Anonymous French Photographer, ‘Ceremony Commemorating the Abolition of Slavery in the French Empire, Martinique’, circa 1848, Sotheby's

Important Daguerreotypes from the Stanley B. Burns, MD, Collection

Stamped 'Mson B BREVETE S. G. D. G.' on the reverse.


From the Catalogue:
The luminous daguerreotype offered here is believed to depict the ceremony of planting a ‘liberty tree’ in Martinique to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the French Republic. Following the French government’s February 1848 decree to end slavery, a series of these unique tree planting rituals took place throughout the French Antilles in the months that followed.

Subsequent to the French Revolution of 1848, a provisional government was installed that adopted the historic motto of ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.’ François Arago, Minister of the Navy, employed Victor Schoelcher to issue a decree acknowledging the emancipation of the slaves throughout the French colonies. This decree was adopted on 27 April 1848 and was to take effect within two months. Of the estimated 120,000 inhabitants of Martinique in 1848, approximately three quarters of the population were slave laborers and they grew mutinous in anticipation. A bloody rebellion prompted Governor Louis de Rostoland to formally enact the abolition of slavery in Martinique on May 23rd.

The ‘liberty tree’ was a popular symbol throughout the French revolution and at the beginning of the Second Republic. In the French colonies, ceremonial planting of the tree was in specific celebration of the enslaved being reborn as free French citizens. Two such ceremonies are documented in Marin and Le François, municipalities of Martinique, on May 30th, only a week after the official abolition.

The freed slaves played a major part in these ceremonies, often carrying the liberty tree in procession and sewing French flags to decorate the town square. In the present daguerreotype, the laterally-reversed lettering clearly reads ‘France’ and ‘République.’ Also visible are the magistrates, administrators, generals, and clergy that were present at these ceremonies and dressed in official costume. Contemporary reports in Journal officiel de la Martinique vividly describe the ceremonies and published sermons given by priests on their occasion.

Daguerreotypes made in celebration of the abolition of slavery in the French Republic are exceedingly rare. At the time of this writing, no other such photograph is believed to have appeared at auction. A daguerreotype illustrating a religious ceremony in tribute to the abolition is in the permanent collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, the present image was reproduced for inclusion in the 1998 exhibition Le Combat Contre l’Esclavage: Une Conquête Permamente de la Dignité at the Sénat in Paris.
—Courtesy of Sotheby's

Stanley B. Burns, Mirror Mirror: The Burns Collection Daguerreotypes (New York: The Burns Archive Press, 2012), pl. 145
Brett Simon, 'Silent History: The Photographic Archive of Dr. Stanley Burns,' Speak, Issue 15, Summer 1999, p. 58

Acquired from Brigitte & Marc Pagneux, Peintures - Sculptures - Photographies du XIX Siècle, Paris, 1992