century later to formerly end slavery; which was bad news for the anomaly of thousands of Blacks and Creoles in the South who owned slaves – according to the 1860 US Census.

    Often omitted in Napoleonic studies is the horrific vengeful treatment and drawn-out death of Toussaint L’Ouveture while in French captivity, after his treacherous capture. For example Davis C’s ‘Napoleon’ book makes no mention of Haiti and the rebellion. This individual created the under-rated monumental historic episode that obliged Napoleon to sell off Louisiana and change the world.

    Further obscured in history is what the French did to Haiti a decade after Waterloo -in using ‘gunboat diplomacy’ to negotiate a long-term plundering of all but the entire wealth of Haiti and effectively destroying its future potential to be an independently successful de-colonized state.

    Such things should be highlighted in public discussion in these present times because we can understand our own faults better in privileged societies. We often like to think ‘that was back then’, but often the oppressive social structures still exist, only rebranded, as throughout history, under an upgraded veil of ‘we’re the good guys – we have no other choice’ leadership. Such was the case blatantly exemplified among all the empires in the Napoleonic age.

    Josephine’s already beheaded statue finally came down in Martinique recently. It is surprising it was up for so long; as Empress she excessively splurged through her spendthrift habits; the blood spilled behind extravagance was no secret to her – growing up in a slave society, nor to Napoleon who desired off-shore slave societies to bolster his power.

  • AnnMarie Simpson says:

    Going through and creating the family tree I discovered a Bonaparte from Louisiana and doing as much research as I can I’m interested if Crystal was able to find anything.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Nice to hear from you, AnnMarie. I hope Crystal will see your comment and respond.

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This man, after all, had his family, his happiness, and his liberty; and it was a horrible act of cruelty to bring him here to languish in the fetters of slavery.

Napoleon Bonaparte