Americans are now accustomed to reading about the removal of Confederate statues across the country, but effigies to the men who fought to preserve slavery are not the only controversial likenesses to be found in the United States. On Friday night in Louisville, Kentucky, a man protesting the recent police killing of George Floyd (who was unarmed), inadvertently broke off the hand of the statue of Louis XVI that sits in a public square of the city named after the French monarch.
The next morning, a man claiming to be a modern-day relative of Louis XVI’s took to the digital streets of Twitter to express his tone-deaf dismay. Louis de Bourbon, who goes by the title of Duke d’Anjou, opined early Saturday, “As the heir of #LouisXVI, and attached to the defence of his memory, I do hope that the damage will be repaired and that the statue will be restored …”
If I were the self-professed last heir to the Bourbon throne, who many believe is only a pretender, I might think twice before attaching my name to the memory of a man who was part of a family that oversaw the most brutal and punishing slavocracy in the world.
Slavery in the French-claimed Americas began and ended with the Bourbons. The practice of kidnapping and then enslaving Africans was adopted under Louis XIII in the 17th century. The Code Noir decree, issued under Louis XIV to regulate France’s enormous slave system in Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Louisiana, not only mandated the expulsion of Jews from the colonies, but did very little to stop enslavers from exercising some of the cruellest tortures to be found anywhere in the Atlantic World.
Common punishments for enslaved people — who might have dared to run away, break a tool or otherwise refuse to completely give in to their master’s will — were burning and burying them alive; severing their limbs, ears and other body parts; bleeding them to death, and nailing them to walls and trees; as well as branding and other forms of mutilation.
The revised version of the Code Noir, issued under Louis XVI, was even worse. It spelled out in no uncertain terms that enslaved people were to be treated as meubles, or pieces of furniture, that could be bought, sold or discarded at the whim of any “owner”.
Slavery was only abolished in the French colonies after Louis XVI — over whose fake hand Louis de Bourbon is now shedding all the white tears — was notoriously beheaded by the French Jacobins in January 1793. His death, however, did not stop this family from seeking to continue its practice of enriching themselves through the enslavement of black people.
Napoleon (not a Bourbon), who had come to power in France in 1799, officially reinstated slavery in the French empire in July 1802. But revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue put up the most ardent and ultimately successful fight against slavery the world had yet seen, culminating in Haitian independence in January 1804 — enslaved people in Guadeloupe fought back, too, but they ultimately lost their struggle.
Even though Napoleon was busy fighting wars around the world, and seemed to lose sight of his loss in Saint-Domingue, successive Haitian governments remained wary that he might try to once again bring back slavery.
That honour would go to the Bourbons, however, who managed to be even more delusional in this regard than Napoleon. After Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne to them in spring 1814 — by that time, Haiti had been mired in its own civil war, which resulted in the country being split into two, with Henry Christophe ruling in the north and Alexandre Pétion ruling in the south — Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, became king and immediately began to plot a reconquest of France’s erstwhile colony.
Under Louis XVIII’s authority, Malouet, the French minister of the marine, sent three commissioners to Haiti with the mission of coercing both Haiti’s leaders to surrender. He threatened that if they did not submit the Haitian people would be “treated as barbarous savages and hunted down like runaway slaves”.
One of the commissioners, Dauxion-Lavaysse, even sent a letter to Christophe that unabashedly revealed in no uncertain terms that France was ready “to replace the population of Hayti, which … would be totally annihilated by the forces sent against it.” The official reconquest instructions issued by Malouet, in fact, mandated the return of slavery and the wholesale extermination of most of the country’s population.
Although Louis XVIII’s plot was ultimately foiled by Christophe, not once, but twice — yes, Louis XVIII tried again in 1816 after the second restoration — the claim to dubious fame of his brother, Charles X, who succeeded him, was issuing the disastrous 1825 indemnity whereby the Haitian government was compelled into an agreement to pay 150-million francs as the price of Haiti’s liberty. Charles X’s successor, cousin Louis Philippe, was no better. Indeed, he oversaw the 1838 revision to that agreement which, while reducing the total amount to be paid to 90-million francs, forced Haiti to take out high-interest loans to pay the “debt.”
Meet the proud legacy of the Bourbons. When they couldn’t re-enslave the Haitian people, they settled for impoverishing them. Contemporary economists, such as France’s own Thomas Piketty, are of the opinion that paying the indemnity — plus making the interest payments, which were only completed in 1947 — led directly to Haiti’s precarious financial position today. Piketty has even publicly declared that he thinks France should repay Haiti “at least $28-billion” in restitution.
America’s statue problem goes far beyond the Confederacy
If I didn’t live in Charlottesville, Virginia — which has for years been embroiled in the fight to remove the statue of the leader of the Confederate army, Robert E Lee — I might be tempted to wonder about the US’s obsession with exalting the statues of and naming their cities after war criminals, imperialists, enslavers and traitors. (A gift from Louisville’s sister-city in France, Montpellier, Louis XVI’s statue was placed directly across from none other than that of Thomas Jefferson).
But sitting here in the aftermath of the fatal days of August 11 and 12 2017, I am well acquainted with the kind of predictable absence of self-awareness, coupled with an equally stunning lack of knowledge about their own family history, that would lead a white man like Louis de Bourbon to plead in such earnest notes for the restoration of a piece of stone rather than to demonstrate genuine concern for those righteously protesting the death of an actual human being.
And while the so-called Comte de Paris piled on Saturday afternoon with his own tweet lamenting the amputation, claiming that it was “the hand of Louis XVI … that helped the US people to gain its freedom”, let us never forget that it was with this same hand that Louis XVI stole the freedom of millions of Africans. No, like the statue of Napoleon’s wife Josephine, which was beheaded in Martinique more than 20 years ago, never to be repaired, the statue of Louis XVI should remain forever handless in memory of his perpetuation of slavery.
Marlene L Daut is professor of African diaspora studies and the associate director of the Carter G Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Tropics of Haiti (2015) and Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism (2017). You can follow her on Twitter at @FictionsofHaiti.