A Silenced History
Looking back, Mr. Gaudeul, the former ambassador, said France’s combative response to the restitution claims had been rooted in its reluctance to reckon with a past that challenged its national narrative as a champion of universal human rights.
“Haiti was really a very bad example” for France, he said.
Much of the nation’s history in Haiti remains distorted, downplayed or forgotten, researchers say. Barely any French textbooks mention that by the late 1780s, Saint-Domingue, the name of Haiti under colonial rule, absorbed 40 percent of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade, they say. Or that Napoleon, when he tried to reinstate French rule over Haiti in 1803, lost more soldiers there than at Waterloo.
A report published in 2020 by France’s Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery found that only one in 10 French primary and secondary school students learn about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian revolution.
As for the history of Haiti’s payments to France, it is “not included in the French school curriculum at any level,” said Nadia Wainstain, a history teacher who coordinated the foundation’s report.
France’s education ministry said the report did not account for some of the instruction on Haiti in French middle schools, but it acknowledged that the ministry had never discussed teaching students about the payments to former slaveholders.
Even the descendants of slaveholders who were paid say they have been largely left in the dark.
They include members of Napoleon’s family, European royalty and some of France’s most famous aristocratic families. Very few of the 31 descendants contacted by The Times said they were aware of this past.
“I didn’t know about it,” said Louis Baudon de Mony-Pajol, a sixth-generation descendant of Jean-Joseph de Laborde, a banker to King Louis XV who was also one of the biggest slaveholders in Haiti, comparing this history to “a political and social bombshell” threatening to ignite a cultural war.
Emmanuel de la Burgade, a descendant of another slaveholder, said he had discovered the history only while writing a book about his family. When he told his father about it, he remembered him answering, “Don’t tell anyone.”
Several Laborde descendants said they discovered their family’s past while reading the news in 2015 that an antiracism group in France announced it would sue Ernest-Antoine Seillière de Laborde, a rich French businessman, for having profited from the slave trade.
“It was scathing news,” said Natalie Balsan, a seventh-generation Laborde descendant. “To know that I was the descendant of a slave owner was quite a slap in the face.”
In the late 18th century, Jean-Joseph de Laborde shipped nearly 10,000 Africans to Haiti on his slave ships and enslaved as many as 2,000 people on his plantations there, many of whom died. A village in southwestern Haiti is still named after him.
Laborde lost his plantations during Haiti’s slave uprising and was guillotined by French revolutionaries in Paris in 1794. But two of his children, Alexandre and Nathalie, received compensation totaling about $1.7 million in today’s dollars — the biggest payout to a single family, according to a database compiled by Oliver Gliech, a German historian.
The lawsuit against his descendant never happened, but it ignited a discussion in the family. Cousins started to exchange emails. Mr. Seillière de Laborde — a former head of France’s largest business lobby and an heir to the Wendel family, one of France’s richest — consulted several historians to look into the payments to his family.
One historian said the money had most likely been squandered by Alexandre, the son, who died broke. Mr. Seillière de Laborde did not respond to several interview requests made through his family and business associates.
Five Laborde descendants, including Ms. Balsan, said they did not feel responsible for their ancestor’s actions. But she supported the restitution claims, saying they were “justified” by the damage suffered. Mr. Baudon de Mony-Pajol, her cousin, disagreed, saying that France did not have to show repentance and that the calls for restitution were part of a “woke culture” coming from the United States.
Romée de Villeneuve Bargemont, 22, another Laborde descendant, said he regretted not having learned this history in school. A 10-volume family biography lies in a cardboard box in his apartment in Paris, the history of the compensation payments occupying barely a few lines.
“France’s longstanding policy on history has been more or less to forget,” he said.