French Revoltion

1788-1801: Social structures crumble as black soldiers fight to preserve their freedom

The tie between European politics and Caribbean life had always been strong, but it affected the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) most strikingly during the French Revolution. This historic revolt by the lower classes truly changed Hispaniola from a white society to a free enclave for blacks.

By 1789, Haiti produced 40 percent of the world's sugar and was the most valuable European colony in the world. Its status, however, could not save it from the thrust of the upcoming war, even though it was French law that helped create the war.

Social Barriers

French culture was so stratified that even white social standing was divided. Whites were considered to belong to one of two classes, grands blancs or petits blancs. These phrases directly translate to "big whites" and "little whites" and describe a person's status. The grands blancs were the nobility and large plantation owners. The remaining whites belonged to the petits blancs group.

Freedmen were black or mulatto people who were free. These men and women were ranked below the petits blancs, and it was the petits blancs who were the most racist, guarding their social position jealously. French laws also became increasingly racist as freedmen gained social power.

Slaves made up the lowest level of society. However, there was some level of enmity even between the slaves. Creoles, or those born on the island, did not get along well with the new slaves from Africa. The Creoles generally had better positions as household workers, rather than field slaves.

Rule by the People

The National Assembly began its control of France in 1789 and declared equality for all whites. By 1791, the Legislative Assembly had taken the king's power, and the next year King Louis XVI was overthrown, and he and his family were executed by the Jacobins.

Parisian mulattoes also began fighting for full equality and, though some minor rights were given, the petits blancs fought these rights fiercely. Restricted voting rights, for example, became available to those whose parents had also been freedmen, giving some 400 people the right to vote, were the cause of much social unrest.

Caribbean Revolts

Hispaniola's troubles came in 1788 when the king announced a meeting of the Estates General, but the trouble wouldn't end until 1804. From 1788 to 1791, whites fought other whites and freedmen, following the trends of the fighting in Europe.

Some men from the French West Indies became a part of the National Assembly in France in 1789. Their political agenda included blocking a group that supported the abolition of black slavery.

Slaves rose up in the North Province on Hispaniola in 1791, and, though there were some revolts in the West, the South remained white-controlled during the entire conflict. The damage done by the northern slaves was immense: 2,000 whites were killed, and 280 sugar plantations were destroyed within two months.

Guadeloupe, on the other hand, had little objection to the new constitution in 1789, and, after some dissents from the petits blancs, many residents fled to France, Dominica, or St. Lucia. The islanders of Marie Galante, an island off the coast of Guadeloupe, but politically a part of the larger island, revolted against their royalist governor and joined the revolution. Martinique was also relatively untouched by the revolution, though a few small slave revolts did take place.

But when the Jacobins took control in Europe, both these islands declared their allegiance to the king, effectively seceding from France. A revolutionary commissioner was sent to regain control of the islands in 1792, rallying exiled republicans on St. Lucia. Then, planters made their move. Instead of falling to the French, the planters in London transferred their allegiance to the British in January of 1793, and Britain agreed to return the islands to France should the Bourbon crown be restored.

The First Emancipation

The Legislative Assembly declared full equality, both politically and legally, among all free men, no matter their color. It sent a Revolutionary Commission with 7,000 troops to enforce its decree on Hispaniola in 1792.

The leader of this commission, Léger Sonthonax, was a Jacobin but also a member of the group that was fighting for black equality, Amis des Noirs. Still, he did not intend to free Hispaniola's slaves. He hoped to use the black slaves to crush rebels of all colors, but in June of 1793, he began abolishing slavery to retain his own power.

In order to oust Sonthonax, a fleet of French sailors landed at Cap-Francais on June 20, but Sonthonax promised freedom to all blacks who would join the republican cause. Many men took this offer, and more than 10,000 people died, many white, during the attack these former slaves launched one night.

The remaining whites fled, many to Jamaica, but also to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States. However, the Spanish also began heading toward Cap-Francais and Port-au-Prince. Blacks joined with the Spanish, but Sonthonax declared all slavery in the island to be abolished on Aug. 29, 1793. On Feb. 4, 1974, the National Convention in Paris sent out its approval by abolishing all slavery throughout all the French colonies.

Britain Joins the War

Britain declared war on the French revolutionaries and invaded Hispaniola in 1793. Although the British easily overcame the French holdings in the Lesser Antilles, their attack on Hispaniola was far less successful, and it lasted until 1798.

Many of the British troops came from Jamaica, but troubles on Jamaica kept many men from replacing those who were engaged in fighting the French. A second war with the Maroons broke out on Jamaica, and Jamaica's governor diverted troops from Hispaniola to take care of the problems at home.

As it had always happened when European troops came to the Caribbean, many died. Nearly 13,000 of the 20,000 troops died, but only about 1,000 died in battle. The remaining deaths were mostly caused by malaria and yellow fever. Although these deaths were an important part of the British loss on Hispaniola, the determination by the blacks to retain the freedom granted to them by France was also an enormous motivation.

By 1794, the British and Spanish had captured all of French Hispaniola - the French army only holding Cap-Francais and Port-de-Paix. British forces took Martinique in February, and St. Lucia and Guadeloupe in April of 1794. However, French forces took back Guadeloupe, while the British incited rebellions by French-speaking free blacks and slaves on islands with Maroon populations. The tide quickly began to turn against the British.

Bringing a Black Republic

In 1795, a black leader by the name of Toussaint L'Overture left his Spanish allies and went to work for French General Étienne Laveaux. Toussaint entered the war with a small group on the Spanish side but built up around 4,000 men skilled in guerrilla warfare as his own troops. When he heard that the French had freed the slaves, he returned to fight with the remains of the French army in 1794.

Toussaint's campaign beat the British back out of two provinces by the following year, and the Spanish ceded their portion of Hispaniola to France in the Treaty of Basel. By 1798, the British troops were all but defeated, and a final battle ended with a historic treaty giving Toussaint independent leadership of the island.

Although the black troops now had control of the island, this was not the end of their struggles, as many fought Toussaint for control of the island. He resisted all French measures to check his authority, and a commander named Rigaud came against him with an American fleet.

Toussaint again came to victory, but he appointed his commander Jean-Jacques Dessalines to take control of the South Province. In 1801, Toussaint turned to the Spanish portion of the island, taking the capital after a three-week campaign. After 11 years of fighting, Toussaint had won the war.

Toussaint's leadership led to a kind of socialist society under the thumb of the military, and within that year he had lost much of his black following as he forced them to return to the plantations and perform labor, much like that of the slavery they'd just lost. His would-be successor even rose up against him, though Toussaint again prevailed, and many former slaves again escaped to the hills.

However, while the fighting had continued on Hispaniola, France had come together under Napoleon Bonaparte, who took control in 1799. The war-torn nation had plenty of trouble to look forward to, though blacks were now free. The struggle to reunite the island and return to economic stability would dominate Hispaniola for many years, while France refused to acknowledge its government.


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