Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley: from slavery to the Convention Nationale

This Portrait of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley by the famous French artist Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, caught my eye, even though I knew nothing of the model. This painting is – literally – revolutionary.

Not because it represents a Black man. Representations of men and women of African descent in early-modern European paintings were not uncommon, as explained by Carlyn Beccia. But, with exceptions such as Juan de Pareja, assistant to Velasquez (thanks to Susan Holloway Scott for the link!) these had no name. They were simply “generic” Blacks, usually depicted in a subservient position.

Girodet Jean Baptiste Belley

Citizen Jean Baptiste Belley by Girodet

In this portrait not only does Citizen Belley have a name, but he also holds high public office, as attested by the tricolor sash tied around his waist and the tricolor plume on his hat. Who was this Belley? I wanted to know.

The most detailed information I was able to find about him was on the site of the Association de Généalogie d’Haiti (in French.)

It seems that Belley was born on the coast of West Africa in 1746 or 1747. Around the age of two, he was abducted and sold into slavery in Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti.

Little is known of his life as a slave, except that he was allowed to pursue a trade and earn enough money to eventually purchase his own freedom. He clearly received an education, either before or after his emancipation.

After the Revolution burst out in France in 1789, the inhabitants of Saint-Domingue followed the news from Paris very closely. The ideals of liberty and equality resonated deeply with slaves and free Blacks alike. The latter were enfranchised in 1791. Soon the slaves demanded the same rights, revolted against the plantation owners and seized power.

Belley became one of the leaders of the insurrection. When elections were held in Saint-Domingue in 1792, Belley was elected as a Representative to the Convention Nationale for the island. He became the first man of African descent to hold national elective office in the new French Republic.

He sailed for Paris and cast his vote in favor of the historic decree passed by the Convention on February 2, 1794. It is terse, much more so than the American Emancipation Proclamation almost seventy years later:

The National Convention decrees the abolition of the Negroes’ slavery in all of the Colonies. Therefore, it orders that all men, without any distinction of color, domiciled in the Colonies, shall be free citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Commissioners of the Republic had already proclaimed the abolition of slavery in Haiti a year earlier, but now that measure was extended to all French territories. As for Belley, he continued fighting in Paris the influence of the lobby of plantation owners, who had regained hope of a reinstatement of slavery after the fall of Robespierre in 1794 and the ensuing reaction.

This portrait of Belley was painted in 1797. The marble bust behind him is that of the Abbé Raynal, a priest and prominent 18th century abolitionist. There is no doubt that both Belley and Girodet were making an anti-slavery statement here, and a powerful one.

Then in 1799 Bonaparte seized power. He had married Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie, born into a slave-owning family from the Martinique. Were his views on race influenced by his wife? Some say so, but I have yet to see convincing evidence of it.

What is sure is that Bonaparte reinstated slavery in May 1802. This was soon followed by a flurry of racial laws. The most disgraceful was the dismissal of all Black officers from the Army. This measure affected twelve Generals, including Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, father of the great novelist, and countless other officers. Interracial marriages were now outlawed, and persons of African descent were even denied the right to reside in continental France.

It must be noted that, under Napoléon, the situation of Blacks became still worse than it had before the abolition of slavery. Under the Ancien Régime, slaves brought to continental France by their owners could, and did sue for freedom before Admiralty Courts. This is a point made with great clarity by Annette Gordon-Reed in her remarkable book, The Hemingses of Monticello.

So how did Belley, like any prominent Black person, fit in Napoleonic France? He was already emancipated before the Revolution, so he could not be shipped back to his former master. Bonaparte had him imprisoned, without charges or trial, in the fortress of Belle-Ile-en-Mer.

Thanks again to the Association de Généalogie d’Haiti (see comment below) for directing my attention to his death certificate. Belley died on the 6th of August 1806 at the military hospital of Belle-Ile.

Fortunately Girodet’s beautiful portrait is here to remind us of Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley.

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