Sonthonax1793 was the year that emancipation was officially declared by Sonthonax on the island of Saint Domingue it was also the year that the Reign of Terror began in France. Some people think that there are no such things as coincidence and that there must be some explanation for why these two events happened so close together. I look at this and I think that for the most part they were a coincidence, yes the atmosphere in both places influenced the policy of the other but for the most part Sonthonax was acting independently of the French government. Sonthonax was sent by a French government that was fairly liberal and open to making some concessions to the people of Saint Domingue but that would soon change and the government would take a more conservative turn. Sonthonax though was unaware of that and since the rebels in Saint Domingue showed no signs of easing up he came to grant more and more concessions hoping to win them over to the side of the French instead of the British and Spanish who were also interfering at the time. Eventually he went as far as granting full emancipation and this is something the French government certainly would not have supported had they known about it as it was happening. The only effect that the Reign of Terror would have on the emancipation decree is that since the government was in disarray they did not hear about the decree for sometime and when they finally did the government had more important things to worry about which allowed the decree to pass without protest. This is why the timing of the emancipation decree was so important because if it had happened at the beginning of that summer France would have probably been able to react quickly and reverse the decision but due to all the upheaval at the time the enslaved people of Saint Domingue received their freedom.

This was a freedom with stipulations though which is something the people would have to put up with for many years to come. Sonthonax put into the decree a section that stated that the former enslaved people had to remain on the plantations and continue their work. They were to receive pay or a portion of the crop and could no longer be punished because they were not property but if 220px-Général_Toussaint_Louverturethey were not property then why could they not go off and make it on their own? The answer is that France and Sonthonax still wanted to reap all the benefits that came with possessing Saint Domingue and for that to happen plantations had to continue producing their crops. Emancipation did not actually mean freedom all it meant was that the French were currently the ones offering the best deal to the people of the island and if there had not been Spain and Britain to contend with than this emancipation decree would have never happened. It did though and for the most part the emancipation decree accomplished its goal because it convinced most of the rebels, like Toussaint, to switch over to the French side. Once this had happened the French were able to deal with the Spanish, British, and those islanders who were still revolting of who there were few at this point. When looked at in this way the emancipation decree amounted to nothing more than a war tactic that was used in the spur of the moment and in actuality had no official backing for about the first three months of its existence. The decree also helped to set up a precedence for how freedom on the island of Saint Domingue would function. The fact that it included the work order stipulation it set up a model for future decrees and declarations which would also include a similar announcement. This can be seen in the works of Toussaint and how he continued to insist that works stay and work in order to maintain a stable economy.


Popkin, Jeremy D. A Concise History of the French Revolution. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012

Geggus, David, ed. The Haitian Revolution: A documentary History. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014