Revolution #2: Olympe de Gouges’ Fight Against Slavery

Attribution: Alexander Kucharsky, Portrait of Olympe de Gouges, late 18th century



“I rebel; therefore I exist.”

–          Albert Camus





This quote is particularly true for Olympe de Gouges. Born in 1748 in the South of France, Gouges came to live in Paris in the early 1770s. She was well assimilated in the society of the Old Regime and was friend with many men of letters. She started to write in the early 1780s, first with the play Zamore et Mirza, ou L’heureux naufrage, (Zamore and Mirza, or The Fortunate Shipwreck) the story of a slave couple, Zamore and Mirza, who become outlaws and are saved and helped by a French couple. The play has a happy ending, with the slaves being forgiven and freed by their former master. Gouges consequently became a prolific writer: she wrote fifteen plays (that we know of), a novel, a few essays and, from 1788 to 1793, around fifty political pamphlets. Gouges revolted against all social inequities through plays and pamphlets, with her voice becoming stronger and more determined after the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. For instance, she requested equal rights for all, including women and ‘coloured people’ (to use the terminology of the time), the end of the imprisonment of debtors, and legislation on the status of illegitimate children. She was also politically engaged and even though she was close to the Girondin party, she remained a fervent monarchist and defended Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in her writings. Due to her opposition to Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, she was imprisoned and, on 2nd November 1793, guillotined.

Gouges’ first literary work coincided with her first social fight: equal rights for white and ‘coloured’ men with the play Zamore et Mirza, ou L’heureux naufrage written and accepted by the Comédie-Française in 1782-3. It was only in 1787, that the Comédie-Française announced that Zamore et Mirza would be staged, but they used the death of the main actress during the rehearsals as an excuse to stop the production. Annoyed, Gouges decided to stop waiting and to publish the play in 1788, along with a short pamphlet Réflexions sur les hommes nègres (Reflexions concerning Black men). She reworked and changed the title of her play, which was performed as L’Esclavage des nègres, ou l’heureux naufrage (Black Slavery, or The Fortunate Shipwreck) on 28th December 1789 at the Comédie-Française and staged three performances. Finally, she reworked the text one last time and published it under the name L’Esclavage des Noirs, ou l’heureux naufrage in 1792.

Gouges’ play was bold in many ways: in arguing in favour of the abolition of slavery, in having Black figures as well-read main characters requesting freedom, and in claiming that Black and White people had claims to equal rights. She had argued in favour of equal rights and the abolition of slavery from the early 1780s and it was one of the arguments that remained throughout the different versions of the play. Gouges’ main argument in explaining racial inequality was the discrepancy in their respective educations. She believed that people should receive the same education, regardless of their gender and their race. Another way for Gouges to advocate equality between Black and White people was subtler and was achieved through her depiction of relationships, showing that they shared similar feelings regardless of their skin colour, either through her depiction of physical desire or of friendship.

Even though she was always interested in women’s rights, Gouges started to defend them only in 1791 after the publication of her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, a pamphlet requesting equal rights for men and women. Following this, in the third version of her play, Gouges added a gendered dimension to her plea for equality. A few female characters became more prevalent in the plot, displaying education, confidence and a will to rebel the current order of white male supremacy.

Gouges was highly motivated and did not hesitate to rework her play, which shows her knowledge and understanding of current events. Regardless of the obstacles she faced, she did everything in her power to ensure that the play was performed and did not hesitate to attack slave owners in her play and in pamphlets published in newspapers. From 1788, the tone of her plays and pamphlets became more radical due to the events happening in France and in the colonies. For instance, Gouges’ rejection of violence took a more prominent role in her writings after the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue in 1791. The hostilities carried on until 1804 when Haïti, the first black state, was born.

Gouges thoroughly condemned the slave trade and slavery. From the first version of her play in 1783, she wrote antislavery comments, condemnations of the slave trade and examples of the equality of men regardless of their skin colour. From 1788, she moved her fight from literary writings to political pamphlets and open letters in journals. Even though her actions seem forgotten nowadays, she was one of the loudest opponents of the slave trade and slavery at the beginning of the Revolution, due to her use of newspapers to publish her letters and publicize her ideas. Gouges’ plays display unique features, such as Black slaves as main characters, a couple of them being well-read and arguing for equality between White and Black people. This was an unusual choice for the early 1780s, and Gouges even asked the actors to paint their faces in black to increase the likeness with their characters.

Even though Gouges was an unusual woman her thought was limited. Indeed, for an author who condemned the slave trade and slavery, her message was inconsistent and her ideas were not without prejudice. Gouges’ writings also show that equal rights did not mean full equality. In her vision of slavery, colonies and ‘coloured people’, she appears as a woman of her time; regardless of her claims, her depiction of mankind is far from egalitarian. Her refusal to acknowledge that most planters mistreated their slaves and the resentment felt by these slaves, was translated in her plays as a romanticisation of life in the colonies and an idealisation of the French masters as benevolent.

Anaïs Pédron  recently completed her PhD in the department of History at QMUL. Her thesis focused on women of theatre (actresses and managers) who became writers, and to what extent they wrote about human rights in eighteenth-century Paris. Anaïs has previous experience in journalism in France and has continued to stay on as an editor for The Still Point.

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