The Colony of Saint Domingue
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In looking at the revolution of the slaves from the colony of Saint Domingue, we must consider several different aspects that helped to create the atmosphere that was suitable enough for this revolution to take hold. The "Eden of the Western World" (Beckles 402) that produced almost half of the sugar and coffee consumed in the Americas and Europe was soon to become the stage of intensely bloody, deadly battles.
In order to better understand how and why this revolution, that has been called "one of the few revolutions in world history that have had such profound consequences" (Shepherd 402), could have happened we must look at who was living in the colony at this time period. In the late 1780’s the French colony of Saint Domingue consisted of what is primarily know as the "three-tier" structure, which was what generally existed in these sugar colonies.
Race as well as economic standing and social position separated the three groups that made up this structure. The whites of the colony were surprisingly enough not a tight knit group even despite the fact that they were by far the minority, in terms of numbers on the island. The whites were split up into two distinct groups that drew their lines by wealth. The rich white planters was the group of whites that owned the plantations and the slaves and represented the unified support for slavery, because of the fact that they depended on it for their wealth.
It should be duly noted that this group of whites was at this time extremely unhappy with their mother country of France, and were already disobeying her regularly in order to trade more cheaply with the United States. The second group of whites was obviously the poor whites who held simple everyday jobs, but despite the fact that they were not wealthy slave owners, they were certainly supporters of the anti-black feelings.
The next group that we will look at is that of the black slaves. The black slaves, as was noted above, vastly outnumbered the free whites, and it can be seen here in this accompanying chart, that by the time of the French Revolution the black slaves outnumbered the free by almost 10: 1. This vast difference in numbers is not something without significance to the revolution, because it represented the apex of the discrepancy, and made the apparent balance of power seem less and less clear.
The opportunity for the shift of power to sway toward the masses seemed great. These slaves, it should also be highlighted, suffered and labored under what were horrific conditions of existence. The women were regularly raped and the men forced to succumb to the most outrageous of physical and mental torture.
The conditions in Saint Domingue were in fact so harsh that the population of slaves did not thrive and flourish naturally, but instead died off so quickly that plantation owners adopted the policy of maintenance reproduction. The idea of maintenance reproduction was that the plantation owners found it easier to keep ordering new slaves from Africa then they did to increase the living conditions enough to support sustained life.
Banana Trees And Sugar Cane
These horrific conditions meant that escape attempts were frequent and also fanned the fire for the slaves ever-increasing desire to revolt and escape. The final group of this "three-tiered" structure was that of the free blacks. These free blacks were often in a confusing limbo between their loyalties to their own people, and their social, economic, and daily contacts with the rich white planters. Many of these freed blacks were mulattos who had been fathered by the relations of white plantation masters and their female slaves.
Many of these freed blacks were freed precisely because of the plantation owners’ guilt about their mulatto status. Often times these freed blacks were not mulattos, but had instead had been able to purchase their own freedom from their master. The attitude that these freed blacks brought to the already highly charged San Domingue atmosphere was a very interesting one in that their primary desire was to prove to the wealthy whites how similar they were, and how little they had in common with the slaves.
Because of this attitude these freed blacks often times were more pro slavery then even the whites and went out of their way to treat their slaves harshly, as if to show the whites that they had no relation to those pitiful slaves. These freed blacks also brought another spark of fire into the already explosive situation in San Domingue by the fact that by attempting to mold themselves after the whites, they too disliked the way France was treating them, and certainly leaned closer to revolt then to quite acceptance.
As we can now more clearly see, each of the various separate groups within the colony of San Domingue were less then satisfied with their current situation. Even further then that, each of these groups were unafraid to shed blood in order to bring about the change that they felt was needed. The incredible Haitian Slave Revolt (1791-1804) was not far off in the distance, and while it was eventually sparked by the revolution that occurred in France in 1789, there were many other smaller tripwires that helped to push this already rowdy colony over the edge.
As was earlier pointed out the conditions that the black slaves were forced to endure were horrendous and therefore dramatically shortened there life span, so that the vast majority of the slaves were first generation blacks from Africa. Ironically enough, the fact that these slaves were treated so badly by there masters actually turned out to be a negative issue for the slave masters. Because these slaves rarely had the opportunity to breed and raise children, they never had the chance to become acclimated and because of this, the escape attempts and slave rebellions were consistently extremely frequent.
This escapist trend turned out to only proliferate the harsh conditions, as it turned into a vicious cycle. As the slaves continued to rebel, the slave-owners became more afraid of the slave’s advantage in number, and in an attempt to regain better control they increased the extraordinary harshness of their punishments. The slave’s incredible desire to be free made them ready and willing participants of a full-scale rebellion should they find a way to organize themselves together.
As all of these feelings continued to escalate in San Domingue the revolution in France was occurring. France soon began to split more and more into separate camps of those who favored the old system of the monarchy, and those who wanted to usher in a new era of citizens rights. As news of this split began to filter into the colony of San Domingue people there also began to choose sides, however because of the multitude of other issues also taking place in San Domingue the lines were not nearly as clear.
After the revolution finally erupted in France in 1789, the General Assembly began to make certain decisions about the issue of free blacks rights among other things. As these cloudy amendments began to arrive in San Domingue, the fervor between the poor whites and free blacks began to increase intensely, as well as the fact that the rich whites began to lose faith in the decisions being made back in France. Soon the order and control that had been in San Domingue began to rapidly deteriorate, and as the free blacks began to demand more and more of their rights as described by France, the rich and poor whites became all the more agitated.
The first beginnings of the revolution did not include the black slaves at all, but rather only with the whites and the free blacks. Soon a man named Vincent Oge came from France to San Domingue resolved to force the acceptance of the free blacks rights. He teamed up with another man named Jean-Baptist Chavannes once there, and began to form together a band of free blacks to force the whites to relent.
The many different issues that had been brewing for so long in San Domingue had finally begun to rear their head as Oge and Chavannes led their 300-man force onto the colonists in November of 1791. Even though these forces were not successful, they set the stage for the bloody and confusing revolution that was to follow for the next 13 years. The divisions and cracks that Oge and Chavannes had began to form between the different members of the San Domingue classes were only to become wider and more painful in the following years.
Beckles, Dr. Hillary, Verene Sheperd. Caribbean Slave Society and Economy. The New Press, New York. New York, N.Y. 1991.
Bob Corbett’s essay on the Haitian Revolution 1991