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. Belley-Mars, the man of the hour, returned to the rostrum to receive embraces and unrestrained congratulations.
Belley-Mars extented his stay in France, survived the Reign of Terror, and served on the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundred. Before returning home to Haiti in 1797, he posed for a portrait by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Troison. This portrait, still on display in the chapel of the Palace of Versailles, has best preserved the memory of the former slave and abolitionist leader.
By 1802 when Napoleon Bonaparte sent an army to Saint-Domingue to reestablish slavery and defeat the blacks led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, Belley-Mars, now a constable, was eventually persuaded to oppose the brutal tactics of the French. Because of that opposition, he was forced to return to France, immediately arrested, and imprisoned for at least two years at the notoroius Belle-île Prison. The exact date, place, circumstances, and manner of his death has cannot be determined, but his memory is preserved in a medallion at the Bibliothèque de Nationale de Paris, and his chalk-and-ink portrait sketch by Girodet at the Art Institute of Chicago in Illinois.