Family, Politics, and the Origins of the Haitian Revolution

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 9:10 AM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Robert Taber, University of Florida
The economic productivity and demographic imbalances of Saint-Domingue's slave society created five major categories of families: slave couples, partnerships between free people of color and slaves, white men having children with women of color, free families of color, and white colonist couples. Each family confronted legal, social, and epidemiological threats that made it difficult to establish their children as beneficiaries of the plantation regime: as owners of land and slaves. This paper draws on a database of over 3,000 previously unexamined notary and parish records to analyze the different strategies families employed to accomplish this goal. The divergent paths--expressed in business contracts, marriage agreements, and wills--exacerbated tensions over Dominguan identity and the colony's future that exploded at the end of the 1780s.

This paper examines three cases that highlight the connections between family life and political anxieties. Jean-Louis Labbé was the son of a white man and a slave who rose to become a prominent merchant and owner of Léogane's theater, but no matter how much wealth he accumulated he could never receive the honorific of sieur. Charles LeMaire, the son a white refiner and a free black woman, married into a large free family of color that rescued his estate when he died deeply indebted and had social ties to the future rebel Romaine LaProphetesse. Jean Regnaud, the white son of a bankrupt plantation owner and a savvy businesswoman, and half-brother to two women of color, was emblematic of the poorer whites working occasional jobs and ready to fight and die for white supremacy. Analyzing the pressures under which people in Saint-Domingue lived and worked illuminates the social context from which the Haitian Revolution emerged.