Baco and Burnel’s Attempt to Implement
Abolition in the Mascarenes in 1796:
Analysis of a Failure and Its Consequences
THE ATTEMPT IN 1796 to implement the decree of 16 Pluviôse Year II in the eastern colonies of the Île-de-France (now Mauritius) and Réunion and its failure represent the most spectacular and, in terms of its consequences, the most important episode in the history of abolition in the Mascarenes.1 After lengthy debates, the Council of Five Hundred passed a law of 5 Pluviôse Year IV (25 January 1796) empowering two agents, appointed by the Directory for a term of two years and given very wide powers, to implement the Constitution of Year III, and hence abolition, in the Mascarenes. The agents, named the very next day, were René-Gaston Baco de la Chapelle and Étienne-LaurentPierre Burnel.
Baco, a former lawyer with the parlement of Brittany, had been deputy for Nantes, his native town, in the Constituent Assembly. He was elected mayor of the city at the end of 1792, and the following year organized energetic and victorious resistance against the Vendéans. Accused by the Montagnards of federalist sympathies, he was then imprisoned and most probably owed his release solely to the fall of Robespierre. At the time of his appointment, he was a deputy in the Council of Five Hundred. Burnel’s appointment is probably to be explained by his knowledge of the Île-de-France, where he had lived between November 1790 and March 1794. There he had been a journalist, lawyer, secretary of the Colonial Assembly and a member of the local Directory. In 1794, he launched an unsuccessful commercial venture with the United States, where he lived for several months before returning to Europe in 1795. His appointment provoked a chorus of protests from the deputies from the Mascarenes in Paris, who accused him of dissolute habits, improprieties in his professional life and political hypocrisy. All of these accusations would be repeated later.