Neither Masters nor Slaves? Free Urban Labor in Saint-Domingue before and during the Haitian Revolution

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 2:10 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Robert D. Taber, Fayetteville State University
Research on the French, American, and more recently, the Spanish American revolutions have explored the roles of urban dwellers' confrontations with new capital dynamics, developments of political consciousness, and radical fueling of revolution, but the discussion of the origins of the Haitian Revolution remains rooted in the plantation complex. While a few scholars have illuminated how the port towns of Saint-Domingue served as sites of self-determination, particularly for free women of color, none have connected the pre-1789 economic, social, and political activity in the towns to the emergence of revolutionary politics. This paper draws on over 6,000 previously unexamined notary and parish records from the towns of Saint-Marc and Léogane, Saint-Domingue and official reports on the revolution to elucidate how artisans, petty merchants, and soldiers interacted with one another and with the plantation complex in the years before the crisis of 1789 and how they tried to shape the emerging revolution's debates over citizenship and slavery.

            Addressing Jesse Cromwell's concept of "sinew populations" that were neither slaveholders nor slaves but performed tasks crucial to the running of empire in the Caribbean, this paper makes three contributions.[1] First, it expands the analysis of sinew populations from smugglers, soldiers, and European ethnic minorities to include all free urban workers, as these workers connected the plantation to the wider Atlantic world. This expansion illuminates the porous boundaries between the urban and rural in Saint-Domingue for wage employees and aspiring plantation owners. Finally, it traces for the first time how Saint-Domingue's economically integrated urban populaces slid into a racialized civil war over the opportunities of the French Revolution.

[1] Jesse Cromwell, "More than Slaves and Sugar: Recent Historiography of the Trans-imperial Caribbean and Its Sinew Populations" History Compass 12/10 (October 2014), 770-783.

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