Compensation paid to slave owners by France in the 19th century made public

One hundred and fifty-three years after the definitive abolition of slavery in France, on April 27, 1848, a team of researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) put online, Friday May 7, as part of the project “Repairs”, a database detailing the compensation paid by the French State to slave owners. Information that allows us to better understand the slave society of the time and to trace the origin of investments that gave birth to entrepreneurial dynasties or companies that still exist today.

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Contrary to popular belief, the 10,000 slave owners who received from 1849 compensation of 126 million gold francs (1.3% of national income, the equivalent of 27 billion euros today ‘ hui) were not all white settlers. “The abolition law of April 27, 1848 is at the origin of a semantic confusion, explains Myriam Cottias, CNRS researcher at the head of the “Repairs” research project. We can read there that the “colonists”, that is to say whites, must be compensated, while it is the owners of slaves, some of whom are colored, who receive the compensation.

According to calculations by Jessica Balguy, doctoral student at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), 30% of slave owners in Martinique were black or mestizo, mostly small owners. Among them, we find some freed, called “free of color”, having bought their children or grandchildren without having the means to pay taxes to the State to emancipate them. Women also occupy a significant place among the beneficiaries of the colonial indemnity. “We count among these women many widows of settlers and single people who owned a few slaves”, explains the researcher.

Profiles of great heterogeneity

The indemnities paid by the French State were fixed according to the price of slaves in each territory. It is in the sugar colonies, and in particular in Reunion, where plantations were booming at the time of the abolition, that the prices were highest. Réunion (where an owner receives 671 gold francs per slave), Martinique (409 gold francs) and Guadeloupe (447 gold francs) receive most of the compensation, followed by Guyana, Senegal, Nosy Be (less than 40 gold francs) or even Sainte-Marie de Madagascar.

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