Couti on Dugoujon, ed. Schmidt (2015)


Dugoujon, Abbé Casimir. Lettres sur l’esclavage et l’abolition dans les colonies françaises. Edited by Nelly Schmidt, L’Harmattan, “Autrement Mêmes,” 2015, pp. lix + 256, ISBN 978-2-343-07468-9

Jacqueline Couti, University of Kentucky

One acquainted with the scholarship of the historian Nelly Schmidt might not be surprised that she offers a rigorously annotated edition of Lettres sur l’esclavage et sur l’abolition dans les colonies françaises.  Along with a thorough and authoritative introduction in which she lets her erudition and archival knowledge shine, this scholar unearths the fascinating and too often forgotten story of Abbé Casimir Dugoujon. A priest born in continental France and who belonged to the Séminaire du Saint-Esprit, he first arrived in Guadeloupe in 1840. Due to his opposition to slavery, this missionary quickly angered the local colonial administration and the majority of white Creoles who had most members of the local clergy under their thumb. His enemies, including leaders of his order, considered him a rebel and threat to the colony. He was thus twice expelled from Guadeloupe and eventually became persona non grata in the French West Indies. Today, many still know about Victor Schœlcher’s dedication to abolitionism, but who but a few specialists have heard about Dugoujon’s?

A wider audience can now discover this clergyman’s contribution and the ways in which he challenged the usual narrative surrounding slavery in order to promote abolition. His exchanges stretch over a rich and intricate period that remains relatively unknown to the general public. His denunciation of the Code Noir is more than ever significant in modern-day debates defending the so-called positive aspects of this set of laws. His letters written just before and after the abolition reveal conflicted discourses and stances concerning slavery and abolition. These epistolary documents stress the intricacy and ambivalence of the French abolitionist project that not only pitted supporters of the previous monarchical regime against Republicans, but also senior ecclesiastical leaders of the Catholic Church against a few clergymen.

Schmidt has compiled most of the letters that Abbé Dugoujon wrote during his two stays in Guadeloupe, in 1840–41 and 1848–49, some of which, such as his exchanges with abolitionists such as Schœlcher, had been published during his lifetime. Schmidt first introduces twenty-two letters written between 20 March 1840 and 13 June 1843 that were printed together in book form in 1845 by the Republican publisher Laurent-Antoine-Pagnerre. She then provides an additional six letters that were issued in the journal La Revue des Colonies by Cyrille Bissette between September 1841 and April 1842. She presents four letters that were available in 1841, in the journal L’Univers. Finally, she concludes with missives Dugoujon sent to Schœlcher between 1848 and 1851 and to other officials or clergymen. She also provides an appendix with other types of correspondence and documents. These texts include letters that Abbé Dugoujon received. For instance, they illustrate how some inhabitants of Guadeloupe, particularly women, supported him, whereas the colonial administration and the clergy could not stand him.

Schmidt’s detailed introduction contextualizes, over fifty pages, the texts by this rebel priest. Her presentation helps readers better grasp the sociohistorical framework of the period. Many footnotes refer not only to the archives she used but also to her previous publications; she also emphasizes the scholarship of Oruno Lara. Schmidt shares documents that expose the mistreatment of enslaved individuals, highlights their acts of resistance, and draws attention to survival strategies devised under a very oppressive system. In this book, slaves are not always reduced to mere victims.

Dugoujon’s letters, particularly to Schœlcher, stress that the French abolitionist project was dissimilar from the abolitionist project in Britain. Indeed, the quarrel between various factions of Republicans and the Church was an impediment to the abolition of slavery and to the smooth implementation of emancipation. This clergyman often deplored that members of the clergy were not implicated in the French abolitionist movement, but rather served the interests of the colonists. In his discourse, however, his own racial prejudices show. Eventually, through his prose, one realizes that the many layers of this abolitionist project were not devoid of racial and class bias.

Schmidt’s annotated edition with a critical introduction is a welcome addition to French colonial studies and enriches Roger Little’s Autrement Mêmes series. In her well-researched introductory section, she often lets the historical texts and archives speak for themselves, though some readers might have liked a deeper analysis of some of the fascinating topics treated only briefly. For instance, discussions of the infighting within the Catholic Church, among the rare members embracing the Republican project and emancipation and the ones supporting the status quo and white Creoles, only whet the reader’s appetite. Notwithstanding this comment, her introduction remains a rich historical exposé on the intricacies of the French abolitionist project which can only shed a better light on the pre- and post-emancipation periods.