Jean-Baptiste Belley ca. 1740-1805
Jean-Baptiste Belley, also known as Mars, was a former slave from Saint-Domingue who became one of the first Black men to hold elective office in France. Born in the West African island of Goreé, part of present-day Senegal, Belley was sold into slavery as a toddler, eventually arriving in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, he became educated and was able to purchase his freedom as an adult. In 1793, following the French Revolution, he was elected as the only Black member of a three person coalition sent to France to represent the colony of Saint-Domingue in the National Convention, where he spoke in defense of the Abolition of slavery on February 1794. Slavery was briefly abolished in the French colonies that same year, only to be reinstated after Napoleon’s rise to power five years later. Belley stayed as a member of the Convention, and later the Council of the Five Hundred, until losing his seat in 1797. He then obtained a position in the gendarmerie nationale and returned to Saint-Domingue on official missions. While in France, his portrait (shown above) was painted by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, a pupil of Jacques-Louis David. Belley returned to Saint-Domingue with Charles LeClerc in 1802, the year slavery was reinstated in the French colonies, and was arrested on orders of Napoleon Bonaparte. He travelled again to France, this time as a prisoner, where he died in 1805.
The portrait is currently at the Musée national du Château de Versailles.