Law of 20 May 1802

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The Law of 20 May 1802 was a French law passed on 20 May 1802 (30 floréal year X), revoking the law of 4 February 1794 (16 pluviôse) which had abolished slavery in all the French colonies. That law had not taken effect in practice in many of the colonies, with La Réunion hindering its implementation and Martinique refusing to ratify it due to a royalist insurrection there, similar to that in the Vendée – the latter had been in its revolt since 16 September 1793 and, represented by planter Louis-François Dubuc, signed the Whitehall accord of submission to England. On 6 February 1794 the English began their military conquest of Martinique, completed on 21 March 1794, and thus the island avoided the abolition of slavery.

The Law of 20 May 1802 explicitly concerned the territories that had not been applied the 1794 law and was linked to the 1802 Treaty of Amiens which restored Martinique to France. The 1802 law thus did not apply to Guadeloupe and Guyane. Napoleon's position was more characterised by pragmatism than by any 'ideological' inclination.[1] It also did not apply in Saint-Domingue and had little effect there except to re-inflame rebellion and accelerate its march towards independence, achieved in 1804 – on 24 July 1802 general Leclerc (commander of the Saint-Domingue expedition) wrote to admiral Denis Decrès inviting him to renounce all attempts to restore slavery to Saint Domingue.

Joséphine de Beauharnais's intervention in favour of re-establishing slavery is probably a myth, since there is no evidence for it, she had little political influence over Napoleon and her pro-slavery bias has not been clearly demonstrated. The maintenance and re-imposition of slavery was far more influenced by Britain and her allies.


  1. ^ Jacques Adélaïde, La Caraïbe et la Guyane au temps de la Révolution et de l'Empire (1992), Ed. Karthala, ISBN 2-86537-342-8