Slave uprisings in french colonies
For two centuries, armed rebellions by slaves shaped the history of the French Caribbean, but the uprising on Saint-Domingue during the French Revolution had no counterpart in the history of the New World.
Historians have identified more than one hundred armed rebellions by enslaved people during slavery’s long history in the Americas, and a similar number of conspiracies that did not reach fruition. Usually, they each involved a few dozen slaves, but fifteen or so rebellions had at least 1,000 enslaved participants. All of these occurred in the Caribbean and nearly half of them took place in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) during the period 1791-1793. Most of the half-dozen large-scale revolts in Saint-Domingue lasted only days, weeks, or months—as was typical—but the North Plain uprising that began in August 1791 lasted for two years, until slavery was abolished. Mobilizing tens of thousands of slaves, it was unique in its magnitude, duration, and outcome. This one uprising and Saint-Domingue in general thus occupy an entirely disproportionate place in the history of slave resistance, not just in the French colonies but in the history of the New World.
The first slave revolt in a French colony broke out on Saint-Christophe soon after the beginning of colonization. In 1639, 60 slaves fled to the mountains armed with bows and arrows and attacked colonists, before being quickly suppressed. Guadeloupe’s turn came in 1656, and Saint-Domingue experienced a brief insurrection in 1679 led by a fugitive from Santo Domingo. A rebellion on Martinique that involved fewer than forty slaves was described in 1678 as “fairly large.” Such events would remain small-scale and rare, especially in comparison to the British Caribbean colonies, where slavery developed much more rapidly. Rebellions tended to coincide with influxes of enslaved Africans, sugar cultivation, and high ratios of slaves to free. At least as common as revolts were conspiracies that were betrayed or prematurely discovered, which indicates the difficulty of organizing collective resistance in ethnically fragmented populations, where violent resistance was brutally repressed and betrayals might be rewarded with liberation. A much more popular alternative in all the French colonies was maroonage, or escape from the plantations, which doubtless acted as a safety-valve. It was primarily a solitary, non-violent, and short-term phenomenon but, where bands of maroons formed, it gave rise to raids on plantations and clashes with militia.
The Age of Revolution
Slave resistance in the Caribbean reached a peak in the 1790s. The Atlantic slave trade was at its height. News of the Antislavery movement in England and of its French extension, the Amis des Noirs, raised expectations in slave communities. And the French Revolution spawned domestic and international conflicts of which slaves took advantage. In August 1789, a quickly suppressed attempt by town slaves in Saint-Pierre, Martinique to mobilize workers on surrounding plantations was the first in a long series that featured a false rumor that slavery had been abolished. Saint-Pierre experienced a similar revolt in 1811 and a conspiracy in 1831. Rural slaves in western Martinique, profiting from a civil war then dividing white colonists, rebelled in late 1790, and did so again in 1822. Guadeloupe witnessed three slave revolts and several conspiracies in the years 1790-1793; one of them, at Sainte-Anne, probably mobilized 1,000 slaves and free men of color. A much bigger multi-class rising united Francophones on British (but formerly French) Grenada in 1795. Led by free men of color and French officials, it was technically not a slave rebellion but still involved thousands of slaves and led to a year of intense military conflict.
Free people of color played diverse roles in the various insurrections that roiled Saint-Domingue. Although slaves dominated the great northern uprising, many free blacks participated as minor leaders and one of them, the freedman Toussaint Louverture, went on to become the principal figure in the Haitian Revolution. As a slave-owning class, free men of color generally opposed and fought against slave rebellions, but in their pursuit of racial equality some, like Candy in the north, made pragmatic, temporary alliances with slave insurgents. In western and southern Saint-Domingue, others both secretly encouraged slave revolts or acted as intermediaries in defusing them. The overwhelmingly African uprising in the Léogâne/Jacmel mountains was led by a mixed-race freedman, Romaine La Prophétesse, but later crushed by free colored militia. Africans always formed the majority of slave insurgents, because they were the majority of adult slaves, but the most powerful leaders were creoles, born in Saint-Domingue, who formed a sort of elite in slave communities. The North Plain uprising in fact broke out in the most creolized part of the colony. The aims of the insurgents have been much disputed. Some argue they expected at first only a reform of slavery and never called for its abolition. Far from using a revolutionary language of rights, they employed a conservative rhetoric. In negotiations, the creole leaders demanded freedom only for themselves and their families, but this visibly angered their African followers and was anyway rejected by the white colonists.
The 1791 uprising quickly became by far the largest and most destructive of modern slave rebellions. The sheer number of insurgents paralyzed a white population that already was divided by revolutionary conflicts and simultaneously had to fight a civil war against the free population of color. Poorly armed, the slaves were quickly driven from the plain they devastated and confined to part of the northern mountains, but there they proved impossible to defeat. The 12,000 troops France sent to the colony in 1792 were swiftly decimated by tropical fevers. Only when whites and free coloreds finally joined forces in 1793 did it seem the insurgents might lose, but at that point the outbreak of war with Spain and England changed the balance of power in the insurgents’ favor. French troops could no longer safely cross the Atlantic, and Spain invaded Saint-Domingue and successfully recruited the insurgents as soldiers. This led the radical French commissars running the colonial government to declare slavery abolished in a desperate attempt to keep Saint-Domingue French. A momentous event—the first abolition of slavery in a major slave society—it emerged from the conjuncture of three elements: the military crisis, one of the commissars’ abolitionist past, and the massive and undefeated slave insurrection.
The very last uprising by French slaves occurred on Martinique in 1848. Ironically, it was inspired by news of slavery’s forthcoming abolition by the revolutionary government in Paris. It mobilized several thousand slaves, cost 58 lives, and brought forward by several months the date of emancipation.
Published in december 2022
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