Besancon from Besancon River
credit Calvin Young
BESANCON and CHATEAU de JOUX, FRANCE
Abolitionist and Civil Rights Route
by Calvin Young of SoulOfAmerica
I was most happily invited to Eastern France by the French Tourism Ministry to participate and tour the Slavery Abolitionists and Civil Right’s Route. Being an American and having no affinity for long names, I shall just call it the "Freedom Road."
Although delighted, given my extensive knowledge of history, I was somewhat puzzled as I had never heard of such a road in France or anywhere else. I had thought that this prize was uniquely African American or at least African, invented by us in our quest for freedom. Internet research did not add much to my knowledge. I resolved to go to France and find out just how much this road resembled America’s civil rights pilgrimage.
The Adventure Begins
I began the trip on Air France, my first trip on what I presumed to be another flying “bus”. I could not have been more wrong. It turned out to be a return to the luxury of air travel of a now bygone age. I instantly became an addict. Yes it costs more, but in an era of quickly diminishing air travel luxury, Air France has maintained the ambiance, great food, and importance of treating customers well. If you have never ridden this airline, it has my heartiest endorsement.
I arrived in Paris and caught a bus that went directly to the station that provides a train to Besançon, Gare de Lyon. This method is most convenient and it was the most inexpensive way to get there. I could have taken a train, but I would have had to transfer from Gard du Nord by cab or another bus. My train from Paris to Besançon was a TGV which stands for very fast and very luxurious.
French railroad stations, large ones like Gare de Lyon, and small town stations are wonderful places to visit. Well-dressed travelers hurry along the promenade near the tracks to catch departing and arriving trains to Paris. From these wheeled vessels, commuters scurry to jobs and back to their homes. Tourists like me come to visit museums and to shop at some of the finest stores in world—designer fashions and boutiques alike.
Everything a person needs can be found in a Parisian railroad station. Great fast food, excellent coffee, pastries, even quality sit down meals, and a place to stay at hotels located nearby, some just next to the stations. These hotels are affiliated with the Transportation Ministry, so standards are high and costs are reasonable. Fully integrated is the term that best describes the transportation network in France. A term we, in the U.S. have much to learn about.
Visiting these stations, which are marvels of architecture, is an essential part of any trip to Europe. All forms of local and regional transportation are found here—buses, taxis, jitneys, and subways use the train stations as hubs. Passengers are both collected and disgorged from the vehicles to get travelers quickly to their destinations. People watching, allows this tourist to engage in a visual display of this interactive energy, an entertaining sight that is worth watching a few hours.
Besancon, birthplace of Victor Hugo
With great anticipation I boarded my TGV train for Besançon (pronounced bee-see-saon) as this was my first ride on a TGV since 1981, nearly thirty years. I slowly and luxuriously found my assigned seat saying Bonjour to the other passengers as I went along. Some looked up in surprise, but instantly realized that I was an American. I was easily accepted as the other passengers got back to their books or conversations or just looking at the well arranged and green countryside dotted with the many small French farms; the places that produce all that wonderful food. I too enjoyed watching the scenes race by in rapid succession. I visited the dining car as much for the experience of conversing and observing the other passengers.
Since the TGVs make few stops, I had to depart the TGV train at Dijon and board a local train. It was pleasurable just to be in the place where they made all that great mustard; “Grey Poupon, please.”
Fortunately I was made well aware of this requirement by one of the attendants at Gare du Est. One of my fellow journalists was not so fortunate and ended up in Geneva, forcing a back-track and late arrival. My previous experience as an analyst for the US Federal Railroad Administration was very useful. One of my duties while there was to visit and study European trains to import the best ideas and practices to the US Amtrak system. I visited all of the major European systems that had implemented high speed rail.
At the conclusion of my trip, I surmised that France has a river, a river of ideas, ideas of a people that tend toward freedom, freedom for themselves and freedom for others. This river has flowed for a very long time, from the time of the Romans who were determined to subjugate them and make them their own, slaves for a Roman world. The Romans became the Arabians, the Muslims, then the English and lastly the Germans; all determined and capable warriors. The Romans are and all the others are gone now; only highly prized and interesting vestiges of their passing remains. But the river still burns bright, still flows strong, and the Civil Rights Road marks the passing of those who kept the flame of freedom burning bright.
This trip made me aware that this river began not in Paris, but in the heartland of Eastern France, near a town called Besançon. The river flows to Pontaliar and then to Paris where it is displayed to the rest of the world.
This abolitionist and civil rights route begins in Besançon, goes to a welcome at Pontarlier by the Community of the Commune of Larmont and on to the Château de Joux. After a night at Besançon, we left for a visit and discovery of the history of the vow of Champagney. We were introduced to the discovery of the church and a walk-up to the stele and the presentation of the “Maison de la Negritude” vow and museum space. Next, the schedule calls for a visit and discovery of the life of Victor Schoelcher in Fessenheim via the museum named in his honor.
After Fessenhim, we traveled to Colmar, an absolutely delightful town, undamaged by World War II, to become acquainted with the work of Albert Schweitzer. Next stop was Emberménil and a visit to the Abbé Grégoire house, after which we went to Lunéville and a stop at the Château de Lumières. Our trip would end by leaving for Paris from Nancy by train and return home by Air France. By any definition, this would become a trip I would remember for a lifetime.
On to Besançon
Besançon, is a picturesque ancient town Eastern France in the Doubs river valley. The town is delightful and located about 3 hours east of Paris and with mountains on each side. The town is enclosed in a loop of the river which itself is encased by ancient, old growth trees. The river and the town with the same name are surrounded by the Jura Mountains. The A series of old stone bridges allow access from the modern part of the town to its ancient core. Besancon has been a trading center from ancient times until today.
The Rue de la République leads from the river to the central place du 8-Septembre and the sixteenth-century Hôtel de Ville. Grande-Rue is the principal street and it cuts across the square along the line of an old Roman road. The town has many lively shops and cafes and a square, the Place de la Révolution and the excellent Musée des Beaux-Arts. Besancon has thrived on many forms of trade for centuries as it lay along the route of a major trading route. More recently is was a major center for clock making and in the 18th century it was also the birthplace of artificial silk – or rayon – in 1890. Two magnificent Bonnards (steel security posts) and a wonderful clock collection are a testament to this history. The Palais Granvelle contains an interactive museum that also describes the town's history of clock-making, the Musée du Temps.
Besançon was home to Victor-Hugo who born at no. 140 place Victor-Hugo. Just up the street is the Porte Noire, a second-century Roman triumphal arch that spans the street. Beside the arch are the remains of a nymphaeum, a small reservoir of water fed by an aqueduct. Just beyond the arch is the eighteenth-century Cathédrale St-Jean which houses the nineteenth-century Horloge Astronomique.
Unlike some of the inhabitants of Paris, the locals are exceeding friendly and hospitable. In addition to the sightseeing of the town and surrounding area, fine French cuisine, there is gambling readily available. There is also the possibility of many side trips. One could easily spend a week or more in this delightful town and river valley. The town has a beautiful natural setting with bluish stone walls in most buildings of the old town which were built by the Romans when they controlled life here centuries ago. The town is dominated by the Vauban Citadelle, located appropriately on the town’s highest hill. The Besancon River flows with the town on each side. It has mature trees on each side of the river, with a park next to the river with walking paths and picturesque boats that ply the rivers serving locals and tourists with sightseeing trips, some complete with evening dinner cruises.
It was our delight to enjoy such a cruise with the local mayor and the equivalent of the President of the Chamber of Commerce. Out boat was the Restaurant le Chaland (a flat-bottomed péniche boat restaurant, usually docked on the banks of the Doubs river. After dinner, I strolled in the park along the river with my companions, fellow journalists from all over the world. We enjoyed rich conversation as a light mist of rain fell. The gentle sounds of the river flowing over a slight waterfall added to the ambiance. The Vauban castle was bathed in lights which one could see through the leaves of the mature hardwood trees. This time will long be remembered as one of those truly magical moments that each of us long for when we first traveling to a far away land. I could have easily spent two weeks or more in this place. Unfortunately, our schedule did not permit extensive lingering, and we were off to lunch at a bistro in the nearby countryside followed by a visit to the Chateau de Joux.
Chateau de Joux
Next stop, Chateau de Joux
The Chateau de Joux, like Vauban, is another fortress on a hill. It is about an hour southeast of Besançon in the Dura mountains near Pontarlier. The hill, where the fortress lies, looks very much like a mountain. On the other side of the valley, there are mountains, the Dura mountains, and the ancient Franco-Swiss border.
The fortress, aside from being very impressive to look up to when you are down in the valley, is a great place to put a fortress. You see, it is a very good idea to be sitting on a high hill if someone decides to attack your “house”. Until the advent of gunpowder and canon, sitting a fortress on a high hill made it virtually impossible to attack if it were defended well enough by those inside. After all, all you had to do was throw rocks down on the heads of those trying to get in; one rock, one less attacker. If you got lucky, one rock, two or three less attackers. After the Chinese canon arrived in Europe via Genghis Khan, castles became obsolete.
Sitting atop the ramparts of the fortress is an invigorating and captivating feeling. The town is spread out before you, with the mountains rising in the background; a picture perfect setting, that gives one a feeling of impregnability. One can easily imagine just wanting to stay here for a long time. The entire perspective is warm, inviting, and safe. Add to this the wonderful and fresh French food, the inviting and friendly town’s people, the restored fortress with its vibrant and important history, the practicality of wonderful side trips, and you have the substance of a great vacation.
The fortress was made infamous by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. This was the place, in 1802, that he imprisoned another great general, Toussaint Louverture. General Toussaint, born a slave, led the only successful slave rebellion in the modern world against a colonial power. He fought and defeated the best French Armies and generals that France could muster. And, at that time, the French armies were the best in the world. They had defeated all of armies of the European nations, either singly or as combined allies. Napoleon was an acknowledged genius at warfare and politics. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong side of history and the better nature of the French people.
Prior to Bonaparte, France had abolished slavery in 1794. Bonaparte reintroduced slavery in the Colonial Constitution in 1801; partly to please his Austrian wife and her family who owned plantations in Haiti and other new world nations, and partly for the income from these plantations, since sugar was either the number one or cotton cash crop in the world. Napoleon needed money to make war, and sugar provided that money.
Toussaint, born a slave in 1743, had risen to the post of Major General and was further promoted Governor in chief of the small French colony. When Bonaparte repealed the anti-slavery laws, Toussaint and the island Blacks chose to fight. And fight they did; rolling back one French army after another. Natural allies for the Blacks were the tropical heat and the diseases that festered in the swamps. The French fell by the thousands.
Bonaparte, desperate to recapture the islands and short of funds to prosecute the war, sold the Louisiana Purchase to America for $15 million. By this one action, the territory of the United States was doubled. America yet owes this small nation an unacknowledged debt to the Haitian general and his Black army. To our shame, our government continues an antagonistic and colonialist stance toward Haiti to this day.
Despite this infusion of funds, Toussaint and his army continued to decimate French attackers. Napoleon’s solution was treachery. He invited Toussaint to a peace conference where he was betrayed, captured, and quickly shipped off to France and imprisoned in the Fortress de Joux. There he would die of pneumonia due to exposure to the extreme mountainous cold. Many say that is exactly what the Emperor had in mind.
Toussaint Louverture's final cell
Toussaint Louverture, The Martyr
As an unknown journalist wrote, “I visited the cell where he lived and died. It was heated only by a small fireplace. Toussaint wrote to Napoleon many times protesting his harsh treatment and imprisonment. He refused to hear him, sending one of his generals to inquire about Toussaint’s personal fortune. When informed that he had not accumulated any such fortune, Bonaparte let him remain in the cell during the harsh mountain weather."
Fortunately for the Haitians and Blacks around the globe, Toussaint’s second in command continued to rout and ravage the French until they quit the field and the island. The world’s first Black republic was raised on January 1, 1804, truly a new year celebration. Haiti became an independent nation. Sadly it also became a pariah nation since none of the Europeans powers wanted a repetition of a Toussaint’s success in their many colonies around the world. Tragically, American joined this “League of Shame”, despite similarities in our heritage that should have caused our nation to join with and honor the Haitians.
Toussaint has been properly immortalized by the Haitians. Large numbers visit the cell of this, their greatest leader. He is their replica of America’s George Washington. He is really the father of that country. Unlike Washington, Toussaint never lost a battle, except the one that defeats so many native peoples around the world, treachery.
A bust of Toussaint has been erected just outside his cell. I was honored to take a picture of the bust and the Haitian Ambassador to France, Lionel Etienne. Love and pride, and subdued repressed anger at the French who took this great man from them, their George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rolled into one, was reflected clearly on his face. Yet gratefulness was there as well; the gratefulness for the honor that the French are now bestowing upon Toussaint and the Haitian people by holding up this man as a beacon of liberty. For he is like our lady liberty, a light, a flame, representing the attainment of freedom for all. This freedom is a goal to love and continue to fight for until all can pursue and gain their liberty from tyranny and greed.
Also in attendance were many other dignitaries such as: dkdkdkdk UN against slavery, Evelyn White, biographer of Alice Walker (author of the Color Purple), M. Bongani Madonda, reporter for the South African Sunday Times, and other journalists from many parts of the world. All of this added to the drama and the sense of place history. Out of all the places that I could have been on that warm October day, I am glad I came here. I was deeply touched by the feelings generated among the dignitaries and journalists in our group. All Americans, African ancestry or no, could benefit from a visit to this fortress. Toussaint has transformed it from a place of shame to a beacon of hope to still enslaved peoples.
Bonaparte came to this view before he died. Imprisoned on the Isle of Elba, he stated that he should have returned Toussaint to become the leader of the nation he helped to create, and accepted Haiti into the Republic of France as a commonwealth nation.
Haitian Ambassador next to Toussaint Louverture memorial
Since I have Black ancestors who longed for and fought for their freedom, I am energized to know that at least one nation of us were successful at being men who fought for and received their freedom and the freedom of those they loved. A similar drama to Toussaint’s would be replayed in America sixty years later as Black warriors fought for and died to gain their freedom. Although denied a leader of their own color by the harsh concepts of the day that obviously did not exist in France, namely that Blacks could not lead, hundreds of Black soldiers and sailors rolled back the tide of oppression and greed of Southern planters and earned the right to walk the earth with head held high and lungs taking in a new breath of free air. They did not fight for the United States and the union, they fought for their wives, their children, and the right to walk this earth as MEN and WOMEN, just as God intended. Thanks Toussaint for showing us the way.
The Haitians plan to take some of the dirt from the fortress back to Haiti for burial. They cannot take the body because Napoleon, in a final act of vindictiveness, buried Toussaint in an unmarked grave. The story does not end there because the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, plans to fund a film about the liberator’s life with Danny Glover as the star.
I salute the French for not only refusing to “bury” this story along with Toussaint, but celebrating it as a fitting commitment to their embrace of Freedom as a human ideal. It certainly must have been and still is difficult for them, a people of immense pride to have the memory of one of their greatest sons defamed by treachery. This emotion was easy to see in the faces and hear in the voices of our guides. Nevertheless, such is their love and commitment to freedom that they tell this story, even with the shame, because of their love of freedom. I say again, truly God has blessed this people. Our Caucasian American counterparts should be so liberated from past sins.