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Emancipation in Saint Domingue…What is that?

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Between 1791-1802 blacks and mulattos in Saint Domingue struggled to become emancipated.  Slavery was always a controversial topic in Saint Domingue because some people wanted slavery, while others wanted to abolish it.  What was considered emancipation during this time period?  There were many thoughts of what emancipation actually was. Emancipation meant that their was no more slavery, people of color would have the same rights as whites, and slaves would be able to own their own land. Slaves thought that owning land was the key to their freedom.  But because slaves were seen as society’s lowest. At the time free people of color and gens de couleur had some rights.  They had basic rights but  they still weren’t allowed to participate in Saint Domingue’s political process. The fight for emancipation began in 1789 when the Declaration of Rights came out. Free blacks and Gens de couleur wanted the same rights as whites. Some of the free blacks and gens de couleur went ahead and created their own societies such as the Society of Friends with Blacks and Society of American Colonists. Through these organizations they rallied and listed their demands. Many of these groups drafted their own decrees saying that they wanted to be promoted under the same conditions as whites, have representation in the Assembly, and let black and mulattos serve in the government. By 1790, revolts started to break in Saint Domingue. Those who demanded rights were often executed.  The violence continued and slaves started to take part. Slaves would participate by attacking plantations and their owners. They wanted appropriated land and subsistence farms they could live on.  Plantation owners were surprised by these revolts because many of them believed that slaves were not smart enough to plan the revolts.   There was also fear that  slavery revolts would jump to neighboring islands that the British and Spanish owned. In February of 1793 Britain and Spain entered the war in Saint Domingue. The British and Spanish used tactics to get the slaves on their side. In May of 1793 provisions of the Code Noir were upheld.  The French agreed to have planation owners used less violence as well as receive more days off. The French used this tactic to try and lure slaves on to their side.  Many slave and slave leaders refused to join because of the arrival of the new Governor General Galbaud who was seen as very radical. In 1793 the Proclamation of Emancipation was issued. The decree stated that the principal of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen would be applied to Saint Domingue and slaves would be free.  Even though the slaves were considered free, they were still forced to follow labor agreements and stay on the plantations and do the same work they did when they were slaves. They also had to follow and elaborate set of restrictions; for example having permission to leave the plantation. They only thing that truly changed with the 1793 Proclamation of Emancipation was how slaves were physically treated. Plantation owners were no longer allowed to physically whip the slaves. Slaves  however did not see this as emancipation  and continued to revolt. They still believed that could get a better deal. Also around this time, different areas of Saint Domingue were experiencing war. In the west the mulattos were for equality as well. Mulattos in a way were looking for emancipation but it was a different type. The mulattos were looking for having the opportunity to take part in Saint Domingue’s political process. In the North, Jean-Francois who was once a slave and became a maroon was able to negotiate with the French for amnesty for all slaves, improving conditions of slaves, and freedom for 50 leaders. In 1794 the Convention officially abolishes slavery in France and the French territories. With the abolishment of slavery, their was concern that the economy would no longer prosper. Because of this concern, right after the Decree of 1794 was put into effect, a new work code was created which made plantations owners give former slaves a third of the plantation revenue and an additional free day. Former slaves were still resisted against this and began to appropriate land for themselves. Even though slavery was officially abolished, the struggle would still continue for Saint Domingue. There was struggle to enforce the emancipation of slaves. The Constitution of Year III ensured that colonies would have the same laws as France and all people would be considered citizens. But their was still fear the slavery would return. Toussaint used  the Haitian Revolution to rise up. Toussaint would go on an make surethat all people would be considered citizens and the emancipation decree would be enforced. He did this by taking out his rivals such as Sonthonax and Laveaux by forcing them to represent Saint Domingue in the Council of 500.

Courtesy of



Work Cited:

“The First Emancipation Proclamaton.” A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Geggus, David Patrick. “Doc. 21 Free People of Color Organize.” The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Geggus, David Patrick. “Doc. 25 The May 1791 Debates.” The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Geggus, David Patrick. “Doc. 37 The Slave Insurgents Make Demands.” The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

The Religious Question

With an impending constitutional republic, the National Assembly of revolutionary France was charged with determining which minorities were entitled to equal rights.  Some minorities had a significantly more difficult time than others.  One area of particular debate was religion.

Should these religious minorities, many of whom were unable to freely worship in pre-revolutionary France, be permitted full citizenship?

Non-Catholics (Protestants)

Initially Protestants were denied equal rights and freedom to worship as they saw fit.  Prior to France’s Revolution, each province of France had been ruled differently, with one similarity.  Wherever one went, Protestants were discriminated against.

This discrimination extended to elections and public posts, effectively making Protestants a second class citizen.  It’s important to remember that Protestant inequality was not from a formal constitution, but rather from a monarchical decree.   Protestant’s experience with legal rights boiled down to a cycle of gaining rights through different edicts, to ultimately losing said rights, to regaining rights again from the National Assembly.

Francis I (r. 1515-1547) The King of France during the Protestant Reformation, Francis I began the persecution of Protestant minorities in France.

Francis I (r. 1515-1547) The King of France during the Protestant Reformation, Francis I began the persecution of Protestant minorities in France.

A strong argument for extending legal rights to Protestants was that, unlike Jews, practitioners of Protestant faiths were still French.  The individual still spoke French and adhered to the same social customs as other French natives.  Additionally, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen sought to provide liberty to all men, not exclusively Catholics.

Pierre Brunet de Latuque, a lawyer from the Bordeaux region of France, argued strongly in favor of incorporating rights for Protestants.  Brunet challenged, “If private interests were not constantly distorting the sovereign principles of justice, those who seek by such criminal grounds to exclude Protestants from public positions would better enter, Sirs, into the spirit and even the text of your decrees…”  Brunet continued to state that following prior decrees to the letter would severely hinder France as many qualified men were Protestant.


Separate from other Protestants, Calvinists faced unique challenges on their road to equality. Calvinists first gained the right to worship freely with the Edict of Nantes.  King Henry IV issued the Edict as an end to the war of religion between Catholics and Calvinists in 1598. This freedom lasted only until 1685 when Louis XIV initiated a campaign to convert all Calvinists. After 100 years of their worship being illegal, Calvinists found reprieve in 1787 through Louis XVI’s Edict of Toleration.

While Calvinists experienced a victory with the Edict of Toleration, no political rights were granted.  Furthermore, years of economic dominance in the textile industry led many French citizens to be critical of Calvinists.  Yet if the Declaration of the Rights of Man and citizens were truly the inspiration for change, then Calvinists were due rights.  Count de Clermont Tonnerre gave an impassioned speech in 1789 in defense of incorporating Calvinists (and all Protestants) into political equality.  The argument stated, “either you admit a national religion, subject all your laws to it, arm it with temporal power, exclude from your society the men who profess another creed and then, erase the article in your declaration of rights; or you permit everyone to have his own religious opinion and do not exclude from public office those who make use of this permission.”


The Jewish question in France lasted until 1791; it was then that Jews were able to celebrate freedoms guaranteed under a new constitution.  Discussions surrounding what to do with the Jewish population had persisted as remarks concerning non-Catholics did not apply to Jews, but were strictly applied to Protestants.  Struggles faced by Jews prior to 1791 were countless as the French populace sought to virtually exclude Jews from society.

Having already lived for hundreds of years as a persecuted group, the Jews in pre-revolution France were restricted from holding respectable labor positions, buying land or property, or even living among the regular population.  This created a self perpetuating issue; the lack of labor opportunities forced the Jewish people to rely on usury (money lending) as a means of providing for themselves.  Usury practices caused disdain towards the Jews.  Just as with the Protestant struggle for rights, Jews faced a battle against a Catholic majority that, for the most part, did not want Jews at all.

Unlike the Protestant (and Calvinist) minorities, the Jewish people were not viewed as French.  Judaism provided its own rules, customs, and even language that many Jews were loyal to.  The common belief stated Jews attempted to be a separate people, therefore the French constitution should allow them to be separate people.  Count de Clermont Tonnerre again made a case in defense of the persecuted minority.  According to the Count, Jews should be treated as individuals and not as a community; naturally, each individual was due the same rights as any other free man in France.



Hunt, Lynn, ed. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.

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.