Author: blaktc05

Emancipation in Saint Domingue (Modern Day Haiti): The Rule of Toussaint Louverture

Emancipation in Saint Domingue (Modern Day Haiti): The Rule of Toussaint Louverture

File:Toussaint louverture.jpg

The events leading up to Haitian Independence in 1804 were full of deception, corruption, loyalty and disloyalty, the mass murder of peoples, and above all, a undeniable motivation to take control of the island by both sides. While some argue that the cause and success of the war in Haiti was due partly to the war between European powers, the war was essentially one between two peoples: the oppressors and the oppressed. Within this war, there were two prominent Haitian leaders, known as black insurgents, who fought for the emancipation of their nation, and eventually independence – Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. While Toussaint is more widely known to the world as the leader of the Haitian revolution, Dessalines arguably equally, if not more, contributed to revolution; and, after Toussaint’s capture, Dessalines is the leader that ultimately led Haiti into independence. Although Dessalines’ path to independence was full of highly questionable and controversial tactics, he, and the indigenous army of St. Domingue, won back their full freedom and took control of their own nation. However, leading up to Dessalines’ takeover, Toussaint ran the colony in the most efficient way he thought possible during the years of emancipation.

In August 29 1793, Sonthonax, civil commissioner and advocate for emancipation, used his assumed power to free the enslaved stating, “The French Republic wants all men without distinction of color to be free and equal” (Geggus 107) . He did this largely to gain the support of the colony to defeat the Spanish army, which was also rallying black insurgents promising freedom. However, once the proclamation was enforced, the major black insurgents joined the French side of the army, defeating both the Spanish and the rebellious within the colony. During the eight year period that followed, the battle between the black insurgents, such as Toussaint and Dessalines, and the French army lessened. This was largely due to the combined forces of some black insurgents and the French army, working together to keep peace within the colony. After Sonthonax left the colony in 1797, Toussaint took the opportunity to run the colony as he saw fit, holding moderate power in 1798-1801. Toussaint took control as the official representative of France’s power within the colonies, while also continually advocating for the rights of the now emancipated people; he was more of a mediator between France and the colonies, making sure to stay loyal to both France and the colony.

Moreover, Toussaint used his power to enforce a strict system within the colony, following the details of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1793. Additionally, because of his loyalty to France and French policies, he despised the voodoo that some Haitians practiced and made Catholicism the colony’s only legal religion. Also, Toussaint enforced strict morality rules onto the citizens, both of color and not. Additionally, within the emancipation proclamation, Sonthonax made it clear that emancipation did not necessarily equate to the end of the current agricultural system in place. In Article 9 of the proclamation, it sates, “Slaves currently attached to the plantations of their former masters will be obliged to remain there and work the land” (Geggus 108) . Within this system, however, the workers will have minor benefits and the laws laid out in the Code Noir would also be enforced, meaning the workers would now have certain days off and more legal rights.

Lastly, even though the colony was now ruled by one of its own natives, Toussaint still ran into major issues during his authoritarian rule of the colony. Jeremy Popkin, author of A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution, states, “As [Toussaint] tried to create a powerful government capable of protecting the freedom of the black population, he found himself caught up in a series of conflicts with opponents who resented his authority” (Popkin 90) . Popkin goes on to cite Toussaint’s conflicts domestically; however, internationally, Toussaint would soon be facing larger issues with the French government, specifically Napoleon Bonaparte.



“The Emancipation Proclamation of August 29 1793.” In The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History, edited by David Geggus, 107-108. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2014.

“Toussaint Louverture in Power, 1798-1801.” In A Concise History of Haitian Revolution , by Jeremy D. Popkin, 90-113. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2012.


Free Blacks and Slavery

Similar to the complications of rapidly terminating feudalism- the new ideas circulating about the Rights of Man challenged the current structure revolving around slavery and freed black individuals. We see a paradox of a large oppressed group of people, the 3rd estate living without rights, without a voice and in many cases, extreme poverty.

The Debate
Many people were very excited to see the end of the era of slavery, but were fearful of implications to the economy- or that sudden abolition would “jolt commerce too violently” (Hunt p.102). This fear is categorized by being in the shadow of those nations, which would continue to use slave labor and therein, generate a lot of money. This would leave France disadvantaged to those countries who still relied and reaped the benefits of free labor- making France’s resources more expensive and therefore, less competitive. It’s assumed that assimilation would be an important element to non-white participation in the new declaration. There were many assumptions that abolition meant that free black individuals and slaves wanted these rights as well but some assumptions were that freed slaves would want to return to their native homelands.

It seems like hypocrisy to make statements such as “God has created all men free; that this liberty should only be hampered by chains that they give themselves voluntarily, to prevent the strongest from making a attempt on the liberty, the life or the property of the weakest” (Hunt p.102), yet still oppress a large portion of the population. This quote demonstrates the complicated nature of this movement- how can the weakest, those who do not own property, those who have been inhumanely forced into slavery be protected from the strongest or even the slightly stronger? Propositions were that people “imported” aka seized or stolen, were to be freed after ten years time and another was to divide them into classes by age, which is arguably unjust and problematic.
Many of the positive arguments towards abolition, freedom and equality were to strike out the possibility of future revolts and develop a more peaceful and equitable society, yet the trepidation remained that the economy would collapse without the continuance of free labor.

Gradual Emancipation

 Largely due to the fear of ruining the economy and commerce, abolitionists tended to favor gradual emancipation as a means to full emancipation and equality of the enslaved. Although practical, this idea of “gradually” freeing other human beings is arguably immoral. However, nevertheless, gradually eradicating slavery was more favorable in the eyes of all, abolitionists and those who did not necessarily believe in freeing the enslaved. Abolitionists thought of several ideas of how the enslaved could be gradually emancipated. For example, an abolitionist suggested that the enslaved could be freed after serving 10 years, and instead of being a slave, the person would be more of an indentured servant. Additionally, the Society of The Friends of Blacks suggested that instead of tackling slavery in France as it is, they would begin by eliminating the slave trade, which was eventually accomplished in 1807. By stopping the slave trade, no more slaves would be imported into the country. However, they suggested that instead of importing more slaves to feed slavery, slave-owners could treat the enslaved with more kindness so that they would produce more offspring to feed slavery. “If they [slave-owners] treated them [the enslaved] with kindness and as good fathers of families, these blacks would multiply and that this population, always growing, would increase cultivation and prosperity” (108). Here, the Society is equating the happiness of slaves to a more prosperous economy, which only feeds into the point that preserving the French colony was the most important.

Preserve French colony- commerce/trade

France had colonial possessions in the Caribbean later called Haiti, Africa, and part of Asia. Slavery used to be legal and normal practice in the society. Slaves in the French colonies worked for sugar, coffee, and cotton plantations. Ultimately, slavery linked to French colonial empire prosperity.

Slavery was a huge business for the people who already prospered from the slave trade. They were against abolishing slavery due to the fear of losing their wealth and power in the French colonies. Even before French revolution in 1789 began, some people criticized the slave trade and slavery in the French colonies. However, in general, the public was less concerned about slavery, and more concerned about keeping racial purity in the colonies. As a result, they wanted to segregate based on race, which greatly affected the free Blacks and mulattoes in the colony. Vince Oge, a mulatto and slave-owner, argued for the rights and equality of mulattoes to whites. However, the French feared that giving rights to free lacks and Mulattoes would cause more slave uprisings.

Additionally, the French government had successful economic prosperity due to the slave trade, which accelerated the demand to have more slaves in the colonies. The French also sought to maintain the cherished interest of their lifestyle, which undoubtedly required slavery. As a result, the French colonists feared that the slaves would begin to demand for freedom, justice, and dignity of men. In order to manage the French colonies, Code noir, or slave code, was passed by France’s King Louis XIV. Code noir was created to control the enslaved’s behaviors and the actions of slave-owners in the colonies. They could prevent the revolt of the slaves and influenced of revolutions.


  A large part of why the National Assembly was so hesitant to grant the rights laid out in the new constitution was because they feared the possibility of a slave uprising. This was a valid concern of people at the time since the slaves on Saint Domingue had already spoken up or acted out on several instances. The National Assembly recognized that they had no real reason to withhold any rights but they still did so in order to protect who they identified as their own people mainly the masters of the island. In order to circumvent the revolution that was brewing, the government tried several things. One of these was to carry on and act as though the French Revolution had nothing in common with the desires of the enslaved people. Another tactic was to emancipate the slaves and hope that the problem would be solved, however there was still inequality and the people were re-enslaved shortly after obtaining freedom. These different measures were taken with the hope that a rebellion by the enslaved people of Saint Domingue could be avoided, but as long as there was an imbalance of power, there was bound to be a rebellion.

Actual Emancipation of 1794

In the years leading up to the abolition of slavery, many slaves were revolting, especially in the colonies.  One colony in particular, Saint Domingue, had a huge impact on the country of France.  In Saint Domingue, there were massive slave revolts that were causing the Legislative Assembly to question their views on rights for free blacks.  In order to not lose this colony all together, emancipation of the slaves was needed to keep the peace.  News of these emancipations in Saint Domingue eventually traveled back to France.  Once the news reached the National Assembly, it raised feelings of anger among the members.  Most of the original members of the Society of the Friends of Blacks had either fled the country or were killed.  Three representatives from Saint Domingue, a free black, a mulatto, and a white, went to Paris to talk to the Assembly on February 4, 1794.  Their speech created much enthusiasm and the Assembly voted to abolish slavery in all of the colonies.  After this, the National Convention decreed that all men residing in the colonies were French citizens and would have all the rights assured by the constitution.


Works Cited

Hunt, Lynn. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston:
Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1996. 100-118. Print.