The Long Fight For Emancipation

Emancipation in Saint Domingue

Picture of Saint-Domingue

In August of 1793, Sonthonax granted Gens de couleur and the Slaves emancipation in Saint- Domingue.

This is a picture of the Emancipation Proclamation

This decree was a very radical and pivotal moment in history, especially in the Americas. It was important because it was the first colony to abolish slavery, causing many other slave holding colonies to fear that it would put the idea of freedom into their slaves’ heads, possibly leading them to rebel. The road to emancipation started in 1792 when the King of France backed Jacques Pierre Brissot and signed a decree issuing the free gens de couleur full political and civil rights.  Not long after, Sonthonax and Polverel arrived in Saint- Domingue. Their job was to help enforce the decree granting these people their rights, deal with counter revolutionaries, and defeat the uprising. Both of these men were advocates of giving the gens de couleur their rights.

In 1793 Sonthonax and Polverel took steps to ally with the gens de couleur. Elizabeth Cowill states in ‘Fetes de L’ Hymen, Fetes de la Liberte, ‘Marriage, Manhood, and Emancipation in Revolutionary Saint- Domingue’, “discovering the ways in which the process of emancipation in Saint-Domingue involved a ritual struggle in which the rights and duties of man were fought and secured through military service and, equally important, republican marriage” (Conwill, pg. 126). It was a struggle to gain emancipation because it did not come free. The two commissioners attempted to appeal to the slaves by upholding the code noir and then later promising, through the June 1793 decree, that if they joined the military and fought with the French, they would be free and if they married a slave woman she also would be free. The two commissioners were worried about completely losing the colony, so they also decreed that if one married according to French law, the entire family would be freed. The two commissioners in return expected the newly emancipated slaves to fight for France and defend the colony of Saint Domingue from the insurgents.

Later in June of 1793 Spain invaded Saint- Domingue. Sonthonax reacted to this by abolishing slavery in the North Province and Polverel followed suit not long after by abolishing slavery in the Southern and Western Provinces. According to Jeremy D. Popkin, the author of, “A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution”, Sonthonax and Polverel used this as an attempt to, “preserve the colony of Saint- Domingue for the French Republic” (Chapter 3, A Republican Colony of Free Men). The two civil commissioners were trying to save the colony from the Spanish invaders. The emancipation occurred when it did, because Britain and Spain both entered in a war with France in February of 1793 and were welcomed by the white French settlers. The commissioners, seeing this threat and needing to crush it, allied with the gens de couleur and slaves by offering them emancipation if they joined the army. Once the threat became more significant, Sonthonax reacted by granting emancipation to the Northern Provinces knowing full well he needed their help to crush the invasion.

Through the emancipation, Sonthonax hoped to “preserve the plantation economy… proposed to replace slavery and the whip with remunerated forced labor and lighter forms of corporal punishment” (Geggus, Slave Emancipation Introduction). Sonthonax knew that France relied heavily on the Haitian economy and knew that France would be greatly impacted by the loss of it. Document 48) The Emancipation Proclamation of 29 August 1793, article 9 declared that, “ Slaves currently attached to the plantations of their masters will be obliged to remain there and to work the land..” (Geggus). So even though the gens de couleur were now citizens and could participate in politics, they were still attached to the land of their old masters and were more now like a serf rather than a slave. The proclamation was enforced through the new uses of punishment. Article 27 states,

“Punishment by whipping is absolutely forbidden and will be replaced, for problems of disobedience, by one to three days in the stocks as necessary. The strongest punishment will be the loss of a part or the entirety of the salary. It will be imposed by the justice of the peace and assessors” (Geggus).

The gens de couleur would be punished if they disobeyed the owner or the over seers. They were also punished by being put in jail if they did not own land, were not in the military, or employed. Using these punishments helped the leaders enforce the proclamation because the gens de courleur did not want to risk losing their new found freedom.

The Emancipation however, was very limited. Emancipation was only offered to those in the Southern, Western, and Northern provinces under Sonthonax and Polverel. The areas occupied by Spain and Britain were not freed either because the two countries still supported slavery. The decree was also only limited to men and not to the women unless they married a man who was free or in the army. The gens de couleur were still made to live on plantations and still followed the slavery like system.

Even though Saint-Domingue was emancipated, it didn’t come without a price. The gens de couleur and ex-slaves still had to deal with the slavery like system and the insurgents who did not side with Sonthona and Polverel. Over the next couple years the people of Saint-Domingue had to continuously fight to keep their new found citizenship and protect the emancipation.


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

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), 125-153




  1. Great post Morgan, but, make sure it’s clear you note the distinctions between the enslaved and those who were free gens de couleur. While people of mixed-race could be and were slaves, many were not because of the Code Noir. As you rightly note above, the freed black population and the free gens de couleur fought for political rights, whereas the slaves and those who sided with them fought for emancipation first and foremost.

  2. Shane Sandberg

    April 29, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Emancipation in Saint Domingue came at a significant price, which you indicated quite well. The way that the ideals of giving first gens de coleurs citizenship and eventually establishing freedom who would participate in the French army against any and all peoples who opposed their ruling of the island. Eventually, albeit a short while, slavery was emancipated basically because if Sonothax would not have proclaimed the slave’s freedom it is almost certain that the colony would have fallen well before it established itself as an independent nation which could indicate that the island would possibly have been held by another of the prominent European Monarchies.

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