Tag: Saint Domingue

Bargaining With Freedom

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.

The Island of Hispaniola. Home to present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The Island of Hispaniola. 

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.

Emancipation as a Bribe

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





The Struggle for E-MAN-cipation

This Haitian revolution was a period of about a decade filled with fighting and havoc in the small French colony of Saint Domingue, which thrived off of a plantation economy and a large enslave labor force.

On the island, the whites were the minority with the majority; not only were the enslaved angered by this, but as well as the gens de couleur and free blacks. As stated above, Saint Domingue had a plantation economy, which was very profitable for France and very much manipulated, “on a large, well-managed sugar plantation, the work never stops. Either the ripened canes need to be cut, or a field needs replanting after being harvested, or those where the new shoots risk being strangled by weeds need to be weeded” (Geggus Doc. 4). The whites that inhabited the island needed the slave labor for profit purposes, because the money that could possibly be made on Saint Domingue was everything a person dreamed of.

Mass fear among whites spread because the possibility of riots or revolts from the enslaved, due to the large enslaved to white people proportion, much was done to repress not only the enslaved people but as well as the free blacks and the gens de couleur. Repression among the non-whites occurred because giving freedom or even rights to free blacks or the gens de couleur would have been a step in the direction towards slave emancipation.

With all the trouble that occurred in Saint Domingue, the only destination for the future Haitians was emancipation and complete separation from the French oppressors. Emancipation occurred at the time that it did because in all honestly, the thought of emancipation was finally becoming reality, “for fourteen years we have been victims of our own gullibility and tolerance, defeated not by French arms but by the pitiful eloquence of their official proclamations” (Geggus Doc. 80). Emancipation was a long time coming, since that was the final destination that the formerly enslaved, freed blacks and gen de couleur were focused on reaching.

To put it simply, emancipation in Saint Domingue occurred when it did because the French could not keep up with the revolutionaries who would have done absolutely anything for their freedom. The French were physically losing to the people of Saint Domingue, and could not keep up with what they needed to in order to be the dominant force that Napoleon needed and wanted the French forces to be in Saint Domingue. France no longer had a strong number of forces occupying Saint Domingue around the time of emancipation, because the soldiers were dying and falling ill to all the diseases that the French were not immune to on the island, “out of the 30,000 soldiers brought to the island, they only remain 18 or 20,000” (Geggus Doc. 70). With the soldiers falling ill and dying, the price the French were paying for their presence in the Atlantic on top of the price of the war with the rest of the European continent that Napoleon was invested in, was not worth it anymore. Saint Domingue was quickly becoming an economic loss, when Saint Domingue used to be a colony that once made so much money for France.

Haitian Revolution Timeline

Timeline of events leading up to, during, and after the Haitian Revolution.

With the loss of French momentum in Saint Domingue, the soon-to-be called Haitians definitely took advantage of this and were finally in their home stretch towards, what seemed to be almost impossible, emancipation. The final mark to add to why emancipation in Saint Domingue happened when it did was undoubtedly Dessalines’ Armée Indigéne that united those who were still fighting on the basis of freedom for all. Why was this army so important? Dessalines cleverly named this army to categorize the formerly enslaved, free blacks and gens de couleur as the indigenous people of Saint Domingue who were against the French, and all other whites intruding upon their potential freedom.

Emancipation in Saint Domingue was not as simple as one battle, the people who were oppressed on this island truly believed in their fight because they knew that grass was greener on the other side, but not always necessarily better. Upon reaching completely emancipation, when the revolution was all said in done, those who now lived in the newly formed colony of Haiti had much to learn, but undoubtedly used what had happened to them and their ancestors as something to stray away from. The Haitian Constitution of 1805 definitely drew upon influences from other constitutions, but made it clear to include that “no white man, regardless of his nationality, may set foot in this territory as a master or a landowner, nor will he ever be able to acquire any property.” The Haitians were being radical towards those who were once radical towards them, but the Haitian Revolution will forever stand in history as being a successful slave revolt who refused to continually be oppressed for the sake of greed from a country thousands of miles away.


Geggus, David. The Haitian Revolution. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2014. Ebook.

The 1805 Constitution of Haiti. Haiti, 1805. Web. http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/history/earlyhaiti/1805-const.htm

Timeline of Haitian Revolution. Glogster. 2010. Web. http://www.glogster.com/haeunkim/timeline/g-6lmbeh4lkr2pitgi4aamka0