Paris, – August 26th, 1789. The revolutionary National Assembly in France takes the vote. At issue, is a new document, drafted by Marquis de Lafayette in consultation with his friend, Thomas Jefferson. But in truth, many statesmen have given input to this: Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It borrows from the Magna Carta, The American Declaration of Independence, and both the English and American Bill of Rights. It begins: Article One – “Men are born and remain free and in equal rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good.” Though they do not know it, these words will light a fuse that will burn all the way across the Atlantic, and blow the slave society of Saint-Domingue to smithereens. Like the American Revolution, slavery was always lurking under the table in revolutionary France. It did not go unnoticed, that the revolutions rallying cry of liberty, equality, and fraternity was directly at odds with slave-owning society. But there were also no illusions about the French dependency on the sugar economy of Saint-Domingue. And though abolition was discussed from the mid 1700s, even the most radical favored a gradual emancipation with slave owners being paid compensation. Many warned that if nothing changed, a major Caribbean slave revolt was inevitable. Then when the revolution came, representatives from the Big Whites, the Saint-Domingue plantation owners, and the free people of color, both decided that the time had come to take their goals to Paris. The Big Whites pushed for the colonies to have seats in the newly created National Assembly, so they could argue for more autonomy in the colony’s affairs and for the freedom to trade with the British Caribbean and the United States. And the free people of color, for their part, were well ahead of them. For years, representatives from Saint-Domingue had been petitioning the government to grant the free people of color full rights. And they too, saw the revolution as an opportunity to further that goal. Originally, they had tried to get the Big Whites on their side, arguing that as fellow slaveholders, the two groups had interests in common. So give the free people of color rights, especially voting rights, and then the two groups together could form a political bloc to defend slavery. The big whites though, weren’t having it. They opposed any reform to the colony’s racial caste system. So instead, the free people of color made an alliance with an abolitionist society called “The Friends of the Blacks”. And they argued that granting full rights to free people of color would be a major step on the road to gradual abolition. And here’s where I’d like to pause for just a second, because this is the last time in this series where things will be relatively simple. Yeah, all of that stuff before, was the simple part. Right after this point, both Saint-Domingue and France are going to, to use a technical, historical term… g o n u t s. Everyone is going to ally with everyone else, and then change sides 15 minutes later. Legislators are going to vote for reforms, dispatch messengers, dissolve, reform, and then reverse those reforms before the initial messengers even arrive. Revolutionary politics, in other words, is about to resemble a bag full of cats on espresso. In fact, to even fit all of it into this series, we’re going to have to gloss over the specifics of French Revolutionary Politics. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s making policy, unless it has direct impact on Saint-Domingue. And we’re also going to have to focus on important trends, rather than the specifics of who’s allied with whom. And here’s our first big trend – White colonials, utterly refusing to implement moderate reforms. Both the big and small whites were so committed, not just to the structure, but the principle of their racist status quo, that even a proposal, like rights for free people of color, which affected roughly 5% of colonial society and essentially had no impact on them, was unacceptable! The second big trend to remember, is the ideological flexibility of the free people of color. Their ability to court different power blocks, and their sense that they had little in common with the enslaved. Both these dynamics are going to come
up again and again. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was almost perfectly calculated to tear Saint-Domingue apart. Depending on how you read it, it could be used to either argue full rights for the people of color as well as the abolition of slavery, or you could claim, as the white colonials did, that it didn’t mention slavery at all. But the Big Whites knew how explosive this was. They sent word back to the colony to prevent word from spreading. It didn’t work. Revolutionary politics was all anyone talked about at the dinner table. Meanwhile, the enslaved people, holding the trays, and pouring the wine, started to understand that cracks were forming in the system of oppression that bound them. In 1790, Vincent Ogé, one of the free people of color’s strongest advocates, returned to Saint-Domingue determined to cast a ballot in the new colonial elections. He believed, that a piece of legislation passed earlier that year giving all property owners a vote, made his case clear. He was a full citizen. When the governor refused, Ogé sourced arms, and staged an uprising. Now, the free people of color had long been the backbone of the colonial militia. An arduous and expensive duty, many whites avoided. Some had even fought in the American Revolution. So drawing on this experience, Ogé’s force initially routed the local militias, but their success was short-lived. He only had 300 men, and a counter attack by regular troops sent him fleeing across the border into Spanish Santo-Domingo. He was extradited, tried, and broken on the wheel. But Ogé’s example inspired other revolts. Not just among free people of color, but also isolated slave uprisings. The Big Whites refused to compromise. Even though the rebels, were not even demanding full emancipation. They wanted their leaders freed, an extra day off per week, and the abolition of whipping. Meanwhile in France, Ogé’s death provided the Friends of the Blacks with new ammunition in the National Assembly. Here was a true revolutionary, martyred in pursuit of the vote. As the political winds shifted, the Big Whites still refused to make concessions. Even forcing the Assembly to referred to the enslaved using the euphemism, “unfree-persons”. These hard-lined tactics backfired. Support for the free people of color, even emancipation, was increasingly held up as a test of a member’s revolutionary ideals. And on May 15th, The National Assembly declared that free men of color born to free parents, could both vote and be seated in assemblies. The Big Whites responded by going home and starting their own revolt. In June, Big and Small Whites organized militias. And by July, they were seizing power centers, coming into violent conflict with government authorities, and organizing all-white assemblies that issued decrees that all but declared themselves “independent”. They essentially decided that if they were to preserve white supremacy, they must govern themselves. That summer, the colonial Whites fought government forces. And then they fought militias formed by the free people of color, who were furious about the all-white assemblies. Then the colonial whites, along with government troops, engaged scattered slave uprisings. And in all of that internecine conflict, they were unable to see what was coming. Because the long fuse of revolution was about to hit the powder keg. Now, one issue with studying the Haitian Revolution, is that the enslaved, the faction that would eventually win, were largely illiterate and left few records. So, piecing together the specifics of the uprising, particularly its clandestine origins, takes a bit of detective work. What we do know, is there had to have been months, if not years of preparation. Likely those enslaved in houses, largely born in the colony and French-speaking, overheard conversations about the Revolution and carried the news to others. Enslaved drivers and overseers, those with leadership roles, started organizing squads. In fact, the predominance of carriage drivers in revolutionary leadership suggest that they performed a major communication and intelligence role, passing messages between plantations. Then, the night came. August 14th, 1791. Dutty Boukman, voodoo priest, carriage driver, and rebel leader, holds a meeting at night on an open plane. Fires burn bright, a tropical storm rages in
the distance, a good omen. Religious ceremonies like this are permitted on most plantations, and considered a healthy release valve, keeping insurrection at bay. Ironically however, this summer, the enslaved have done the exact opposite, using the unsupervised gatherings to plan an uprising. And voodoo is the perfect medium of exchange, containing elements of various West African religions. It’s one of the few cultural overlaps that the enslaved have, no matter where they were captured. But, this meeting is an emergency. A cell has triggered the uprising early. And upon capture, confessed everything. The plantation owners, thankfully, had not believed that the enslaved could organize on the level their captives described. According to tradition, Boukman and several priestesses extracted oaths, and drank animal blood to seal a pact with the Goddess of Love. They swear to free themselves, and free the land. Then, they take up their cane knives and steady their souls. Special thanks to our Educational Tier Patrons, – Ahmed Zia Turk, Joseph Blaim, and Dominic Valencia.