- Louis-Sébastien Mercier: Prophet, Abolitionist, Colonialist
J’aperçus sur un magnifique piédestal un nègre, la tête nue, le bras tendu, l’oeil fier, l’attitude noble, imposante. Autour de lui étaient les débris de vingt sceptres. À ses pieds on lisait ces mots: Au vengeur du nouveau monde!1
The Black Spartacus
In Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s novel L’An 2440: Rêve s’il en fut jamais, the narrator is stunned to find the statue of a black man in twenty-fifth-century Paris—a black man whose merciless sword of justice put an end to slavery and colonial rule in the New World.
This was the genesis of the Black Spartacus, a literary character developed by Mercier, Raynal, and Diderot2—and incarnated by Toussaint Louverture, leader of the slave uprising in Saint-Domingue in the 1790s.3 Yet, in his 1798 Le Nouveau Paris, Mercier denounces the insurrection he had seemed to be calling for through his creation. Decrying it as an indiscriminate and pityless bloodbath, he bemoans the “torches civiles allumées dans nos colonies.”4 Far from supporting the insurrection, Mercier blames the abolitionist Société des Amis des Noirs for the violence.5
How can we reconcile the statue of the “vengeur du nouveau monde” in L’An 2440 and the opprobrium heaped on the Société des Amis des Noirs in Le Nouveau Paris? We seek here to answer this question by exploring Mercier’s contradictory and evolving positions on slavery and colonial rule, in the three authorized editions of L’An 2440 published during the author’s lifetime in 1771, 1786, and 1798.6 [End Page 247]
While we shall follow Marcel Dorigny’s warning and not seek “à tout prix une cohérence que l’auteur n’a probablement pas lui-même voulue,” we believe that a close comparative study of these editions reveals a certain consistency whose logic lies in Mercier’s vision of human progress.7 Mercier views L’An 2440 as a blueprint for humanity’s progress—and himself as a prophet for his time. It is within this prophecy that Mercier articulates two key apects of his approach to slavery and colonialism: the humanist imperatives of Enlightenment ideals and his faith in the French génie national. What we witness in L’An 2440 is not so much a contradiction as a shift in priorities; from slavery seen as a moral evil to the vital importance of colonies for France. For Mercier, this shift in view is smooth and natural as both his call for abolition and his plan for a colonial enterprise are rooted in Enlightenment ideals.
The Novel L’An 2440
L’An 2440: Rêve s’il en fut jamais presents a simple plot line. The narrator goes to bed after a heated conversation with an English visitor to Paris. When he awakens, he finds that he has slept for some six hundred and seventy years— it is now “L’an de grâce mmccccxl,” the year of Mercier’s 700th birthday.8 The rest of the novel is a forty-one-chapter-long stroll through Paris in which the narrator discovers the twenty-fifth century, which has been perfected according to Enlightenment ideals, both in France and abroad. In the final chapter, after he sees a disconsolate Louis XIV among the ruins of Versailles, the narrator is bitten by an adder, ending both dream and book.
The first anonymous publication of L’An 2440 in 1771 was an immediate success.9 It went through at least twenty editions and many reprints during the author’s lifetime. There were also numerous translations in spite of the novel’s condemnation by the Holy See in 1773 and by the Spanish Inquisition in 1778. In 1786, Mercier published a much expanded edition, in three volumes, followed by a short allegorical text entitled L’homme de fer, songe.10 He also disawoved all other editions since 1771 as faulty and shameless “falsifications” in a preface signed by “L’auteur de l’An 2440.”11 With the original bans still in place, and the added material even more...