Since the revolutionaries explicitly proclaimed liberty as their highest ideal, slavery was bound to come into question during the French Revolution. Even before 1789 critics had attacked the slave trade and slavery in the colonies. France had several colonies in the Caribbean in which slavery supported a plantation economy that produced sugar, coffee, and cotton. The most important of these colonies was Saint Domingue (later Haiti), which had 500,000 slaves, 32,000 whites, and 28,000 free blacks (which included both blacks and mulattos). Some free blacks owned slaves; in fact, the free blacks owned one-third of the plantation property and one-quarter of the slaves in Saint Domingue, though they could not hold public office or practice many professions (medicine, for example).

The slave system in the colonies was regulated by a series of royal edicts, the most important of which was promulgated by Louis XIV in 1685. Taken together, the edicts constituted the Code noir, or slave code. This code prescribed a harsh regime of penalties for slaves who resisted their captivity, especially if they tried to harm their masters in any way. Saint Domingue provided extraordinary sources of wealth to the French. To protect their investments, French slaveholders had to learn at least a minimal amount about their slaves. One of the most astute commentators, Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry, wrote a massive two-volume work on life in Saint Domingue in the 1780s. He described many of the features of slave life that worried slaveholders, including voodoo imported from Africa, the presence of many people of mixed race (mulattos), the threat of slaves becoming Maroons (runaways), and the intense fear among slaveholders that their slaves would try to poison them. After the French Revolution broke out, planters looked back on pre-1789 conditions, trying to understand how slavery might have been better organized. Their observations provide yet another contemporary perspective on the plantation and slave system.

The Caribbean colonies were quick to respond to the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789. The white planters of Saint Domingue sent delegates to France to demand representation at the new National Assembly, as did the mulattos. Several prominent deputies in the National Assembly belonged to the Society of the Friends of Blacks, which put forth proposals for the abolition of the slave trade and the amelioration of the lot of slaves in the colonies. When these proposals fell on deaf ears, some deputies sympathetic to blacks turned to arguing that full civil and political rights should be granted to free blacks in the colonies. Before long, radical journalists in Paris began to take up the cause of black slaves, pushing for the abolition of slavery, or at least for a more positive view of the Africans. The pioneering feminist and playwright, Olympe de Gouges, also wrote a pamphlet challenging the colonial pro-slavery lobby to improve the lot of the blacks.

As the agitation in favor of granting rights to free blacks and abolishing the slave trade gathered steam, the colonies became filled with uncertainty and expectations began rising, especially among the free blacks and mulattos. In response, the white planters mounted their own counterattack and even contemplated demanding independence from France. Less is known about the views of the slaves because hardly any of them could read or write, but the royal governor of Saint Domingue expressed concern about the effects of the Revolution on the colony's slaves. In October 1789 he reported that the slaves considered the new revolutionary cockade (a decoration made up of red, white, and blue ribbons worn by supporters of the Revolution) a "signal of the manumission of the whites . . . the blacks all share an idea that struck them spontaneously: that the white slaves kill their masters and now free they govern themselves and regain possession of the land." In other words, the black slaves hoped to follow in the footsteps of their white predecessors, freeing themselves, killing their masters, and taking over the land.

Most deputies feared the effects of the loss of commerce that would result from either the abolition of slavery or the elimination of the slave trade. Fabulous wealth depended on slavery, as did shipbuilding, sugar-refining, and a host of subsidiary industries. Slaveowners and shippers did not intend to give up their prospects without a fight. The U.S. refusal to give up slavery or the slave trade provided added ammunition to support their position.
















1 2