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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21 Comments to “Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley: from slavery to the Convention Nationale”

  1. Julvic says:

    I have to tell you….
    I was fascinated by this portrait when I came accross it by mere chance and I could not only stop to admire the superb artistic interpretation but I needed to know more about the fascinating character portrayed. Who was Belley?… And here I am engrossed in Haitian history (which, as matter of fact, it is not my ancestry) it just shows the power of a piece of art that grabs you for any particular reason . Thank you for the interesting links which I intend to follow.

  2. Many thanks for the information, Chantal! I am happy this post keeps getting visitors and input.

  3. Chantal Lemoine, M.D. says:

    Haitians believe they saved the US from being attacked by Napoleon. At the time, Haiti was the “pearl of the Antilles” and the plantation economy built on the lives of slaves was their richest source of income. The only use the French had for Louisiana was in its relationship to St. Domingue, as a source of trade to support the colony of St. Domingue. Once The slaves rebelled and won their independence, Louisiana served no purpose to the French, and that’s why they let it go for so little.
    To get back to Jean-Baptiste Belley, his descendants still live in Haiti and the US. One of his descendants was the Haitian ethnologist Jean Price-Mars. If you look him up his book jacket picture bears a striking resemblance to Jean-Baptiste Belley.

  4. Michael F. Marshall says:

    Fascinating write-up. The events in Haiti had a huge impact on the US. First of all, white women of slave holding families lived in fear of slave uprising and were constantly hearing the stories from Haiti. Secondly, Napoleon sent a well-outfitted troop of 12,000 soldiers under the leadership of his brother-in-law, General Charles Leclerc to put down Toussaint for good. However, the combination of fierce resistance and the mosquito killed off nearly the entire force. This had a dramatic impact on the US since Leclerc’s orders were to first stop in Haiti (Sainta Domingo) and quickly put down the rebellion then go on to New Orleans. From New Orleans, Leclerc was to invade the US. With Napoleon’s invasion force wiped out and war with Britian again on the horizon, a delegation from the US, led by James Monroe arrived in Paris to negotiate a deal to purchase the city of New Orleans. For about the same price the Americans were prepared to purchase New Orleans, Napoleon agree to sell the whole of Louisianna to the US in 1803. Napoleon sweetened the deal for two reasons 1) he new the Americans would seize all of LA anyway and he would not be able to defend it. 2) Through Talleyrand, who had lived in the US and new Hamilton well, such a deal was unclear is the US had the Constitutional authority to make such a deal. Furthermore, John Marshall, a political foe to Jefferson, was now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and had recently declared in the Marbury decision the the US Supreme Court had the right of Judicial Review of legislation. John Marshall and Talleyrand had classed only a few years earlier when JM lead the delegation to France to negotiate a peace treaty and led to what Americans called The XYZ Affair. The popular resulting US motto at the time was “Millions for defense not a six pence for tribute.”

  5. jeff says:

    He also fought bravely with the ‘Les Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint Dominque’ during the siege of Savannah during the American Revolution.There is a war memorial in Savannah to these war heroes.

  6. Thanks so much for the information! Again your Association is a great resource. I will correct the post to include this. I also note that the death certificate puts Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) as Belley’s birthplace, but it is certainly not conclusive evidence since the witnesses are only employees of the military hospital who may not have known him personally. Likewise for his age: he must have been around 60, not 50.

  7. His death certificate was found. He died on Aug 6th, 1805 at the Belle-Ile en Mer military hospital.

    Here is the full text of his death certificate which is available on-line at

    [Archives départementales du Morbihan. Etat civil en Ligne. Commune du Palais à Belle-Ile-en-Mer. Décès 1804-1805. Vue 24/31. Transcrit par Jacques PETIT.

    “Le dix-neuf thermidor an treize à dix heures du matin Par devant nous adjoint à la mairie, officier de l’Etat civil de la commune du Palais, canton de Belle-île en mer, département du Morbihan, sont comparu, Augustin Jean Deliancourt et Pierre Axal tous deux majeurs, employés de l’hôpital militaire de Belle-île- en-Mer, y domiciliés, commune du Palais, lesquels nous ont déclaréque Jean Baptiste Beley, ex chef de légion de Gendarmerie jouissant du traitement de réforme, nègre, âgé d’environ cinquante ans, natif de Léogane, à l’île de Saint Domingue est mort audit hôpital militaire de Belle-île en Mer, le dix-huit du présent mois de quoi nous avons dressé acte, duquel nous avons donné lecture aux témoins qui ont signé avec nous. Deliancourt axali fontarive “

  8. This is a subject I write about. My recent book “Conspiracy of Silence: Gericault’s Raft of The Medusa and the Abolitionist Movement” is about another fascinating painting.

    There’s much more to know. Why not read Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s essay “Black Revolution:Saint-Dominigue: Girodet’s Portrait of Citizen Belley: Ex-Representative of the Colonies, 1797” in her book “Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France” …’ll love it!!

  9. Dr. Errol D. Alexander says:

    Perhaps what is the more important of the subject Jean-Baptist Belley is how he served in the American Revolutionary War against the British in the Savannah Georgia Barricade, ( giving the title of Mars for his bravery) later his role as a Police Captain in the French Paris Riots and his freidnship with Thomas Clarkson, the British Abolitionist.

    The story was told that in 1937 when Hitler send out his spies pror to his attack on France, he instructed them to record and learn in depth the names and exploits of any person celebrated in this country by having a street,a great painting or building named after them. “That will be a sense of their resolve and the type of hero that will tell us in the future how strongly they will resist our invasion”.

    When Hitler’s spy saw the 10 foot high painting of Belley and that the subject was a black man from another country…..causing one of Hitler’s generals to state if France has to import their heroes..we can expect a complete surrender as long as no other country becomes their ally. This remains one of my favorite work of art, recapturing it in oil in a much smaller size, writing aout Belley and the history around this painting in my second book, Rattling of The Chains in 2009.

  10. Great info! I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  11. Penny says:

    What a sad thing to happen to someone who stood up and fought for his country only to end up in prison for the color of his skin. Reminds me very much of the very painful past my own country the U.S. which still has yet to deal with the race issue.

  12. Franklin says:

    ps And thank you, Catherine, for the reference to The Kingdom of this World.

  13. Franklin says:

    The U.S. role in Haiti, while of course no more benovlent than that of France, was of course to play out well beyound the time of the Bourbon Restoration. As of 1825 it was largely occupied with other concerns, such as the uprooting of the Cherokee from Florida and Georgia for the benefit of its own slave holders.

    That said, the Haitians must not have taken great comfort with the “protections” of the Monroe Doctrine when they made their peace with France.

  14. Exquisitely executed portrait. Very provocative.

    I didn’t know anything of this man – and now I want to know more. As always, a fascinating and intriguing post – as are several of the comments, which I intend to follow up on!


  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Franklin, for putting the story of Belley is the larger context of the harrowing history of Haiti. Indeed the many tragedies of that nation are not all acts of God… France and the United States bear a terrible burden of guilt in shaping those misfortunes through the 19th and 20th centuries.

    If you are interested in the Haitian Revolution, I cannot recommend too highly the beautiful novel by Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of this World:
    Historical fiction at its most accomplished.

  16. Franklin says:

    What an astonishing piece of history this is. With not one but several tragic ends.

    Inspired by your post, and just checking out a couple of online sources, I discovered that the March, 1792 Act of the Convention Nationale, granting freed black men in the colonies full civil and political rights, was itself in response to the slave rebellion that began in 1791 and culminated in Jean-Jacques Dessalines declaration of Haiti as a “free republic” on January 1, 1804. Wikipedia – Haitian Revolution, citing, Censer and Hunt, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity;: Exploring the French Revolution, Penn. State Univ. Press (2001 – 2003) at p. 124.

    So as Citizen Jean-Baptiste Belley was on his way to France, it is easy to imagine him feeling propelled by a social volcano. From the frying pan into the fire might be more like it.

    And I think of him in prison, perhaps in the end taking comfort in the thought of an independent Haiti. (What a reversal that would have been.)

    And yet, that independence was not recognized by France until 1825, when Haiti agreed to pay crushing reparations to the former slave holders, burdening that island nation with a debt from which it never recovered. See, U.S. Library of Congress, A Country Study: Haiti, Ch. 6 Independent Haiti – Boyer:

    [Jean-Pierre] Boyer perceived that France’s continued refusal to settle claims remaining from the revolution and to recognize its former colony’s independence constituted the gravest threat to Haitian integrity. His solution to the problem–payment in return for recognition–secured Haiti from French aggression, but it emptied the treasury and mortgaged the country’s future to French banks, which eagerly provided the balance of the hefty first installment. The indemnity was later reduced in 1838 from 150 million francs to 60 million francs. By that time, however, the damage to Haiti had been done.

    Such a sad tale all around.

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    Various spheres of life utilize lots of time and efforts, thence why should you expend valuable time for essay thesis accomplishing? It is smart to utilize a paper writing service to order the critical essay from, I think.

  18. Catherine Delors says:

    Linda, to me history, especially the history of slavery, and in particular the history of the Dumas family, is never useless and always interesting!

    Miss Moppet, indeed the reinstatement of slavery is one of the worst blemishes on Napoleon’s record, and one that is very much discussed these days in France. As for this portrait, yes, it is magnificent. I hadn’t thought of the marble as a reminder of white skin in traditional representations. You can read a great deal in this: the Abbe Raynal was white, but he was one of the most vocal opponents of slavery. So we have two men, black and white, united in the same struggle. Belley cuts a very imposing figure, both relaxed and majestic in his attitude. When I look at him, I can’t help remembering that ten years later, he was dead, in mysterious and sinister circumstances…

  19. Miss Moppet says:

    I didn’t realise Napoleon reinstated slavery. Not his finest hour! I did read an interesting book on slavery and the ancien regime at one point because I was wondering what happened to black pages when they grew up, but I can’t remember the title (really need to sort out my papers!) If I come across it I’ll post it here.

    That is a magnificent portrait. I like the way the red, white and blue of the sashes is picked up in the feathers on the hat and even in the colouring of the marble. And it subverts an ancien regime convention of portraiture brilliantly – using the contrast of black and white to show off the white skin of a mistress of a black servant. Eg this portrait of Louise de Keroualle:
    or this one of Mme de Montespan’s daughters:

  20. Linda says:

    Hi Catherine; just wanted to tell you how very much I enjoyed reading this post. I also read your earlier post about Alexandre Dumas. (glad you included that link) I called my daughter to share all my new-found knowledge. My whole family (daughter, sons, daughters-in-law) love knowing bits of information not universally known. We call them “pubi”s (pretty useless but interesting). Not that this information about Belley or Dumas is really useless, but I doubt I’ll find a use for it any time soon. Anyway, I’m anxious to share these pubi’s with my daughter-in-law (& queen of the pubi’s) who is a middle school principal and may find a way to share w/ history and/or literture teachers. Anyway, thanks for the very interesting post.

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