1This term, not then pejorative, evokes one of the most famous pages of L’Esprit des lois. Yet we first encounter the figure of the Negro in the Persian Letters, insofar as Montesquieu, informed by travel narratives, insists on distinguishing, with Usbek’s seraglio, black slaves from white. According to Paul Vernière, a knowledgeable editor (Lettres persanes, Classiques Garnier, 1960), Usbek leaves behind him “five wives, it appears, […] four black eunuchs: the principal eunuch, Ismaël, Narsit and Solim, and three white eunuchs, Cosrou, Nadir and their chief” (p. 13, note 1). But is this not to overlook Jaron, sent back from Smyrna “with all the blacks” to increase the number of guards around the women, as he himself declares sorrowfully to the first eunuch (Supplementary letter 2)? Rather than relying on such apparently problematic counts, it is preferable to look into their functions, in the harem and in the epistolary system.
2In Letter 19 from Usbek to Zachi, one of his wives, only black slaves are entitled to approach the wives to serve, oversee and punish them. Found alone in Zachi’s company, Nadir “will pay for his infidelity and treachery with his head”. This law is recalled with equal severity in Letter 20), from Usbek to the first white eunuch: “You, who […] cannot without offense lift your eyes on the awesome objects of my love, you who are never allowed to put a sacrilegious foot in the door of the ominous place that shields them from all eyes […] you will be punished in a way that will cause all who abuse my confidence to tremble.” The black eunuch adds to impotence, a source of torments and hatred, the ugliness of “horrible objects” (“His ugliness, you say, is so great that it is painful for you to look at him” LP, 19). Desperate at the thought of being deprived of her favorite slave, Zephis denounces to Usbek the “black monster”, the “traitor”, the “vile slave” who “wants to regard as criminal the motives for my confidence” (4). All the passions that devour the eunuch and engage him “in a pitiless and endless struggle with the other sex”, as they are described in Letter 9 and put into play in the tragic epilogue of the novel (Supplementary Letters 9-11, Letters 149-150), thus concern black slaves.
3Whereas the wives address only Usbek, the eunuchs enter into a more complex epistolary economy: like them, they receive missives from the absent master (2, 140, 142, 145, 149) and write to him (39, 62, 77, 93, 139, 141, 143, Supplementary Letter 11). They are also entitled to correspondences that escape Usbek’s eye and authorize the sincere expression of the eunuchs’ point of view on the seraglio (9, 14, Supplementary Letters 1 and 2). We can add to this count Letters 40 and 41 between a black slave they want to castrate for revenge and Usbek who grants him clemency. The narrative dialectic of the seraglio novel rests on the master’s uneasiness, the furies of the wives and the hatred of the black eunuchs, slaves and tyrants.
“Reason inclines one to humanity” (EL, XV, 3)
4The question of servitude, examines in books XV, XVI and XVII of L’Esprit des lois, in the framework of physical causalities, obviously exceeds that of Negroes, as the considerations about eunuchs, in XV, 19, finesse the Africans in favor of Asian examples (Tonkin, China). But chapter 5 of book XV answers with brio to the historical currency and the massiveness of the Black slave trade. This famous page precedes the statement of “the true origin of the right of slavery” (XV, 6) and finishes off a series of erroneous legitimizations (XV, chap. 2-4). It immediately distinguishes itself by its textual status. Instead of discussing and refuting, as in the preceding chapters, the reasons of the Roman jurisconsults, the Spanish or the papacy, Montesquieu completely reverses the situation of enunciation: “If I had to support the right we have had to make slaves of the Negroes, here is what I would say” (“Si j’avais à soutenir le droit que nous avons eu de rendre les nègres esclaves, voici ce que je dirais”). Antiphrasis, the central procedure, and from a rhetorical point of view almost free of irony since Antiquity, is not based only on the nature of the arguments advanced. It depends just as completely on the position adopted at the outset in chapter 1. Slavery “is not good by its nature: it is useful neither to the master nor to the slave” (“n’est pas bon par sa nature : il n’est utile ni au maître ni à l’esclave”) whom it morally perverts; “more tolerable” under despotism, “where one is already in political slavery”, it contradicts the spirit of the monarchy and the republic: thus a moral and political condemnation of the pretended “right we have had” to make slaves. The reader of chapter 5 is in no way abandoned to his good sense alone: the ironic reading is clearly prescribed by the nature of the preceding chapters and the author’s firm initial engagement.
5Montesquieu sets forth nine slaveholder arguments. The first two are of an economic order and appeal to utility: (1) To clear American fields after the extermination of the native peoples, Africans “had to be made slaves”; (2) without slaves, “sugar would be too costly”. The next six arguments deny the natural equality of the human race to Blacks because of their skin color, their flat nose, the extravagance that makes them prefer a glass necklace to gold. This judgment is confirmed by the peoples of Asia who castrate Blacks more cruelly, and by the Egyptians, “the world’s best philosophers”, who put red men to death. Moreover, and this is the eighth reason, “if we supposed they were men, we would begin to believe we are not ourselves Christians” (for it is a fact that we are). The last argument repeats this one, letting it slip from the terrain of “the essence of humanity” to that of “justice”: if we were doing the Africans such harm, European princes, prolific in “useless conventions”, would necessarily have made one “in favor of mercy and pity”. Placed first, the economic argument hits the bull’s eye but yields clearly in number to the plea in favor of the equality of the human race, it being understood that all the arguments against slavery in general, of a moral, religious, and political order obviously apply to Africans.
6It remains that if slavery is “as opposed to civil law as to natural law” (EL, V, 2) and to Christianity (LP, 72), and if Montesquieu distances himself from the largely majority view of his century, he feels obliged, by the very subject of his work, “to seek the true origin of the right to slavery” (XV, 6), which cannot be founded on “the nature of things” (ibid). This “unnatural” right then depends only on a “natural reason” “in certain countries”. In Europe, “natural reasons themselves reject it” (XV, 7) and he even finally recognizes, not knowing, he says, whether it is the heart or the mind that is guiding him, that “there is perhaps no climate on earth where one cannot persuade free men to work” (“il n’y a peut-être pas de climat sur la terre où l’on ne put engager au travail des hommes libres”, XV, 8). That is why its full weight must be given to the “we” of the first sentence in chapter 5: “If I had to support the right we have had to make slaves of the Negroes […]” (“Si j’avais à soutenir le droit que nous avons eu de rendre les nègres esclaves […]”) – “we”, the so-called European Christians and subjects of moderate regimes, who have “so fortunately abolished” slavery amongst us, under the influence of Christianity (XV, 7) and… of the royal policy hostile to lords (LP, 72).
7Without this enunciative posture, based on the typology of the three governments and the power of climate, eroded by the contradiction of law and fact, it is not certain that such a piece could have been written in this unforgettable form, which does not encompass all of Montesquieu’s thought on slavery.
Russell P. Jameson, Montesquieu et l’esclavage, Paris: Hachette, 1911.
Jean Ehrard, “L’Encyclopédie et l’esclavage: deux lectures de Montesquieu”, Enlightenment essays in memory of Robert Shackleton, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1987, reprinted in Ehrard 1998, p. 247-256.
Jean Ehrard, “L’esclavage devant la conscience morale des Lumières françaises: indifférence, gêne, révolte, dans Les Abolitions de l’esclavage (1793-1794-1848)”, Marcel Dorigny ed., Presses universitaires de Vincennes, Ed. UNESCO, 1995, p. 143-152.
Jean Ehrard, Lumières et esclavage, Brussels: André Versaille, 2008.