An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes
Preface to the collection du domaine edition.
The genesis of the publication of An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes was likely Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power and the establishment of the Consulate in November of 1799. Under Napoleon’s consulship the French Constitution was amended with respects to the colonies and established that the colonies would be subject to “particular laws.” Pre-Napoleonic France had seen incremental advancements for citizens of African descent from Guadeloupe all the way through to Saint-Domingue. The violent political tumults of the previous decades had apparently begun to “settle down” by 1799. This uneasy truce between white colonists, African slaves and people of mixed race was interrupted by Napoleon’s declaration of these “particular laws.”
Let us cast our memories back to the previous decades preceding the publication of An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes in order to place the book within it’s proper historical and cultural context. In 1788 Paris saw the founding of the leading French abolitionist organization Société des amis des Noirs. An organization in which Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire was a member and in his capacity as a member of the Estate General fought vehemently for the laws supporting the abolition of slavery. In August of 1789 two critically important events took place. In Paris the Estate General ratifies the Declaration of the Rights of Man, effectively removing the royal boot from the throats of French citizens. Almost simultaneously on the island of Martinique, there was a major slave rebellion inspired by the bubbling French Revolution. Saint-Domingue in 1789 is growing increasingly unstable as well. Marronage increases throughout the colony as slaves abandon their plantations at ever higher rates. In reaction to the loss of this workforce and social control, white colonists desperately increased the barbaric violence towards mulattoes, free blacks and their white sympathizers.
In response to petitions made to the Estates General by gens de couleur, The French National Assembly accepts a petition of rights for “free citizens of color” from Saint-Domingue in 1790. Which was promptly ignored by the Saint-Domingue Colonists lead by the colonial governor Count de Blanchelande who refused to recognize the freedmen and gens de couleur’s right to even simply vote or hold public office. Amidst this impasse, the violence continues unabated throughout 1790.
Vincent Ogé having secured moral and assumed financial support from Thomas Clarkson, a leading English Abolitionist, returns to Saint-Domingue and lead a failed insurrection in opposition of white supremacy of the colony. Ogé and his men were turned over to governor de Blanchelande by the Spanish who in a duplicitous action had promised safety Ogé and his men. Vincent Ogé was brutally executed by being ‘broken on the wheel.’ This ordeal no doubt occurred over the course of many day and officially ended on February 6, 1791. After their deaths, Ogé and his men were beheaded and the heads put on poles on the main road. Ogé would become a symbol of the savage nature of colonial society. The white colonist used Ogé as a warning to all that the benefits of the French Revolution applied to whites only.
George Biassou lead a slave insurrection in Saint-Domingue in 1791 and which was joined by Toussaint L’Overture. Biassou was drawn away from Saint-Domingue in defense of the French Republic when war broke out between France and Spain. By April of 1793 the fever of slave insurrection in opposition to white supremacy had spread to Guadeloupe which also saw a major slave insurrection. Ahead of the British invasion of Saint-Domingue a decree issued by Governor Sonthonax secured a general abolition of slavery in the colony. Ahead of a guerilla army composed of freedmen and now former slaves Toussaint L’Overture and Jean-Jacque Dessalines drove the British from the colony by 1798.
Between 1798 and Grégoire’s publication of An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes, Europe and the Atlantic world would grapple with: all out war in order to preserve slavery as a state sponsored instution and conversely slaves and people of color would fight to preserve their hard won liberty. This period would also herald the formation of the world’s first black republic. All out warfare between the great powers of France, England and Spain that would spill over into the Caribbean as well.
In was in this tumult that Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire conceived and gave birth to what is widely regarded as his most acclaimed book. Central to the French Revolution was the question of dignity. Did the common French citizen deserve simple dignity – a noun that prior to the French Revolution was reserved exclusively for the First Estate (the clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobles). The Third Estate (the common people) would redefine the social order through the instigation of the French Revolution in 1789. Thereby claiming their dignity.
And what of the slaves and other members of society who were of African descent? Their dignity was by and large ignored in much of the automatic legislation of human rights in the immediate wake of the French Revolution. Critical voices such as Ogé, Grégoire, Raynal, and Valmont de Bomare propelled the extension of simple human dignity to people of African descent. Above all others however Grégoire made it a point of using his positions as both a respected member of the clergy and his powerful position within the Estates General to essentially ‘internationalize’ emancipation for people of African descent held in bondage or hampered by discrimination.
The title An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes was very deliberately selected by Grégoire. Consider this. Africans and people of Mixed African descent were regarded at best ‘sub-human’ but more commonly lower than beasts of burden. As Grégoire observed in the above quote, people of African descent are routinely treated in the most wanton barbaric ways all the while there are strictly enforced laws concerning the wanton abuse of animals. To the average colonist in the French Colonial world the very idea of “negro literature” must have been received as preposterous. The common perception being that Africans were not fully human and as such could not conceive high art, pleasing music nor literature. It is important to note that every new African born art form is universally met with dismissal, extreme resistance and skepticism (ex. cubism, jazz, hip hop, are major examples) to this day. The subsequent profiles of fifteen notable negro writers (certainly the world’s first catalog of negro literature and writers) was met with the insult that Grégoire like Raynal was simply an over zealous negrophile.
In 1808 An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes was referenced in virtually every abolitionist meeting worldwide (from Paris to Surinam to Boston). The booth occupied a sacred almost mythic place in the court of Henry I (Henri Christophe). King Henry ordered copies the book by the case and liberally distributed copies among the populace in the Northern Kingdom of Haiti. The book would travel as far afield as to land in President Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in 1809. The persistent importance of this book is firmly lodged in the continued argument regarding the recognition of the inherent dignity innate in all mankind regardless of skin color, religion, etc. Grégoire makes a point within the pages of this book to defend the rights of Jews, protestants and other people oppressed in this instance for their religious beliefs. The amalgamation of Grégoire’s international scope and his defense of human dignity beyond abolition places him at the genesis of what would eventually grow to become a global human rights campaign. Much like word of the American Revolution influenced the French Revolution which bolstered the Creole Simon Bolivar’s Revolution for independence from Spain – Grégoire’s revolution of human dignity continues to echo to this day.