Saint Domingue: The Freedmen

As many as two–thirds of the slaves in Saint Domingue in 1789 had been born in Africa, but by that time a significant number of Africans or children of Africans had become free. Here Moreau de Saint–Méry details the origins of this pivotal group.


The Origin of the Freed Class

The Freedmen are more universally known under the name of the People of Color or the Mixed-Bloods, although the first of these terms, taken exactly, designates the negro slaves also. From the moment that the province had slaves, it lost no time in having some freedmen.

Various factors came together to create this class, situated between the master and the slave.

In Saint Domingue the blacks included not only negroes but also Indians and savages whom one could tell from the former only with difficulty as far as their color was concerned. The scarcity of women, the customary ways of the Filibusters and the Buccaneers, and the alluring complaisance of the black women caused the appearance of the mulattoes. The skin color of the mulattoes classed them with the Indians and the savages. This is proved by the census of 1681, wherein one finds all the colored people lumped together and numbering 480. At that time there were none classed as free except the whites.

The men who enslaved the savages and the Indians, quite without hesitation, as being of the same color as the mulattoes, discovered a feeling which they had not expected. Namely, by a sort of unstated agreement, when a white man had taken a negress as his bedmate, he found out that, out of his love for the resulting children and out of his own self-respect, he wanted to have the children become free when they came of age. Putting it simply, when the mulattoes reached twenty-one, it became customary for them to become free. But the master's personal interest in [his property] led to many violations of this unspoken rule. Also, the Black Code, in regulating the inheritance of property in slaves in the colonies [tended to reinforce this reactionary trend.] Consequently the mulattoes began to lose their advantages. The upshot generally was that people were regarded as freed men and women only if the master had given up his rights in a written paper. There were such free persons before 1685. This is shown by the edict of the month of March of that year, prepared several years before, which made manumission a legal act when put down in a paper voluntarily signed by the master. . . .

If one reflected on the great number of motives which came together to increase the total of freed people, it is surprising not to see more of them in the 1703 census, when there were only 500 listed. . . . Gradually, however, a cumulative development occurred. In effect it was the result of an allegedly necessary concubinage, or of a sort of generosity which could operate only at the death of the master [through his last will and testament], or the mercenary motive of letting the slave save up to buy his own freedom, or the marriage of a freedman to his slave [or finally the natural increase of the freed class itself. The really great increase came after 1770, from 6000 in that year to double that in 1780 and to 28,000 in 1789! Included were persons who became free because of service in the constabulary set up to catch fugitive slaves. . . .]

The Indian women, by the way, scorned the black men. On the other hand, the white men were attracted by the gentle and faithful character and sex appeal of the black women.

The first observation which is inspired by the existence of this freed class is that it was in the bosom of France that the laws for the maintenance of slavery arose; secondly that it was France which protected the profitable slave trade of merchants of the Metropole [of Metropolitan France] from competition by the colonials, forbidding it to the latter. But it was the colonists to whom credit was due for the idea of freeing the blacks.

The liberation came from the happy circumstance that the system of manumission [to repeat], left the master able to satisfy his sense of justice and of generosity by the very fact of allowing the slave to buy his own freedom, if indeed he did not give it to him. . . . The master was obligated, none the less, to support the slave after he was freed, if he was unable to look after himself, perhaps because of old age or infirmity.

Source: Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Méry, A Civilization That Perished: The Last Years of White Colonial Rule in Haiti, (Philadelphia, published by the author, 1797-1798), translated, abridged, and edited by Ivor D. Spencer, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985, 73-75.