“I told you to weed the field,” wrote Toussaint Louverture, “but you tore everything out by the roots”(Popkin, 97). With the brutality of the ‘war of the knives, the deaths of thousands of people, with divided support two men survive and direct a war; both are the champions of emancipation but with ideologically different interpretations. This is an evident indicator of the magnitude and complexity lingering in the air of St. Domingue in 1799. The bubbling of rumors, changing leadership, the constant presence of a military state, a constant threat of colonial power and the conflicting legislation had all lead to a turbulent environment for the people of St. Domingue.
As an incredibly fertile and productive region for resources such as sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo, St. Domingue was considered very valuable which created multiple layers of hostility and envy among the hierarchy of civilians, an influx of those who were continually trafficked into the country as slaves and even those outside governments. Considering the demographics of the slave population when compared to the colonialists, the demand for freedom and equality was unavoidable. Fear of revolt loomed in the air and legitimate paranoia consumed the French population for nearly forty years, after all, as demand for goods increased, they had more than tripled the amount of peoples trafficked by repulsive methods into St. Domingue, mainly Congolese. As a response to the imbalance of slaves, mixed race people and white French people, a colony that was once considered somewhat mildly oppressive, began to enact disturbingly prejudicial laws in attempt to maintain control as the mistrust swelled. But the inhabitants had become intolerant of these violent ways and as generations passed and became more interracial, these measures were even more difficult to enact and more adamantly condemned by the general populous.
Although the debate for and against exploitation had been occurring since the arrival of colonists on the island of what is now Haiti, it’s debatable what exactly fortified the action on the part of the slave population to start demanding an end to slavery. Perhaps the repeated rejection of proposals of inclusion and basic rights that free black men such as Vincent Oge and Sonthonax’s had continually advocated for. Increased violence and loss of French control may have played a role in the eventual uprisings. Revolts in 1970 that were a response to vicious treatment of slaves and mixed race people lead to the extermination of many activists of emancipation, and action which was meant to enforce distress and generate compliance in the slave population may have lead to the unintended outcome of more vehement arguments and actions for civil liberties for the people of St. Domingue.
While we have indicators of the growing dissatisfied attitudes on multiple sides, we know that the first move towards lawful emancipation was through the Decree of May 15th, which granted rights to those who were born to free black individuals. Unfortunately, this may have not been a step into the direction of liberation for the individuals on the island of St. Domingue. This proclamation of emancipation was debatably a farce, considering that is was not truly enacted, possibly out of misinformation or intentionality on the part of leadership. Additionally, this decree was reversed within months. By September 1791, these back and fourth events generated even more suspicion and division across the entire colony.
After more instability across the islands, it seemed like every resurrection movement had different goals. In spite of the desires of the slave population, many military leaders such as Jean-Francois opted to negotiate with the French for amnesty and improved conditions for slaves, but this notion was again, rejected. After this point, some insurgents begin to partner with Britain and/or, another invading colonial power, in hopes that they would be granted emancipation.
With the realization that France may lose territory to their British and Spanish rivals through their unwillingness, the National Convention finally contends to abolish slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1793. Sonthonax, out of desperation chose to grant freedom to those in the North Province, however, “the freedom offered the slaves was only sharing quasi-serfdom that kept most of them attached to the plantations and denied their own aspirations to become independent small farmer” (Greggus, pp. 107)
I think that fundamentally, the arguments that supported liberation of the slave population and those, which forewarned the fall of the economy took too long. Simply put, this process of providing half rights, creating proclamations and then rescinding, civil rights in disguise, rights for some and not others created too heavily a divide to satiate the people of St. Dominque. Colonialism from all of the European countries played games through lies and rumors to gain power, leaving the slave population in a state of confusion of who to trust and what direction to move, with the ever present trepidation of making a wrong decision with something as important as freedom on the line. Arguably, it’s even a contentious topic to attempt to understand the desires of those in leadership.
By the 1801 Proclamation, slavery was forever abolished, yet the hierarchy remained which still prevented true freedom and even this declaration was sparsely enforced and continually under attack. Again, in 1804, Dessaline’s Proclamation promised the same liberties, but this time, he abolished European presence on the island, yet while the nationalist language of this proclamation declared, “the declaration was meant to both evoke the horrors that French control had wrought on the colony and to exorcise them. It proclaimed a new Haitian national identity by focusing on the need to erase and avenge, the past of French colonialism.” (Dubois, pp.121)
- Photo from; http://public.gettysburg.edu/
- Popkin, J. (2012) A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution; Wiley-Blackwell
- Greggus, D. (2014) The Haitian Revolution; Hackett Publishing Company
- Dubois, L. (2011) Haiti: The Aftershocks of History; Metropolitan Books