Why France’s President Emmanuel Macron should not be honouring the ‘slave trader’ Kerguelen

By Karfa Diallo
Posted on Friday, 9 September 2022 12:50

Yves de Kerguelen, explorer and slave trader. © DR

The Breton explorer Yves Joseph de Kerguelen not only engaged in the slave trade off the Indian Ocean but also publicly advocated for slavery. Now the French Senate is proposing that he be elevated to the rank of "Admiral of France".

In a bill adopted on 19 July, reported by Le Canard Enchaîné on 10 August 2022, the French Senate declared itself in favour of “conferring the dignity of Admiral of France on Rear Admiral Yves Joseph de Kerguelen”. The result of a period of reflection initiated by Christophe-André Frassa, the Les Républicains (LR) senator for the French abroad, this senatorial initiative aims to posthumously honour a navigator. Kerguelen was one of the first explorers of the southern lands who, in 1772, was made a knight of Saint-Louis by Louis XV following his discovery of the land of Kerguelen in the Indian Ocean.

The man who was described in the 18th century as the “French Christopher Columbus” took possession, on behalf of King Louis XV, of the “Kerguelen Islands”, whose 250th anniversary France is celebrating this year. Described as “confetti” of the former French colonial empire, these islands nevertheless mean that France holds the second largest maritime space in the world. In 2015, this area was enlarged by 500,000 km2 as exclusive economic zones were extended around these islands, which made our country the world’s leading maritime power in terms of its diversity and biodiversity.

Born in 1734 in the French Finistère, Kerguelen briefly made the monarchy dream when he discovered this area in the far southern part of the Indian Ocean. The monarchy was convinced that these islands – as large as Corsica, but almost uninhabitable – could make up for them having lost Canada to the British following the Seven Years’ War. The French conquest was confirmed at the end of the 14th century. This was followed by a  parliamentary resolution passed in 1949 establishing republican sovereignty with the construction of the Port-aux-Français base. Administratively attached to the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF), within the Ministry of Overseas Territories, this territory, which has no permanent residents, is populated only by scientists, technicians and military personnel who are periodically renewed.

Council of War for the trafficking of 200 Africans

Between 1773 and 1774, during his second expedition to the southern seas, the criminal nature of Kerguelen, whose career up to then had been marked only by honours and glory, was revealed. In Brest, on 15 May 1775, as Annick Le Douget recounts in her book Juges, Esclaves et Négriers en Basse-Bretagne (Judges, Slaves and Slave Traders in Lower Brittany), Kerguelen was judged by the Council of War, which was presided over by France’s Vice-Admiral d’Aché, for having trafficked 200 Africans from Madagascar on a Royal ship during his mission, thus violating Louis XIV’s decree that forbade captains and officers serving on the King’s ships from trafficking.

Very often transgressed – at Rochefort, for instance, Royal Navy ships shamelessly took part in the slave trade – the royal ban was not motivated by any sense of humanity towards the Africans. The monarchy wanted the king’s ships to be in a position to fight “to uphold the flag’s honour”, without being embarrassed by merchandise in the preservation of which “those who would be interested in it would think more than in the glory of the nation”.

At the end of the Brest trial, the explorer was sentenced to six years imprisonment despite his defence minimising the facts and assuring that he had only acquired a few “negrillons” along the way: “Eight or nine negroes that the pilot’s assistant bought on Kerguelen’s behalf”.

It is worth noting that the French Finistère, although it cannot “compete” with the great Atlantic ports of Nantes, Le Havre and Bordeaux, was also involved in the slave trade and slavery. Between 1698 and the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in 1848, 200 slave shipments left from the main logistically and economically connected ports of Brest, Landerneau, Vannes, Morlaix and Quimper.

Racist and supremacist

The Finisterian ships deported several thousand Africans. Hundreds died in the appalling conditions of the Atlantic crossing, while many of them, most of them enslaved, left their traces in Brest. Thus, from the “Depot of the Negroes”, which has become the Musée de la Marine, to the rue Jean-Mor, passing by a few slave traders and an abolitionist magistrate, the capital of Finistère is strewn with little-known evocations of a crime against humanity, which few Brest residents are aware of.

A street in Brest bears the name of Kerguelen, a character whom the Senate wants Emmanuel Macron, who is surely unaware of the role that this explorer played in what the 2001 law qualifies as a crime against humanity, to elevate to the rank of “Admiral of France”. For Kerguelen did not only engage in the slave trade. His writings, especially his logbook, reveal a man who was pro-slavery and all too keen, according to Douget, to “use, not to say utilise, Blacks in difficult moments in order to preserve his white crew”.

From the Cape of Good Hope, in the logbook of an expedition dated 27 June 1773, he wrote to the commander of one of the ships: “As in the course of the long voyage that we are going to make, and especially in the event of some kind of settlement in the countries that we are going to visit, 10 or 12 good Blacks could be of use to us and would spare our crews in the work of drudgery, such as dredging, diving, fishing, ploughing, etc., I authorise and request M. Le Douget to use the Blacks over the course of the voyage. I authorise and request M. de Rosnevet to kindly order that during his stay in Madagascar, we try to obtain them for me at any price.”

Does Macron really want to reward the author of these cold calculations, which contradict the great republican principles, by promulgating the bill tabled by Senator Frassa? Putting up an explanatory sign for the street named after Kerguelen in Brest is one thing, but bestowing a presidential honour in this day and age to a man whose acts as much as his words attest to a racist and white supremacist consciousness that current generations want to extirpate from the public space in the hopes of establishing more equality is quite another.

We hope that the President of the Republic will take this into account!

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