The beginning of the end of the global slave trade started with the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Passed into law on August 26, 1789, it created a conflict that was incompatible with the slave-owning society.
Article 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
While Article 1 makes it perfectly clear that slavery should be outlawed in French territory, a latter article created a contradiction that could ultimately only lead to violence.
Article 17. Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it...
This is Part 2 of a series. You can find Part 1 here.
The movement away from slavery in France had begun long before Haiti's Revolution. In fact, slavery had already been abolished in France. Yet it flourished in France's colonies.
"...all that the negroes lack is a leader courageous enough to carry them to vengeance and carnage. Where is he, this great man, that nature owes to its vexed, oppressed, tormented children? Where is he? He will appear, do not doubt it. He will show himself and will raise the sacred banner of liberty."
- Abbé Raynal, 1780
In 1789, Haiti was the most prosperous colony in the French Empire. 60% of the world's coffee and 40% of its sugar was exported from Haiti.
The important thing to understand about the revolution in Haiti is that it was a civil war first and foremost. Unlike the American Revolution, which had two mostly distinct sides, the Haitian Revolution had at least three (and sometimes four) sides fighting.
The key to understanding the dynamics here lies in the racial and legal makeup of colonial Haiti:
*The free people of color
*The black slaves
The whites numbered about 20,000, mostly French. However, they were not a united group.
On one side was the wealthy plantation owners (the grands blancs), often aristocrats, who owned the majority of the slaves. They leaned strongly towards independence from France and often defied French law, including the Code Noir, which regulated slavery and tried to prevent the abuse of slaves.
On the other side were the petit blancs. They were the working class colonists who held little political power and often resented the wealthy aristocrats. Unlike the plantation owners, they were loyal to France. However, they also supported slavery and sometimes owned slaves themselves.
There were about 30,000 free person of color in Haiti in 1789, most of them living in central and southern Haiti. These were also divided into two groups.
Roughly half were of mixed-race, known as mulattoes or gens de couleur libres. They were usually children of white Frenchmen and slave women and born on Haiti.
The other half were free blacks, who had either purchased their freedom, or their white masters had given them freedom for whatever reason. A common route was 12 years of service in the militia. The slaveowner was given a tax break for "volunteering" his slave.
Ironically, the free people of color were often wealthier than the petit blancs, which created resentment and jealousy from the whites.
Also ironically (and this is important), the free people of color were also some of the larger slaveholders. They normally didn't treat the slaves any better than the white plantation owners and they usually made efforts to draw distinctions between themselves and the slaves. As the revolution unfolded, they demonstrated that they were often strongly pro-slavery.
There was nearly 500,000 black slaves in Haiti at the time of the revolution, outnumbering free people 10-1. The slave system in Saint-Domingue (what colonial Haiti was called then) was especially cruel. The average life expectancy of a slave was 21 years.
"Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars?" wrote one former slave some time later. "Have they not forced them to eat excrement? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss?"The death rate exceeded the birth rate, which meant that a constant importation of slaves from Africa was needed. Around 2/3rd of Haitian slaves were born in Africa at the time of the revolution. The enormous concentration of slaves prompted the slaveowners to be especially cruel. They feared a slave revolt, and thus reacted by enforcing their authority through violence.
The average slave population declined by 2% - 5% a year due to overwork, inadequate food, shelter, clothing and medical care. Slaveowners found it cheaper to just buy new slaves than to take care of their current ones. It was a logical capitalist decision.
The slaves were also divided into two groups.
Around 100,000 were domestic slaves. They were generally treated better than the field workers and were less inclined to revolt.
The other 400,000 worked sun up to sun down, often in sugar cain fields. They were literally treated worse than field animals.
An unknown number of blacks (usually a few thousand) who lived on the run in the mountains were called maroons. Maroons who were recaptured could count on severe punishments. While very anti-slavery, they were not an effective revolutionary force.
The only maroon to ever become a significant guerrilla leader was François Mackandal. He was recaptured and burned alive in 1758.
The Revolt of Vincent Ogé
The first place that the Rights of Man encountered conflict with Haiti's complicated racial makeup was with the free people of color.
You claim representation proportionate to the number of inhabitants. The free blacks are proprietors and taxpayers, and yet they have not been allowed to vote. And as for the slaves, either they are men or they are not; if the colonists consider them men, let them free them and make them electors and eligible for seats; if the contrary is the case, have we, in apportioning deputies according to the population of France, taken into consideration the number of our horses and mules?On March 28, 1790 the General Assembly in Paris passed a ambiguous law that demonstrated the fluid nature of the French Revolution. The law stated "all the proprietors... ought to be active citizens." This was meant to address the issue enfranchising the petite bourgeoisie of France.
- comte de Mirabeau, National Assembly
However, it also had the effect of giving many of the free blacks of Haiti (who were often property owners and taxpayers) the right to vote while still excluding many of the petit blancs.
In Haiti, there were two conflicting alliances in play.
One was the plantation owners and the free people of color, who were both against the French colonial system called the "exclusif", which required 100% of Haiti's exports and imports to go through France. This deprived the slave owners (both black and white) of the higher prices of the open market. Both sides of this alliance supported independence and rule by the wealthy. However, the white plantation owners couldn't bring themselves to give the wealthy free blacks a share of the power.
The other alliance was the plantation owners and petit blancs, who were against the French bureaucrats. However, this alliance was shaky because the petit blancs supported universal suffrage and the plantation owners overwhelmingly opposed this. The alliances didn't last long.
The petit blancs formed a colonial assembly in St. Marc and supported home rule. The white plantation owners set up their own colonial assembly in Cape Francois (today Cape Haitien). The French government was a third, and separate player in this chaos.
Meanwhile, both the petit blancs and plantation owners began their own private war of terror (for no particular reason) against the free people of color.
It was during this time that Vincent Ogé returned from Paris in October 1790.
If we do not take the most prompt and efficacious measures; if firmness, courage, and constancy do not animate all of us; if we do not quickly bring together all our intelligence, all our means, and all our efforts; if we fall asleep for an instant on the edge of the abyss, we will tremble upon awakening! We will see blood flowing, our lands invaded, the objects of our industry ravaged, our homes burnt. We will see our neighbours, our friends, our wives, our children with their throats cut and their bodies mutilated; the slave will raise the standard of revolt, and the islands will be but a vast and baleful conflagration; commerce will be ruined, France will receive a mortal wound, and a multitude of honest citizens will be impoverished and ruined; we will lose everything.A wealthy, educated free man of color, Vincent Ogé demanded the right to vote based on the March law. The colonial governor Count de Blanchelande refused. Free men of color were excluded from the right to vote or hold public office.
- Vincent Ogé, address to the National Assembly, 1790
When I solicited from the National Assembly a decree which I obtained in favour of the American colonists, formerly known under the injurious epithet of mulattos, I did not include in my claims the condition of the negroes who live in servitude. You and our adversaries have misrepresented my steps in order to bring me into discredit with honorable men. No, no, gentlemen! we have put forth a claim only on behalf of a class of freemen, who, for two centuries, have been under the yoke of oppression. We require the execution of the decree of the 8th of March. We insist on its promulgation, and we shall not cease to repeat to our friends that our adversaries are unjust, and that they know not how to make their interests compatible with ours. Before employing my means, I make use of mildness; but if, contrary to my expectation, you do not satisfy my demand, I am not answerable for the disorder into which my just vengeance may carry me.Vincent Ogé met with Jean-Baptiste Chavannes and formed a militia about 250 to 300 free men of color and marched on Cap Français. It's important to note that Ogé purposely excluded slaves from his revolt. Emancipation was never part of his agenda.
- VINCENT OGÉ TO THE MEMBERS COMPOSING THE PROVINCIAL ASSEMBLY OF THE CAPE
Chavannes was a veteran of the American Revolution. He is rumoured to have fought in campaigns against the British in Virginia, Rhode Island, and the seige of Savannah.
The forces of Ogé and Chavannes were at first successful and drove back the white militias. However, eventually the plantation owners put together a larger and more professional force and drove them back into Spanish-controlled Santo Domingo. On 20 November 1790, Ogé and 23 of companions, including Chavannes, were captured in Hinche.
The king of Spain was sympathetic, but the Royal Audiencia of Santo Domingo decided against Ogé. They were returned to Haiti on 21 December, 1790.
Vincent Ogé was executed by being broken on the wheel in the public square of Cap Français in February 1791.
The heads of Ogé and Chavannes were put on pikes on the roads leading to town.
The revolt of Ogé was a failure. However, it raised tensions in Haiti to a boiling point that would lead to a full-scale revolution just a few months later.