Emancipation in Saint Domingue was not a simple, or even consistent, process. Throughout the tumultuous Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) promises of emancipation were offered from numerous angles. Haitians were considered a valuable ally from a colonial perspective as the British, French, and Spanish all tried to increase their influence in the Caribbean. Toussaint L’ouverture and Andre Rigaud, among other leaders, were forced to consider multiple offers of emancipation. Ultimately, the path to emancipation proved more difficult than any could have imagined.
France’s own revolution must be addressed when examining the course of emancipation in Saint Domingue. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen sparked conversations about whether free men of color were privy to the same rights as free white men. Vincent Oge, a prominent leader of the Society of the Friends of Blacks in France, incited a revolt through mobilizing the gens de couleur. Although the revolt was quickly put down the conversation could not be quenched; did the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen apply to free men in Saint Domingue, a French colony?
Saint Domingue first experienced emancipation when Civil Commissioner Sonthonax proclaimed freedom for slaves in the northern province of the island in 1793. This “freedom” entailed severe restrictions, but it was nevertheless a beginning. However, the conversation on freedom took an immediate turn when the French National Convention abolished slavery in France and all of its colonies. Interestingly, some of the main opponents to the abolishment of slavery were gens de couleur. Due to a caste mentality that had been enforced on the colony for decades, the free men of color likely did not appreciate watching blacks become their instant equals. French emancipation swayed the armies of Toussaint L’ouverture, Jean-Jaques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe to join on the side of the French Republic against outside forces. While Toussaint desired to maintain a relationship with France, the loyalties of former slaves were not sold on the French.
Prior to the National Convention’s emancipation of all slavery, a black rebellion had already begun. Toussaint, who was quickly emerging as the unanimous leader of the rebellion, became engaged in negotiations with the Spanish. The Spanish, who at the time held Santo Domingo, realized the fighting potential of Saint Domingue’s black population. Emancipation was offered to Toussaint and his fighters if the black rebellion sided with the Spanish against their colonial enemies. Emancipation became a bargaining chip to the colonial powers. While some leaders wished to side with any power that would hurt the French, Toussaint was only interested in pursuing freedom for his fellow former slaves. The Spanish realized that if Toussaint could be convinced of their desire to enact change, Toussaint’s disciplined forces would be on their side.
Toussaint remained committed to full abolition of slavery. Following this paradigm he adopted the language of the French Revolution, specifically in striving for Liberty and Equality within Saint Domingue. When word came that the French had officially decreed emancipation, and it was not merely a ruse by Sonthonax, Toussaint and his followers were quick to switch allegiance to the French.
With the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, many feared that emancipation in the colonies would be revoked. Initially this was not the case. Napoleon continued the trend of using emancipation as a bargaining tool by agreeing to not re-introduce slavery if Toussaint would not invade Santo Domingo (If Toussaint were able to claim Santo Domingo and rally the slave there he would possess the entire island. This would enable Toussaint and his followers to have incredible bargaining power with the European powers).
Emancipation proved to be the most powerful issue through the revolution. In addition to instigating action, concern over emancipation also reigned in the radical ideas of black leaders. Toussaint’s constitution of 1801 established an autonomous, nearly sovereign nation. However, Toussaint would not go far enough to declare independence, fearing such an action would cause a French response that may re-introduce slavery; to prevent misunderstanding, Article 1 of Toussaint’s constitution declared Saint Domingue as just a single colony of the French Empire.
Napoleon’s subsequent response and writings indicate his desire to regain control of the blacks in Saint Domingue. Whether by force or negotiation, it is clear that all interactions between Napoleon and the island would have been self-serving. Emancipation in Saint Domingue was constantly used as a bargaining tool to win the favor of blacks on the island.
Popkin, Jeremy D. A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.
Geggus, David, ed. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014. Print.