Emancipation in Saint Domingue was a rocky road, with many decrees being said, then revoked later on. However, eventually the enslaved were freed, though what they could and could not do was limited. They could participate in civil society, but the former enslaved had to stay on the plantations that they worked during their time as a slave. They also were no longer allowed to be violently punished. But why 29 August 1793, after so long?
In 1793, the French were facing many issues both continentally and on the island. There was a deadlock in the legislative assembly, as well as a looming threat of invasion from Britain and Spain. In August 1793, Spain also proceeded with their plans for invasion of the island. There was also an increasing rate of rebellions on the island against the institution of slavery. Strong leaders such as Toussaint Louverture were emerging, and winning rebellions.
Because of the tensions France was facing with the other powerful Empires of the time, the French thought one way to limit the tensions in Saint Domingue would be to grant emancipation to enslaved men that joined their army, as well as their families (Colwill, 131). This was a great incentive for many enslaved, because though Britain and Spain were promising emancipation for the slave themselves, it did not include their families. However, though many did join the French Army, many were also weary to trust the French.
The French had to do something to broker some sort of peace and resolution, so before emancipation, they tried a few other strategies, such as the Second Civil Commission on 20 September 1792. The commission sent Sonothax and Etienne Polverel with 6,000 troops to San Domingue in hopes that they could enforce the April Decree, and end agitation for colonial autonomy. However, Sonothax was a known abolitionist, and because of Frances preoccupations, Sonothax and Polverel were able to overstep their bounds in governing the island. One of the ways that they did this was through their 11 July 1793 proclamation that stated any enslaved woman that married a freed man was free, and a few months later, on 29 August, emancipated everyone in the Northern part of the province (Colwill, 143).
However, one of the reasons that Sonothax may have emancipated the enslaved was to try and broker a sort of peace with them.
There had been many uprising that were getting more extreme over the summer of 1793. In that June, the city of La Cap was burned by the rebellion, and forced many white colonists to flee to the United States (Gueggs, ch. 43). The increasing violence of the rebellion was not unsuspected. As Robespierre suggested, by the colony continually hindering rights of freed blacks, and grouping them more so with the enslaved, it would only cause violence and disruption (Gueggs, ch. 25). In fact, freed black men were often blamed for the slave revolts, further driving them away from the side of the white colonists, and towards the sympathy of the enslaved.
This could be seen a few years prior in the 16 August 1791 attack on plantations in the Northern part of Saint Domingue. Because white slaveholders did not think that the enslaved had the capacity to plan such an event, they blamed the freed blacks, and became fearful of them (Popkin, 36). This fear led to a lot of discrimination, and the whites began to strip free blacks of their rights. Because of this, even more insurrection spread throughout the colony.
Because of the growing disillusionment of both the freed blacks and the enslaved, by the end of August 1793, Sonothax felt that he had no choice other than emancipation to keep the support of the blacks in the colony (Popkin 59). He did so to try and preserve the plantation society that so many people in the world relied on while trying to keep peace. Because of this, the formerly enslaved were made to stay on their plantations while they would be given compensation for their work, and their masters were no longer allowed to torture or abuse them.
Colwill, Elizabeth. “‘Fetes de L’Hymen, Fetes de la Liberte,’ Marriage, Manhood, and Emancipation in Revolutionary Saint-Domingue.” Journal of Haitian Studies 17.1 (2011): 125-53. PDF file.
Geggus, David, ed. The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014. Print.
“La Cap.” Wikipedia Commons. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/Frontispiece_from_the_book_Saint-Domingue,_ou_Histoire_de_Ses_R%C3%A9volutions._ca._1815.jpg>.
“Map.” Wikimedia Commons. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <By http://maps.bpl.org [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons>.
Popkin, Jeremy D. A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.