“Through My Own Labor”: Free People of Color and Emancipation in Pre-Revolutionary Haiti, 1777–88

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Robert D. Taber, University of Florida
Saint-Domingue’s economic boom of the 1770s and 1780s opened new opportunities for free people of color. They earned wages, accumulated land, slaves, and livestock, and used the legal system of late colonial Saint-Domingue to win the freedom of their family, and friends. This paper examines socioeconomic mobility among free people of color in the areas of Léogane and St. Marc between 1777 and 1788 to elucidate how these women and men used the French colonial legal system, multiracial social networks, and evocations of their own labor and service to combat discrimination and tension. Free men and women of color married and freed enslaved partners and children, purchased slaves from white planters for their own exploitation, and played vital roles in the economic life of the colony’s port towns and plantations. While traditionally seen as a buffer between a white planter class and the large enslaved population, the socioeconomic life of each free person of color varied depending on their family connections, legal status at birth, place of residence, sex, age, occupation, and perceived racial background. With the beginning of the French Revolution in the late 1780s, these fault lines split open, exacerbating divisions that grew in significance with the beginning of the Saint-Domingue slave revolt in 1791. Looking at the free people of color of western Saint-Domingue through how their presented themselves in contracts, deeds, and wills, instead of the racial narratives of French travelers or jurists, casts important new light on the social and economic dynamics of Saint-Domingue during its time at the forefront of the Atlantic world and the decisions these women and men made during the Age of Revolutions.