By the second half of the 18th century, Saint-Domingue (Haiti) supplied 40% of the world’s sugar and 60% of its coffee. This was big business and that business depended upon slavery. Consequently, the vast majority of the population of Saint-Domingue was, or had been, enslaved. New slaves were regularly brought to the colony to replace those who died from over work and poor conditions.
Critiques of Inequality
By 1789, around 230,000 of the population of around 520,000 had been born in Africa, reflecting the high mortality rate of slaves on the island, and the need for a constant stream of new slaves from Africa.
Newly arrived Africans in the French colony often possessed a lifetime of experience as free persons, and with previous exposure to a variety of different institutions and traditions of political thought. In other words, unlike men and women born into slavery in the Americas, the new slaves could imagine an alternative way of life.
The Africans’ independence of thought converged with a new French ethic during the 18th century age of Enlightenment, at least among social and political critics known as philosophes who were challenging long-held norms. Some of their critiques of inequality and social and political privilege were so potent that the government censored them.
One censored work was the 1770 publication of Histoire Philosophique et Politique des Deux Indes by the French writer Abbé de Raynal. It is a multi-volume history of European exploration and colonization that challenges the atrocities endemic to slavery. The author contends that a system in which human beings are chattel is anathema to the concept of civilization, and that all people—European and non-European alike—deserve to be treated with dignity.
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The French Revolution
When France took the first steps of its own toward revolution, ideas about liberty, equality, and human dignity could not be confined to the borders of the kingdom itself.
By the summer of 1789, the French Revolution was under way. In May 1789, King Louis XVI had convened a National Convention, known as the Estates General, in response to a financial crisis in the kingdom. This initiated a period during which representatives of the long-disenfranchised commoners—known as the Third Estate—established a competing National Assembly. This newly constituted representative body accelerated the push and pull between the crown and ordinary Frenchmen. On July 14, 1789, Parisians stormed the medieval armory and political prison known as the Bastille. And in the countryside, French peasants gave vent to long pent-up frustrations in agrarian uprisings.
Declaration of Rights
The National Assembly now tried to restore calm through two transformational decrees.
First, it abolished feudalism, with all of its privileges and inequities based on birth. Then, the assembly issued the momentous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, stipulating that all men are born—and remain—free, and equal in rights. Duke University historian Laurent Dubois says the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man “produced a charter both immensely powerful and immensely vague in its articulation”. In other words, its grand language could be applied and interpreted in a variety of contexts, often in ways that went far beyond what its authors originally imagined.
In Paris, the notion of equality stated in the Declaration of Rights primarily applied to the eradication of the now-abolished feudal social hierarchy. But to the free people of color of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola, the declaration promised an end to distinctions based on skin color, as previously had existed in the French colony.
Aristocracy of the Skin
White plantation owners saw opportunity and danger in the French Revolution across the Atlantic. Some white elites opposed the revolution entirely. Having grown rich in Louis XVI’s wealthiest colony, they supported the status quo and the monarchy.
Others sympathized with the revolutionary cause. They viewed the Bourbon monarchy’s instability as an opening through which the colony might achieve economic and political autonomy. Both groups feared what might occur if non-whites became infected with ideas about liberty and equality. They had cause for concern.
Free people of color, including several who were in France at the time, wielded the new language of equality and rights to address long-standing grievances about racial discrimination. They argued that the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen applied to all men, not simply those with white skin.
Two who made this argument were the wealthy, educated non-white property owners Julien Raimond and Vincent Ogé. Because they weren’t white, the pair was boxed out of political power at home in Saint-Domingue. But because of their wealth and social position, they were able to remonstrate directly with members of the National Assembly in France. Still, the assembly never formally abolished what they called an ‘aristocracy of the skin’.
Vincent Ogé’s Rebellion
After several months, Vincent Ogé’s patience was exhausted. In July 1790, he boarded a ship for home. And once back in Saint-Domingue, he amassed a cache of weapons and recruited several hundred men to stand with him for the rights of free people of color and against the forces of racial exclusion. Ogé realized that free people of color wouldn’t be given full political rights unless they seized control. But white authorities contained the threat. Ogé’s uprising failed to accomplish much beyond arousing the fears of white elites across Saint-Domingue.
After thwarting the coup, white leaders in the colony disarmed all free people of color. And although Ogé initially escaped to the Spanish side of Hispaniola, he was extradited and executed along with many fellow rebels.
Still, Ogé’s extradition, torture, and execution generated great publicity, and aroused much sympathy. The very public and brutal nature of his execution also exposed a dangerous rift between white colonists and free people of color. It was this rift that the island’s slaves now identified as an opportunity to exploit.
Common Questions about Colorism in the Former French Colony of Saint-Domingue
Histoire Philosophique et Politique des Deux Indes by the French writer Abbé de Raynal was published in 1770. It is a multi-volume history of European exploration and colonization that challenges the atrocities endemic to slavery.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen stipulated that all men are born—and remain—free, and equal in rights.
Vincent Ogé was a wealthy, educated, non-white property owner in Saint-Domingue. He amassed a cache of weapons and recruited several hundred men to stand with him for the rights of free people of color and against the forces of racial exclusion.