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Belley-Mars, Jean-Baptiste (1747?–1805?)

Jean-Baptiste Belley-Mars, who represented Saint-Domingue in the French National Convention in Paris in 1794, is widely credited with persuading that body to abolish slavery in France and its overseas colonies. Belley-Mars as a boy was kidnapped by slave catchers on the island of Goree near Dakar, Senegal, and shipped off to the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue (now the Republic of Haiti). He purchased his freedom from his owner, enlisted in the military, and served in a contingent of black and mulatto troops called Volunteer Chasseurs that was sent to fight against the British in Georgia during in the American Revolutionary War. Returning to Saint-Domingue, Belley-Mars became a well-to-do planter with a penchant for politics.

News from France in 1789 of the storming of the Bastille set in motion revolution in Saint-Domingue and pitted whites (grands blancs and petits blancs) against black slaves and mulatto freedmen led by Toussaint L’Overture demanding liberty and equality. When in 1793 the Jacobin Léger-Félicité Sonthonax was dispatched to administer the colony, Belley-Mar, now a middle-aged officer, joined him in crushing a rebellion of the whites and opposing L’Overture. As a reward for his loyalty, Belley-Mars was one of three men and the only black person elected to represent the colony at the Convention Nationale in Paris.    

As reported in Le Moniteur Officiel, on February 4, 1794, after having their credentials authenicated, the three delegates from Saint-Domingue were welcomed into the hall of the Convention with exuberant applause, hugs, and, as customary in France, kisses on both cheeks. The next morning, Belley-Mars further secured his place in history when he delivered to the Convention a lengthy, emotionally-charged speech which denounced the inhumanity of slavery and demanded its abolition. Carried away by the moment, a white delegate rose to voice his shame and rebuked the nation for the horrors it allowed in the colonies. Then, by acclamation, the Convention voted to end slavery.

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