The concept of emancipation in Saint Domingue was an ideal that was not truly something the French wished to address in the early 1790’s. France was ardently defending its borders in Europe and were attempting to maintain control of its tributaries that were spread throughout the world. The most sought after goods were being created in the Caribbean and the most successful was the island of Saint Domingue which was a French territory.
To distinguish the fact that hostilities were high due to the sheer statistics on peoples living in Saint Domingue, Popkin uses eyewitness accounts to indicate that there was an immense amount of hostility between whites, mulattoes and peoples of African descent, the utilization of an eyewitness account helps the audience differentiate what could be thought of as hearsay against actual factual statements. The accounts distinctly indicate massive amounts of deaths that occurred in August of 1791 which precedes the decrees of emancipation which shows that hostilities existed and were paramount in the eventual emancipation which was a precursor to Saint Domingue’s independence from France (Popkin, 49).
As the isle of Saint Domingue was under French rule, three delegates were sent to initiate and ultimately establish laws that were created in France and implement these laws unto the colony. The most influential individual that undertook this voyage was Leger Felicite Sonthonax who arrived in Saint Domingue in 1792 where he was, initially, supposed to reinforce the April 4th decree that was approved by the National Assembly and to uphold the Code Noir. This decree that Sonthonax was supposed to enforce was the first initial decree that was set forth that provided citizenship to free men of color that owned property in the colony. Upon his arrival, Sonthonax sought out these men and created alliances with them which helped promote them as prominent members of society.
Although, seemingly successful at first, Sonthonax had to readdress the concept of freedom on the isle of Saint Domingue as the news of the conflicts in Europe increased in 1792 into 1793, because these issues surpassed the borders of Europe and proceeded to infiltrate the colonies ruled by Europe. Due to the increase in hostilities amongst the British, Spanish and the French Sonthonax did everything in his power to attempt to keep control over the colony of Saint Domingue. The French commissioners’ decree of July 11, 1793 stimulated combatants whom were fighting for the Republic of France to unshackle the bonds of slavery from their families by getting married (Colwill, 126). By releasing the July decree, Sonthonax was attempting to depict an entrancing soliloquy that would rally supporters that inhabited the island to take up the fight for France.
“In early December 1793, Citoyen Robquin, devoted associate of Commissioner Sonthonax and captain in the 92nd regiment of the French infantry, sent his father news of the “most beautiful gift” that revolutionary France had granted Saint-Domingue: general emancipation. Robquin’s construction of liberty as a gift spoke volumes, for it ascribed to the French a beneficence that incurred obligations, specifically the obligation of former slaves to serve in the French military and on colonial plantations” (Colwill, 125). The idea that by fighting for France against the British and the Spanish that were threatening the island did seem to work for a small majority of people but overall, it really was not as successful as Sonthonax was hoping for.
As Saint Domingue was threatened from all sides, it appeared that there would be no help from France in protecting the colony, not only did Sonthonax have to attempt to remain in control of the colony from invading forces, he also had to contend with rising figureheads Toussaint, Jean-Francois and Biassou all of whom had amassed well-armed, well-trained armies throughout Saint Domingue. On August 29, 1793 Sonthonax singly announced the emancipation of slavery in Saint Domingue. After the Emancipation decree emanates and spreads throughout the colony, it basically was a grasp for those who had previously been slaves to take up arms to defend what is now seen as their homeland.
Toussaint eventually returned to the side of the French after this proclamation spread throughout the colony in late 1793 though it is unclear absolutely why he decided to go back to the side of the French but speculation suggests that since he was fighting for emancipation, it could have been a deciding factor for his return. The use of decrees that slowly emancipated the peoples of Saint Domingue were all predominantly associated with bringing these people forward to fight in a war that was trying to maintain Saint Domingue as a colony of France. Ultimately, the emancipation for the peoples of Saint Domingue had been won over years of sacrifice to protect the colony from those who sought to maintain control from Europe.
Colwill, Elizabeth. “‘Fetes de L’ Hymen, Fetes de la Liberte, ‘Marriage, Manhood, and Emancipation in Revolutionary Saint- Domingue” in Geggus nd Fiering, eds., The World of the Haitian Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana Uni. Press, 2009). 125-126.
Dubois, Laurent. Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York: Metropolitan, 2012. Print.
Map of French Colonies in the Caribbean. Digital image. The French Revolution Begins 1788—1790. Web.
Polverel, Etienne, and Léger Félicité Sonthonax. Saint-Domingue. Commissaires Nationaux-Civils Etienne Polverel (1738-1794) Léger Félicité, Sonthonax (1763-1813). Digital image. Proclaiming Emancipation. 11 July 1793. Web.
Popkin, Jeremy D. “The First Days of the Slave Insurrection.” Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2007. 49. Print.