Anti-Slavery and the French Revolution
Robin Blackburn describes how the message of liberte, egalite, fraternite, acted as crucial catalyst for race and class uprisings in Europe's Caribbean colonies.
The British pride themselves on their pioneering contribution to anti-slavery, the French argue about their Revolution, the Americans often write better about both these subjects than the Europeans. But neither British, nor French, nor American historiography yet does justice to the revolutionary contribution made by the French slaves to their own liberation in the 1790s – historians too often represent abolitionism as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant affair.
Slave emancipation was invariably and understandably an occasion for self-congratulation in the history of the major Atlantic states. Yet the optic of national history fails to register the way in which abolitionism served to demonstrate public virtue and attract popular support in an age of revolutionary war that showed no respect for frontiers. The critical breakthroughs for anti-slavery reflected a cosmopolitan class struggle which, as William Blake put it in his poem 'America' (1793), made 'the Atlantic mountains tremble'.
The 'Atlantic mountains' were the peaks of the Caribbean range – an archipelago of islands stretching from north-east Brazil to the southern United States. In Blake's vision this New World – the promised Atlantis of popular legend and hope – had been turned by greed and cruelty into a living hell. Around the year 1790 nearly 3 million slaves of African origin or descent toiled in the Caribbean plantations to furnish a new culture of consumption in Europe and North America with such craved and coveted products as sugar, rum, molasses, coffee, cotton, indigo and pimento. The cruelty, arrogance and luxury associated with slavery troubled the conscience of Quakers and Methodists, as is well known, and they played a pioneering role in the abolitionist organisations. But the slave systems had powerful beneficiaries and protectors in ruling circles throughout the Atlantic world. Though the enlightened deprecated slavery in abstract terms, they were restrained by the thought that slaves were legitimately acquired private property, and the knowledge that the plantation trades represented between a third and a half of total national commerce.
Unwilling to challenge head-on this potent nexus of wealth and national interest even the abolitionists at first directed their attacks mainly against the slave trade. But at times of crisis for the ruling order a more rough and ready popular abolitionism asserted itself, as artisans, portworkers and sailors joined the attack on the slave-holders. The booming commerce of the Atlantic had created not only fabulous wealth but also a many-hued and mobile working class – a 'picaresque proletariat' (as Peter Linebaugh calls it in his new book, The London Hanged, Allen Lane 1991) – with a lively aversion for servitude, partly because they had often experienced it themselves and partly because the introduction of slaves would menace their own hard-won rights and liberties. Many sailors or dockworkers were themselves former slaves, like Equiano, the African whose vivid account of his life, published in 1789, stimulated support for the anti-slavery cause and became a best-seller.
The epoch of the American Revolution witnessed the first challenges to slavery and the slave trade. On the one hand there were black rebels who sued for their liberty in a chain of 'freedom suits'; on the other a turbulent crowd that was apt to surround the courts when test cases were fought out. Following the outbreak of hostilities in North America both sides made an appeal to anti-slavery sentiment. The American rebels suspended the slave trade and the British Governor of Virginia offered the slaves of disloyal planters their freedom if they would desert their masters. In London in 1772, in Paris in 1777 and in Massachusetts in 1784 judicial decisions deferred to the popular prejudice by banning slavery in metropolitan areas. Vermont's constitution in 1777 banned both slavery and (white) indentured servitude. Under similar pressure at times of great social tension Pennsylvania, in 1780, Rhode Island and Connecticut, in 1784, adopted emancipation laws, which freed the children born to slave mothers once they reached the age of twenty-five. These various measures were very cautiously framed and left plantation slavery quite unscathed.
In the post-revolutionary era abolitionism was soon eclipsed in the United States. The Constitution of 1787 gave added representation to slave-owners; slaves were to be assessed as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of allotting members in the House of Representatives. Some crucial Northern states, notably New York and New Jersey, declined to follow Pennsylvania and free the children of slave Mothers when they reached twenty-five. Benjamin Franklin, one of the few Founding Fathers prepared to challenge Southern slave-holders, died in Philadelphia in 1790. In 1792 South Carolina resumed the slave trade, as the Constitutional settlement permitted it to do.
Defeat at the hands of the Americans weakened Britain's rulers and provided an impetus for the growth of abolitionism. From 1788 Britain resounded with popular clamour against the slave trade. The new provincial press demonstrated its righteousness and the anti-slavery symbol was sported by artisans and their wives. At first Parliament was welcoming. In 1792, supported by petitions carrying hundreds of thousands of signatures and urged by such great orators as Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox, William Wilberforce's Abolition Bill secured a majority in the Commons. The prime minister, William Pitt, declared his own sympathy for abolition but cautiously declined to make the Bill a Government measure, thus dooming it to fail in the Lords.
As an intimate of Prime Minister Pitt, Wilberforce well knew why his friend would speak up for abolition but refuse to stake the survival of his government upon it. Speaking out against slavery pleased the public 'out of doors' who had petitioned with enthusiasm, and on a scale never seen before. But Pitt declined to commit his government because, as Wilberforce later explained, that would have alienated the king and the royal family and would have antagonised a vital political ally – Lord Dundas, West Indian proprietor and Scottish political boss. If Pitt defied the king, the king might call an election and if he did Pitt could not win without the money and influence of Dundas and other members of the colonial lobby.
Wilberforce hoped that popular representations would become so strong that they would embolden Pitt to outface his allies and his king. But as the fateful year 1793 began the likelihood of this happening diminished daily. Wilberforce would sometimes drop in at 10 Downing Street after Cabinet and join in the general discussion, so he was able to monitor the impact of French events on the Government's plans. In those days the Cabinet was only half a dozen people and the real centre of discussion and decision. Wilberforce found much to agree with in Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution but he was distressed to see this literary onslaught sapping all desire for reform and strengthening the hand of those, like Dundas, who wanted a war with France. As Wilberforce said to a fellow abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson:
It is certainly true, and perfectly natural, that these Jacobins are all friendly to Abolition; and it is no less true and natural that this operates to the injury of our cause.
Burke himself now backed off from abolition declaring that 'the cause of humanity would be far more benefited by the continuance of the trade and servitude, regulated and reformed, than by the total destruction of both or either'.
That abolition made no headway was bad enough, but it soon became clear that worse was in prospect. Dundas and the war party had won the argument in Cabinet. A huge armada was assembled to sail to the Caribbean. French planters terrified by Jacobinism and slave insurgence assured the British that they would be given every assistance to make good an occupation of the French islands. Later Wilberforce would ruefully reflect:
I am myself persuaded that the war with France, which lasted so many years and occasioned such an expense of blood and treasure, would never have taken place but for Mr Dundas's influence with Mr Pitt and his persuasion that we should be able with ease and promptitude, at a small expense of men and money, to take the French West Indian Islands.
The British armed forces were to lose more men in this Caribbean 'side show' than in the European theatre – some 90,000 between 1793 and 1801. While English abolitionism fell victim to a war of colonial aggression the French Republic grasped the opportunity to forge an alliance with the forces of black insurgency. The torch of militant anti-slavery had passed to an unlikely alliance of black Jacobins, revolutionary adventurers, renegade priests, buccaneering Free Masons, Caribs and African maroons.
In France, despite all the talk of liberty, equality and fraternity the Revolution did nothing for the slaves in its early years. The momentous uprising of the slaves of Saint Domingue in August 1791 had something of a royalist flavour to it as the black generals called themselves 'soldiers of the king'.
There were three quarters of a million slaves in the French colonies and their toil produced the sugar, coffee and cotton consumed by half Europe and much of North America. The brilliant prosperity of Bordeaux and Nantes was built on slavery and their commercial networks gave them huge political influence. One tenth of the members of the National Assembly owned colonial property. This formidable complex of interests stifled any fundamental debate on slavery. The best the Amis des Noirs could do was to raise the issue of equal citizenship rights for free men of colour, many of whom themselves owned slaves.
The rich slave proprietors were prone to argue that France must protect a vital national asset, that an attack on slave property would put in question all property rights and that the blacks were not Frenchmen anyway. But by 1792-93 these arguments were wearing thin. The French planters proved themselves poor patriots by openly aspiring to autonomy and covertly plotting with the British. As the sans culottes set their stamp on the Revolution a rude popular egalitarian- ism challenged the privileges of property. And as for France's national interest it came to seem that this might be better served by uniting with loyal mulattos and insurgent blacks than by pandering to the traitorous grands blancs.
The eruption of the Saint Domingue revolt of August-September 1791 affected about 30,000 slaves in the first instance, spreading to many parts of the northern plain of France's richest colony. The uprising had been plotted at meetings on August 14th and 21st in the Bois Caiman attended by thirty or forty elite slaves. A voodoo ceremony was held on the latter date and, according to legend, the following pledge was pronounced by a priestess:
The good lord who created the sun which gives us light from above, who rouses the sea and makes the thunder roar – listen well, all of you – this god, hidden in the cloud, watches us. He sees all the white man does... But this god who is so good orders revenge! He will direct our hands; he will aid us. Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our teats and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us.
The revolt encouraged slaves through- out the colony to make unheard of demands – trois jours, three free days a week, larger gardens for their own use and so forth. For many slaves such measures had greater immediate reality than the detail of French legal concepts. Despite the quoted pledge the leaders of the black forces asserted their own liberty but did not commit themselves to a struggle for universal emancipation. After abortive negotiations with the French republicans they threw in their lot with the Spanish rulers of neighbouring Santo Domingo.
The Jacobin Commissioner in Saint Domingue, Sonthonax, drew his own conclusions from the slave insurrection. He took to issuing appeals in the local patois, Kreyole, offering the slaves arms and freedom if they would fight for the Republic. One of the black generals, Toussaint Louverture, began to issue similar appeals and to distance himself from the Spanish and their allies, the royalist planters. Competition for the allegiance of the slaves impelled both men to move towards a call for general emancipation, but neither could claim to legislate for the colony as a whole. While Sonthonax sought to persuade Paris to back emancipation, Toussaint prepared to turn on the royalists and their Spanish backers.
The outbreak of war between France and Britain in 1793 was bound to involve, as it had done for a century and a half, a clash in the Caribbean. But on this occasion the conflict had a novel social-revolutionary content since Britain had intervened to defend slave-holding royalists. In February 1794 – 'Pluviose An II' in the new revolutionary calendar – three deputies arrived in Paris to represent Saint Domingue: a black (Belley), a mulatto and a white, they had been charged by Sonthonax with the task of persuading the Nation- al Convention to decree freedom for all slaves in the French colonies.
The Saint Domingue delegation was rapturously received and its proposal passed by acclamation. This was the most radical Jacobin phase of the Revolution – respect for property and commerce no longer held the legislature in thrall. Once the decree was ratified Danton declared:
Representatives of the French people, until now we have decreed liberty as egotists for ourselves. But today we proclaim universal liberty... Pitt and his plots are done for. France, until now cheated of her glory, repossesses it be- fore the eyes of an astonished Europe.
War, which had dashed the hopes of abolition in Britain, had exactly the opposite effect in revolutionary France. The emancipation policy was seen as a bold way of regaining the initiative from the British whose armada had already begun landing on the French islands. With the connivance of royalist planters British forces captured part of Saint Domingue and occupied Guadeloupe, Martinique and some smaller islands. Leading the swarm of merchants who descended on Guadeloupe was Benedict Arnold, the celebrated American renegade; the British forces occupying this island were led by one Colonel Dundas, a nephew of the Cabinet Minister.
The Committee of Public Safety dispatched a small expedition of 1,200 men aboard two frigates, a brigantine and five transports to carry the Pluviose decree to the New World. Led by the Jacobin Commissioner Victor Hugues it effected a landing on Guadeloupe, despite the presence of 4,000 British troops and British naval super iority. Hugues established a peninsular beachhead and proceeded to wage a propaganda war against the occupying forces, urging the blacks to defect and take up arms for their liberty.
Between April and December the Legions d'Egalite drove out the British. The Jacobin Commissioner then set about fomenting slave revolts else- where in the Caribbean. There were conspiracies or rebellions in Venezuela, Jamaica and a string of smaller islands. The British were ejected from Desiderade and all but lost control of St Vincent, St. Kitts and Grenada. In the latter island the rebellion was led by a coloured planter, Julien Fedon; elsewhere the Caribs joined the Jacobin 'army of the woods'. Meanwhile Hugues, 'the Robespierre of the Islands', accumulated a fortune through a
species of revolutionary piracy as his privateers preyed upon the commercial shipping of the Caribbean.
The readers of the British press in 1798 were regaled with horror stories about the 'War of the Brigands' which now engulfed the sugar islands. Servile vengeance was implacable; The Times reported that one unfortunate proprietor had been fed through the rollers of his own sugar mill. Toussaint Louverture was now the master of Saint Domingue. Even Dundas agreed that the colony should be evacuated and all energies concentrated on suppressing the revolts in the smaller British islands. Hugues held out in Guadeloupe but elsewhere in the Eastern Caribbean the British regained the upper hand, albeit at the cost of even more casualties than in Saint Domingue.
In Saint Domingue the emancipation policy helped to consolidate the Republican commitment of Toussaint Louverture and other black partisans. Under the Directory Toussaint Louverture was made Governor of Saint Domingue and furnished with the war material he needed to eject the British. In the process he built a formidable black army.
In his classic work The Black Jacobins the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James wrote that the slaves were half- peasant and half-proletarian. The Saint Domingue planters, concerned to minimise their outlays, had furnished their slaves with little plots to grow their own food, or even to grow food for sale in local markets. On the other hand the slaves were subjected, for five long days a week, to the ferocious discipline of the field gang. Former slaves could take on, and defeat, European soldiers partly because they were defending their own liberty and partly because they retained a sense of organisation and discipline. Their would-be peasant aspirations came to the fore when they seized land and resisted all attempts to keep the plantations going.
The emergence of an autonomous black power in the Caribbean was widely resented and feared by slave- holders. The British and American governments indicated at the Peace of Amiens in 1801 that they would be happy to see Napoleon restore the old order in the French Caribbean. Egged on also by Josephine and her planter friends, Napoleon plotted to regain control of Saint Domingue, still formally a French colony, and restore slavery. In Guadeloupe he succeeded, but only after encountering such resistance from the black military that it alerted the blacks in Saint Domingue to the danger they faced. In the latter colony Toussaint was arrested, but the extraordinary events of the 1790s had welded the mass of former slaves there into an unconquerable force. Even though many of Toussaint's officers at first collaborated with Napoleon's forces, several thousand independent black partisans continued to resist the reimposition of metropolitan power. When it became clear, as a consequence of events in Guadeloupe, that the plan was to reinstate slavery most black and mulatto soldiers broke with the French. Napoleon lost eighteen generals including his brother-in-law, Leclerc, in Saint Domingue. The French, like the British, suffered more casualties in the Caribbean than were to fall at Waterloo. Black victory led to the proclamation of the Republic of Haiti in 1804. New World slavery had been dealt a, blow from which it would never recover.
Anglo-American anti-slavery picked up momentum again following black advance in the Caribbean. New York passed an emancipation law in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804. In this latter year Wilberforce's brother-in-law, James Stephen, published a pamphlet entitled The Opportunity or Reasons for an Immediate Alliance with St. Domingo. Large petitions were again presented to Parliament. Wilberforce found it possible to win a vote in the Commons and popular agitation against the slave trade revived. In 1805 Wilberforce played a key part in the impeachment of Dundas on a corruption charge. The illness of the king and the huge debts of the Prince of Wales neutralised the royal veto. Eventually in 1807 the slave trade was suppressed in both Britain and the United States. Britain's Act of Abolition was taken at a time when Britain was standing alone against the French emperor and it was necessary to rally the common people for the sacrifices entailed by a long and dif5cult war. The argument was alsoheard that a continuing import of Africans would simply make new slave outbreaks more likely and more dangerous.
But the ending of the slave trade did not end slave unrest. Barbados erupted in 1816 and Jamaican slaves were heard to sing:
Oh me good friend Mr Wilberforce mek me free... Bukra in this country no mek we free! Wa negro fe do? Take force wid force!
Back in London a government spy re- ported that Robert Wedderburn, leader of the Spencean socialists and himself the Afro-Caribbean son of a slave-mother, advocated the slaves' right of resistance: according to this informant a Soho meeting of the Spenceans:
decided in favour of the Slave without a dissenting Voice, by a numerous and enlightened Assembly, who exultingly expressed their Desire of hearing of another Sable nation freeing itself by the Dagger... Several gentlemen declared their readiness to assist.
This enthusiasm was to find practical expression in South America.
In 1816 the Haitian government backed Simon Bolivar's expedition to liberate the Spanish American colonies – in return for a pledge that the slaves would be freed. Bolivar was accompanied by several hundred Haitian military men, and his forces were carried aboard privateers, some of whom had sailed with Hugues in the 1790s. Several thousand British volunteers were to join Bolivar, organised into a British legion. The Emancipation Laws which Bolivar was to proclaim in his wars against the Spanish were widely reported in Britain and themselves helped to inspire a new and more radical phase of anti-slavery campaigning in the years after 1823, leading, after the Jamaican uprising of 1831-32, to Britain's own Emancipation Law in 1833.
The emancipation in the French Caribbean preceded that in the British colonies by forty years and that in the United States by seventy years. These successive advances for anti-slavery were cumulative and cosmopolitan even if they were interspersed with periods of frustration and defeat. While each emancipation was the product of a unique conjuncture the emancipatory process also partook, to some degree, of the pattern seen in the French Caribbean in the 1790s – their accomplishment required profound social upheavals and political crises, black witness and a willingness to encroach on property and redefine the rights of labour.
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