Wednesday 11 May 2022


She's here now. We can see her. She won’t be forgotten.

With these words, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on May 10 inaugurated a statue of Solitude, a woman who fought against slavery in Guadeloupe, was sentenced to death by French forces in 1802, and killed a day after giving birth.

“History and memory are part of our lives,” Hidalgo declared, pointing out that women however tended to be the "forgotten ones". She said the commemoration was important not only for people today but also for future generations.

In France, May 10 is observed as the National Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade, Slavery, and Their Abolition (la journée nationale des mémoires de la traite, de l'esclavage et de leur abolition), and several events were held around the country, including one with President Emmanuel Macron at the Jardin du Luxembourg in the French capital - as in past years.

The statue’s inauguration formed part of these events, taking place in a symbolic location. “Solitude” stands on the Général Catroux Square in the 17th arrondissement, in a garden that the city had already named for her in September 2020.

Close by are monuments honouring famous writer Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers) and his father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas - who was born into slavery in Saint Domingue (Haiti) and eventually became a general in the French army.

Up to now, the most striking feature of the square has been two huge “broken-chain” shackles on the grass, created by artist Driss Sans-Arcidet and installed in 2009 as "Fers, hommage au Général Dumas". It is around this iron sculpture that some associations have been paying homage to the victims of slavery, since the national May-10 day was launched in 2006.

In fact, even as Solitude’s statue was being inaugurated, another commemorative ceremony was taking place just a few meters away, with music sometimes drowning out the voices of Hidalgo and other official speakers (who included the statue’s creator - artist Didier Audrat - and former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault). 

Apparently, the organizers of the two events had not consulted with one another, according to several spectators, who called the “clash” a “pity”.

Meanwhile, the statue’s inauguration drew a diverse crowd, who rushed to snap pictures of themselves beside the monument when it was unveiled.

The almost non-stop picture-taking sometimes felt jarring, but it was perhaps understandable, given Solitude’s legendary role in slavery resistance in the Caribbean. Beyond Guadeloupe, her life has been made known particularly through the work of French writer André Schwarz-Bart, whose Guadeloupean widow and fellow writer, Simone Schwarz-Bart, spoke at the inauguration, discussing his acclaimed novel La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude). Schwarz-Bart said that she and her late husband knew that the story had to be written.

According to Guadeloupean teacher and translator Suzy Roche, both writers indeed worked to shine a light on the little-known aspects of Solitude's life and to "return her" to her people, as so many Caribbean heroes "have been lost to history".

Solitude was born circa 1772, some two decades before France first abolished slavery in Guadeloupe (in 1794). She came of age during a period of uprisings, as people in French colonies fought for their freedom, against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

It was in 1802 that, while pregnant, she joined an uprising against French troops sent by Napoleon Bonaparte, who wanted to reinstate slavery. The uprising was brutally suppressed, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has produced pedagogic material on Solitude as part of a “Women in African History” project.

Researchers say that she “was taken prisoner around 23 May 1802”, sentenced to death and "suppliciée" (possibly tortured, flogged to death or hanged) on 29 November that year, a day after giving birth. That same year, France reinstated slavery, before abolishing it again in 1848.

Solitude’s story is a universal one that symbolises the fight for freedom and the current need for continuous dialogue, said Hidalgo at the unveiling of the statue.  

It also symbolizes the struggle against racism and xenophobia - both of which are enduring features of life in France, as various anti-discrimination organizations have noted. - SWAN

Photos (top to bottom, by A.M.): the statue of Solitude, by artist Didier Audrat; sculpture "Fers, hommage au Général Dumas" by Driss Sans-Arcidet; officials, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (centre) and former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (far left) posing with "Solitude". alongside writer Simone Schwarz-Bart (in sunglasses).

UNESCO info: